Baalke's 2015 49ers free-agent class a bust thus far


Baalke's 2015 49ers free-agent class a bust thus far

More than a dozen veteran players who started games for the 49ers last season did not return for a variety of reasons.

And general manager Trent Baalke’s counter moves in free agency did little to ameliorate all the losses of vital, contributing players.

The 49ers are in last place in the NFC West with a 1-4 record, including three blowout losses. And their free-agent acquisitions have largely failed to produce as expected in the roles for which they were signed.

The 49ers lost four players – Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Anthony Davis and Chris Borland -- due to retirements. Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati, Chris Culliver, Perrish Cox and Dan Skuta signed elsewhere as free agents for a combined $58.8 million in guaranteed money.

In addition, the 49ers released outside linebacker Aldon Smith and wide receiver Stevie Johnson and traded punter Andy Lee.

The 49ers countered with six veteran free-agent signings that totaled $13.5 in guaranteed money. Shareece Wright and Darnell Dockett, who collected a combined $3.5 million at the time of their signings, could not win spots with the team and were released before ever suiting up for a regular-season game.

[RELATED: Report: Ex-49ers CB Wright expected to sign with Ravens]

The 10 veteran players who retired and left as free agents started a combined 121 games for the 49ers last season. In return, the 49ers used free agency to acquire only two starters: wide receiver Torrey Smith and right tackle Erik Pears.

The turnover of veterans on the 49ers’ roster has left the team with 26 players on their 53-man roster who have suited up for regular-season games in just two or fewer seasons.

In some cases, the 49ers envisioned young players, such as Carlos Hyde, Quinton Dial and Aaron Lynch, to take over as starters. But, certainly, the 49ers expected a lot more from Baalke’s free-agent signings:

WR Torrey Smith: The 49ers targeted the speedy receiver in free agency and signed him to a five-year, $40 million contract, including an $8 million signing bonus. Smith has started just two games, but that is misleading as the 49ers have opened three games in three-tight end formations. But what is not misleading is that Smith has just 11 receptions in five games. He has 227 yards receiving, aided tremendously by a 75-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter of a blowout loss at Pittsburgh. The 49ers have not been able to use Smith as planned with a passing game that ranks 31st in the league at 178.2 yards per game.

DL Darnell Dockett: The 49ers signed Dockett for two years and gave him $2 million guaranteed shortly after the Arizona Cardinals released him. This was a major miscalculation for the 49ers. Dockett, 34, was not better than some of the young players already on the roster and the team did not believe he provided the kind of positive locker room personality that could have kept him around as a leader. He remains unsigned.

CB Shareece Wright: The 49ers believed they had another Carlos Rogers when they signed Wright, who spent his first four seasons with the San Diego Chargers. The 49ers believed Wright could be a very good starter. As it turned out, he was the team’s fifth cornerback. He was disgruntled when he found his name on the list of inactives for every game. He wanted out, and he got his wish on Saturday when the 49ers released him. Wright reportedly will sign with the Baltimore Ravens, who play the 49ers on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium.

RB Reggie Bush: The 49ers thought they were getting a potent third-down back and possible punt returner for their $1 million guaranteed investment. But Bush, 30, has spent more time in the training room than on the field. Coach Jim Tomsula took it easy on Bush during training camp to avoid injuries. But Bush almost immediately sustained a calf strain in the season opener. He has appeared in just three games, leaving two of them with the calf injury, and playing a total of 23 offensive snaps. Bush has four carries for seven yards and just one reception of six yards.

OL Erik Pears: The 49ers signed Pears to a two-year, $4.7 million contract to play guard as part of the team’s new zone blocking scheme. But after Anthony Davis’ retirement, the 49ers determined Pears, 33, was their best option at right tackle. The right side of the 49ers’ offensive line has been a problem this season. While Pears has allowed just one sack in five games, the 49ers’ run game has been stuffed when running to the right side.

ST Nick Bellore: He might be the only free-agent acquisition who is performing exactly how the 49ers envisioned when they signed him. Bellore was awarded a $30,000 signing bonus to be a core special-teams player. And that’s the role he has filled.

Why Richard Sherman believes it's good to have unhappy high-profile players leave their teams

Why Richard Sherman believes it's good to have unhappy high-profile players leave their teams

SANTA CLARA – Players in the NFL do not have the advantage of guaranteed contracts, such as those in the NBA. But more and more, NFL players are leveraging their star status to bounce from one team to another.

And cornerback Richard Sherman, the 49ers player representative and a vice president on the NFL Players Association’s executive committee, views that as a positive all the way around.

“I’m sure the owners don’t like that,” Sherman said. “They don’t want to give up any power or for players to flex their power, but I think it’s good for the game. It’s good for the game to have some differences.”

Wide receiver Antonio Brown forced a trade from Pittsburgh to the Raiders this spring. Then, he got his way out of Oakland in order to land with the New England Patriots. The Steelers this week acquired Miami defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick after the second-year safety demanded a trade from the Miami Dolphins.

Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey has requested a trade out of Jacksonville. Washington offensive tackle Trent Williams and Chargers running back Melvin Gordon are high-profile holdouts. Former Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell sat out all of 2018 in order to hit free agency, where he landed a lucrative contract with the New York Jets.

Sherman said he believes the player movement is good for the game because it is different than what the NFL has experienced in the past. Until recently, it was rare for high-profile players to switch teams at the heights of their careers.

[RELATED: Jimmy G headlines 49ers to watch in Week 3 vs. Steelers]

Now, marquee players -- such as Odell Beckham Jr. and Khalil Mack who were traded to Cleveland and Chicago, respectively – are moving with more frequency for ample draft-pick compensation.

