It’s not surprising. The 49ers just don’t have much money. What was surprising really was that they were even in play for some of the bigger names, particularly at receiver.
The 49ers, who currently have less than $4 million in in salary cap room, made some noise in recent days by pursuing receivers and cornerback. None of the pursuits materialized. Saturday night, Pittsburgh receiver Emmanuel Sanders cancelled a visit to sign with Denver. Earlier Saturday, Julian Edelman returned to the Patriots after visiting his hometown 49ers on Friday.
Sunday morning, Seattle cornerback Walter Thurmond signed a $3.5 million one-year deal with the New York Giants. He visited the 49ers on Friday. It was the same deal former 49ers’ cornerback Tarell Brown signed with the Raiders.
I believe losing Thurmond was a bigger deal than the receivers. The 49ers need youth at receiver, but they probably need a little more veteran experience at cornerback.
There isn’t much left on the market at either position. The top cornerbacks are Dominuque Rodgers-Cromartie and Antonio Cromartie. Rodgers-Cromartie would be a great fit, but he is looking for a lot of money. At receiver, the top options are James Jones, Santonio Holmes, Sidney Rice and Kenny Britt.
Even if the 49ers do dip into the market, they will very likely concentrate on these two positions in the draft where they have 11 picks and the flexibility to move up particularly since they don’t have many other needs.
Isaac from Salinas, Calif., wants to know if I think the 49ers could try to replace Jim Harbaugh with Jon Gruden or Bill Cowher in 2015.
Bill Williamson: I really doubt it. If the Harbaugh situation blows up after this season, I would think the 49ers would first look at an existing assistant such as offensive coordinator Greg Roman, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio or defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. I wouldn’t think a big-name, out-of-work coach is where the 49ers would first look if somehow Harbaugh is not in the picture.
James from New York wants to know what I think the difference between A.J. Jenkins and Brandin Cooks.
BW: It’s an interesting question and I don’t know if there is a simple question. Cooks is smaller and faster than Jenkins, who the 49ers took with the No. 30 pick in 2012 and they ended up trading him to Kansas City last summer. I understand the question. But I don’t know if it’s a comparison. What I think you want to know is how can we be sure Cooks, who the 49ers could target with the No. 30 pick in the draft, isn’t another highly rated college receiver who can’t translate his game to the NFL. There is no answer to that yet. We have to see what he can do. Receiver is often a boon-or-bust position. So it is up to the 49ers to make a decision on if they feel they can make Cooks a productive NFL player or not.
Kenneth from Visalia, Calif., wants to know if I think the 49ers could sign Terrell Owens or Chad Johnson.
BW: I know the 49ers have brought in aging stars before. But the ship has sailed on these guys. It’s over, folks.
The Bay Area native visited with the 49ers on Friday. However, the pursuit was considered somewhat tepid. Edelman wasn’t a natural fit for the 49ers, anyway. He is a slot receiver and that’s a role Anquan Boldin occupies nicely.
The 49ers need a speed receiver and that’s why they are talking to Pittsburgh’s Emmanuel Sanders. He was supposed to visit the team Saturday night.
There is a possible hurdle for Sanders. ESPN.com’s Scott Brown is reporting some teams are worried about Sanders’ lingering foot issue, and it could affect his price tag. The 49ers, who currently have less than $4 million in salary-cap room, likely wouldn't pay Sanders much, anyway.
If the 49ers go on to look at other receivers in free agency, potential options are James Jones, Santonio Holmes and Sidney Rice.
Meanwhile, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Seattle cornerback Walter Thurmond is planning on taking other visits. He was in San Francisco on Friday. The 49ers are still interested in him.
Returning free agents: Receiver Anquan Boldin, kicker Phil Dawson, cornerback Eric Wright.
Departed free agents: Safety Donte Whitner (Cleveland), cornerback Tarell Brown (Oakland), running back Anthony Dixon (tweeted he is signing with Buffalo on Saturday).
Released: Cornerback Carlos Rogers.
Free-agent addition: Safety Antoine Bethea (Colts), Cornerback Chris Cook (Vikings).
Acquired in trade: Quarterback Blaine Gabbert from Jaguars; tackle Jonathan Martin from Miami.
Who are they interested in? Cornerback Walter Thurmond (Seattle),receivers Julian Edelman (New England) and Emmanuel Sanders (Pittsburgh).
Remaining 49ers free agents: Center Jonathan Goodwin, receiver Mario Manningham, quarterback Colt McCoy, receiver Kassim Osgood, cornerback Perrish Cox.
Starting lineup changes: Bethea for Whitner; likely Daniel Kilgore for Goodwin.
The 49ers are hoping to get a deal done with Seattle free-agent Walter Thurmond, who has the same agent as Brown. Thurmond, considered a comparable player to Brown, is currently visiting the 49ers.
In a conference call with Oakland media, Brown said it sounded as if the 49ers didn't make a big play for him.
"It was always something I would have loved to work out, but everything happens for a reason, and I understand that it's a business," Brown said. "They are looking to get younger or they are really looking to bring in other guys, so I can't fault those people for that. So, I understand it's a business and I treat it as such. Like I said, I look forward to being here and starting a new culture here."
