The top-five most important free agents for the 49ers to re-sign

Trent Baalke reiterated this morning at the NFL Combine that the 49ers want to keep their guys in place, as in re-sign their free agents.

Baalke said there’s no priority list for who he wants to re-sign, which is baloney, probably.

Let’s try to guess that priority list.

Which of the 49ers free agents are most important to resign? And in what order?

Keep in mind, no free agent is so important that Baalke will overspend for him – that’s not his style. Baalke most likely has a price point in mind for each free agent, and if demands exceed, he’ll move on to the next option.

Assuming the 49ers free agents all want to re-sign for fair contracts, here’s how I’d rank them in order of importance if I were Baalke.

1. Carlos Rogers. Rogers is the most difficult 49er to replace because he covers slot receivers as well as any cornerback does in the NFL. The way the 49ers defensive scheme is set up, the outside cornerbacks have a much easier job than the slot guy does. The outside cornerbacks get safety help, so they play underneath coverage. That means they can let the wide receiver run past a little bit and beat them because a safety is in position to make a big hit or interception if the quarterback throws it “over the top” of the underneath coverage. Also, they get to play with inside leverage, meaning they line up slightly inside of the receiver, as in between the receiver and the quarterback. This cuts off the middle of the field and baits the wideout into running down the sideline towards the safeties.

This scheme is set up to make the cornerback’s job easier. He gets help from a safety and a sideline, and he’s in position to intercept passes because he’s playing underneath. Tarell Brown, who had never excelled in the NFL, excelled in this scheme this past season. But Rogers frequently covered slot receivers (like Victor Cruz) man-to-man with no safety help. He didn’t get sideline help, either, because the slot receiver lines up in the middle of the field. So, Rogers job was extremely difficult, much more difficult than Brown’s.

Rogers is a master of slot coverage because he anticipates breaks, not merely react to them. In the second half of the NFC championship game, to finally neutralize Cruz he outsmarted him. Instead of playing him straight, Rogers lined up with leverage, guessing that Cruz would cut away from the leverage, as he had done in the first half with great success. Rogers guessed right. He’d line up inside of Cruz, then jump outside when Cruz chopped his feet (and vice versa, lining up outside and jumping inside). This worked. He perfectly anticipated Cruz’s routes in the second half, and shut him down. Chris Culliver isn’t ready to do that. Neither is Tramaine Brock or Tarell Brown.

Rogers’ ability to cover the best slot receivers one-on-one is one of the many things that makes the Niners’ D great. If they lose Rogers, they’d have to start doubling the best slot receivers and counting on Culliver to lock down No. 1 wide receivers without safety help, like Darrelle Revis does, and Deion Sanders used to do. That’s too much to ask from Culliver, which is why Rogers tops this list.

2. Alex Smith. He probably should be No. 1 just by virtue of being a quarterback. But, if he wants to be paid like a Pro-Bowler, or a top-ten QB, I bet Baalke tells him he’s welcome to seek that money from other teams. As much as Harbaugh likes Smith, he’s a very confident coach, and I’d guess he believes he can win with Colin Kaepernick or Scott Tolzien or even himself as the QB. Smith will come back to the Niners on the Niners’ terms, or he won’t come back at all. He has less negotiating leverage than Rogers, so that’s why he’s No. 2 on this list.

3. Dashon Goldson. He’s third on this list only because there are no good replacement options. There are many free safeties that could thrive on the Niners D with that great pass rush, but none that could outperform Dashon Goldson in 2012. I’d be surprised if Baalke offered him much more than what he offered and Goldson turned down last offseason – 5 years, $25 million. If Goldson rejects that again, he’ll probably get the franchise tag, as he should.

4. Ahmad Brooks. He’s a better 3-4 outside linebacker than Goldson is a free safety, but the Niners can more easily replace Brooks. They view Aldon Smith as a three-down player in 2012, and they still have Parys Haralson under contract for one more season. He can play the strong OLB spot, Brooks’ spot, on first and second down, set the edge and cover, and Baalke can draft a third down pass rusher who can develop into a three-down OLB and take Haralson’s job in 2013. In 2012, Haralson and the rookie pass rusher should be able to nearly replicate Brooks’ production.

5. Adam Snyder. He’s a mediocre guard, but the Niners have no replacement for him on the roster. Their O-line performed much worse last season when Snyder wasn’t playing, and because of that he has a good deal of negotiating leverage for a mediocre guard. Will he use it? If he does, he’s probably a goner. Baalke let David Baas walk last offseason because he wanted more than Baalke thought he was worth. If Snyder walks, Baalke will probably replace him with another mediocre free agent guard.

The next player I would put on this list is Ted Ginn Jr., but if I were Baalke I’d only resign him as a return man. I would replace him as a receiver. Baalke has to determine how much he’d pay for a return specialist, and that figure may not satisfy Ginn.

What’s your list?

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