“People are starting to realize the first-round picks aren’t as valuable as they used to be,” Sherman said. “It’s what can you do for me now? Rather than waiting and developing a player who may develop or may not develop, you’re getting players that you know who they’re going to be. You know what they are.”

Sherman said an added benefit of players exercising their rights to get out of bad situations is it should inspire NFL teams to treat their players better in order to foster loyalty.

“I think players are becoming more volatile and more frustrated and more angry, and (they are) doing their best to get out of those situations,” Sherman said. “So, hopefully, these organizations treat these players better and players move forward and it works out well for both sides.”

Five to watch in Week 3: 49ers fans look to Jimmy Garoppolo for their cues

Five to watch in Week 3: 49ers fans look to Jimmy Garoppolo for their cues

For the first time in 30 years, the 49ers will enter their regular-season home opener with a 2-0 record.

Fans of the 49ers found their way to Tampa Bay and Cincinnati in Weeks 1 and 2, and were loud and boisterous in the fourth quarter of those games as the home fans filed out.

“We did a good job of making them quiet,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said on 49ers Game Plan, which airs Saturday at 7 p.m. on NBC Bay Area (Ch. 3).

“We got to make sure Pittsburgh doesn’t do that to us. If we do our jobs as a team, I’m pretty confident our fans will do their job.”

The 49ers (2-0) face the Pittsburgh Steelers (0-2) at 1:25 p.m. on Sunday. Shanahan wants his team to give the fans at Levi’s Stadium something to cheer about – a rare occurrence since the club moved its home stadium to Santa Clara in 2014.

“If we play well this Sunday – when I expect us to play well – I know they’ll be loud,” Shanahan said. “I just want everyone to show up and we’ll give them something to cheer about and be as rowdy as possible because it is a huge advantage.”

Here are five key players to watch in Sunday’s game:

5. CB K’Waun Williams

There is a lot that goes into playing nickel back, and the 49ers believe there are few at the position better than K’Waun Williams because of his understanding of the position and his tackling ability.

Williams, however, is coming off a rough game against the Cincinnati Bengals, in which confusion in the secondary enabled Tyler Boyd to shake loose for 47 yards one play after the 49ers took a 7-0 lead.

How will the Steelers try to attack the 49ers? There could be a lot of multi-receiver sets and quick-hitting throws to JuJu Smith-Schuster from the slot to attack Williams in coverage. It’s OK for Williams to yield some of those completions, but he must keep the play in front of him and hold the gains to a minimum.

4. RB Raheem Mostert

It’s abundantly clear by now ... Raheem Mostert brings a lot more to the field than special-teams ability.

As long as Tevin Coleman remains out with a high ankle sprain, Mostert is expected to share the load with Matt Breida. Both players were outstanding in the 49ers’ 41-17 victory over the Bengals last week.

In fact, Mostert is so valuable now on offense that he saw only four snaps on special teams.

Mostert gained 83 yards rushing on 13 rushing attempts, and caught three passes for 68 yards and a 39-yard touchdown that gave the 49ers a first-quarter lead they never relinquished.

The running game is such a huge part of the 49ers’ offense, as it sets up the play-action passing game. Mostert and Breida have both shown big-play ability that makes them threats to take it the distance any time the ball is in their hands.

3. Steelers QB Mason Rudolph

Second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph takes over for Ben Roethlisberger, who is out for the season after receiving surgery on his throwing elbow. Rudolph will make his first NFL start Sunday after entering Pittsburgh’s game last week after halftime.

Rudolph completed 12 of 19 passes for 112 yards with two touchdown passes to former 49ers tight end Vance McDonald and one interception. He threw another interception on a failed two-point conversion attempt.

The 49ers’ defensive line will come at Rudolph in waves and try to pressure the Oklahoma State product into mistakes. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said it is to be expected that the 49ers will not get too predictable with their defensive assignments designed at confusing Rudolph.

“Whether it’s pre-snap disguise, post-snap coverage, pressure, not pressure, you go into every game trying to make sure that your looks and your disguises all keep the quarterback guessing so he has to figure it out post-snap,” Saleh said.

2. LT Justin Skule

When the 49ers selected Vanderbilt offensive tackle Justin Skule in the sixth round of the NFL draft, general manager John Lynch described him as a “scrapper.” He said Skule did not always look graceful and well-polished, but he almost always got the job done while playing in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference.

Six-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley is out six to eight weeks with a fractured left lower leg. Skule certainly is not guaranteed to be the starter for as long as Staley is out of action. But Skule will get the first crack at the job Sunday against the Steelers. If he plays well, there's no reason to make a change. If he struggles, the 49ers will have to look at other options.

Skule will be matched up primarily against Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree, a 2015 first-round draft pick who recorded from four to six sacks in each of his first four NFL seasons. The 49ers will use a variety of strategies to give Skule some help, but there also will be times when he must hold up one-on-one against a player with a large advantage in experience.

[RELATED: Why Sherman doesn't think 49ers need to make blockbuster trade]

1. QB Jimmy Garoppolo

As much as the 49ers want there to be a significant home-field advantage and rising decibel levels in Levi’s Stadium, there is one person above all others whose performance will determine the level of fan participation.

It’s been one year and one week since Jimmy Garoppolo took the field in front of the home fans. As Garoppolo goes, so goes the spirits of the fan base.

Garoppolo has gotten off to a solid start through two games after missing the final 13 games a year ago with a torn ACL. He completed 67.3 percent of his passes for 462 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions in road victories at Tampa Bay and Cincinnati. His passer rating is 104.8.

Garoppolo still is working through chemistry issues with his cast of wide receivers. He should get more comfortable with the likes of Marquise Goodwin, Deebo Samuel, Dante Pettis, Richie James and Kendrick Bourne. When in doubt, he always has tight end George Kittle for those crucial third-down plays.