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.
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.