Send us your tired, your poor, your wasted draft picks, your locker-room misfits and, for minimal compensation, we will take them and turn them into a winner.
Reclamation projects – inexpensive fixer-uppers, if you will – were the 49ers’ focus as they kicked off the new league year. Only one of the team’s new acquisitions didn’t fit that theme.
The 49ers wanted to retain free-agent safety Donte Whitner but felt that the $7 million-a-year deal the Browns offered him exceeded his value. So they acquired a Whitner-like replacement in Antoine Bethea, and did so at a lower price – a bit more than $5 million a year.
As was the case last year when rookie Eric Reid replaced Dashon Goldson at free safety, the new starter at safety is similar in size and style to the former starter. The 49ers needed a smart and steady veteran at that position as a counterbalance to the youth at other positions in the secondary. That’s what they had in Whitner but also what they get in Bethea.
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The rest of the additions fall under the category of: One general manager’s trash is another’s treasure.
When it comes to quarterback Blaine Gabbert, traded for a sixth-round pick, you have to assume coach Jim Harbaugh, who three years ago attended Gabbert’s pro day at Missouri alongside general manager Trent Baalke, had input on the deal.
And if Harbaugh had input, you have to assume that he believes he can work his quarterback-whisperer magic with Gabbert. Sure, everything from Gabbert’s arm strength to his leadership to his moxie has been questioned since Jacksonville drafted him 10th overall in 2011. But he has size and physical gifts.
And given Harbaugh’s track record with discarded quarterbacks (See: Smith, Alexander D.), you have to give him and the 49ers the benefit of the doubt at this point.
Tackle Jonathan Martin is another example of the 49ers parlaying a late-round pick – a conditional seventh-rounder in 2015 – on an intriguing reclamation project.
Martin played both right and left tackle for the Dolphins, which makes him a good candidate to take over the “swing tackle” role for the 49ers. It also will be interesting if they give Martin a look at guard. Mike Iupati is entering the final year of his contract and his price tag promises to be steep if he hits the open market a year from now when the salary cap is north of $140 million.
The 49ers need to have options. Joe Looney is one. Martin could be another.
No, Martin didn’t always play well for the Dolphins, and his ordeal in the Miami locker room is well documented. But as with Gabbert, he showed potential as a college athlete – he was drafted in the second round – and you can assume he’s motivated to prove he’s tough enough for the NFL. Harbaugh loves a player with a chip on his shoulder. Martin’s ought to be the size of a bank safe by now.
The last one on the list is Baalke’s reclamation project. He’s betting that if cornerback Eric Wright can put all his problems, which prompted Tampa Bay to cut ties with him last year, behind him he will perform as he did early in his career when he was considered one of the top young cornerbacks in the league.
If that’s the case, the 49ers have a potential starter at cornerback and – this can’t be stressed enough – someone who can cover receivers such as Seattle’s Percy Harvin, St. Louis’ Tavon Austin and Green Bay’s Randall Cobb from the nickel cornerback position.
Last year, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and the coaching staff tapped Perrish Cox, not Wright, to play that critical role in a playoff game against the Packers. But the coaching staff isn’t in charge of free agency. Baalke is.
And it’s notable that Wright, not Cox, is the free-agent cornerback the 49ers re-signed first.