Earlier Friday, the 49ers signed ex-Minnesota Vikings cornerback Chris Cook. He is expected to be a bottom-of-the-rotation player, although at 6-2 he has a chance to make an impact with the team.
"They want me to be the press guy," Cook said in a conference call Friday. "And that's what I like to do. I feel like I'll fit in well with the one-high [safety] scheme that they like to run. I came from a two-high scheme. And I feel like a one-high scheme and a man-to-man scheme fits me well."
Right now, Chris Culliver, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL, is set to be a starter along with Tramaine Brock. However, Thurmond can play outside. The 49ers are also expected to draft a cornerback in the early rounds, and they also have Eric Wright.
If the team doesn't sign Thurmond, among the other cornerbacks on the shrinking market include Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Antonio Cromartie. But their price tags may be high for the 49ers, who have under $4 million of salary-cap room.
Meanwhile, take Hakeem Nicks off the 49ers' wish list at receiver as he signed with the Colts. The 49ers visited Friday with New England's Julian Edelman and will visit with Pittsburgh's Emmanuel Sanders on Saturday.
Also, running back Anthony Dixon tweeted that he will sign with Buffalo on Saturday morning. Dixon, who was a solid special teams contributor and popular in the locker room, was not expected back.
The 49ers have a crowded backfield, so this isn’t considered a difficult loss.
Brown's deal is for one-year, $3.5 million, and Smith's is for two years, $9 million, sources told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.
Brown was considered one of the better cornerbacks on the market, and his former team, the San Francisco 49ers tried to sign him prior to free agency starting.
Brown, 29, had a bit of strange season in 2013. He lost his starting job after he suffered a rib injury in November. But he regained his starting job in the playoffs.
Brown, a 49ers fifth-round pick in 2007, is considered a solid, fundamentally sound cornerback, who can be a good No. 2 starter. His career totals include 100 games played with 47 starts, 213 tackles and 11 interceptions.
Brown was involved in a strange situation last summer when he forfeited a $2 million workout bonus he was unaware of. His agent did not inform him of it and he fired the agent. In a show of good faith, the 49ers gave Brown a $300,000 bonus in December.
Smith set career highs with 6.5 and seven sacks in 2011 and '12. He earned a Pro Bowl nod for his 2011 season, a season during which the Texans won their first playoff game in team history.
"It's an opportunity for a fresh start, and you don't find those very often in the National Football League," Gabbert said in a conference call with media Friday afternoon. "I like to help this team in any way I can."
Martin, who dealt with bullying issues in Miami last season as outlined in the Wells Report, had a similar message when he addressed the media Thursday evening. The 49ers acquired both players this week for low-round draft picks.
Gabbert was the No. 10 overall pick in the 2011 draft. He went 26 picks higher than when the 49ers took starter Colin Kaepernick. Gabbert is grateful the 49ers are giving him a chance after he struggled as the starter in Jacksonville and will be Kaepernick's backup.
The 49ers had their eye on Gabbert in the draft process. Coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke attended his pro day at Missouri and Gabbert had a pre-draft visit to San Francisco.
Gabbert is exited to finally work under Harbaugh.
"He's had success with Alex Smith and now Colin. He's had a great track record with quarterbacks," Gabbert said. "He's another asset I can use to get better and in return help this team in any way possible."
Cook will battle for a roster spot. He has experience and at 6-foot-2, he is big for a cornerback. But he has struggled on and off the field at times. He has no career interceptions.
Still, the 49ers -- who added quarterback Blaine Gabbert and offensive lineman Jonathan Martin -- are banking they can salvage Cook's career. If not, the team doesn’t have much invested. ESPN analyst Matt Williamson thinks taking a flier on Cook is worth the 49ers’ while.
“He has a lot of talent,” Williamson said. “Maybe he can resurrect his career in San Francisco.”
Also, the 49ers are reportedly interested in Giants' free agent Hakeem Nicks. Both Edelman and Nicks are getting a lot of interest in the free-agent market.
While Sanders may not have the name recognition as Edelman or Nicks, I think he might be a better fit for the 49ers than the other two. He is a speedster and, thus, he is more of a field stretcher than the other two receivers -- all of which is the 49ers' biggest need. I think he'd fit in well with San Francisco starting receivers Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree. The group would surely be an upgrade from last season's receiving crew in San Francisco.
Sanders also may be more cost effective for the 49ers than Edelman and Nicks. That is important for a team that has less than $4 million in salary cap room and a team that's also trying to find a veteran cornerback.
In early February, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Caplan pegged Sanders as a good fit for the 49ers. Sanders, who will turn 27 on Monday, had 67 catches for 740 yards and six touchdowns last season. It was Sanders' best season in four NFL campaigns.
If the 49ers don't sign Edelman, Nicks or Sanders, other available free agents include Steve Smith, James Jones, Santonio Holmes and Sidney Rice.
After all, it’s not like Anquan Boldin (who just signed a two-year, $12 million extension) and Michael Crabtree (who is in his prime) are going to see decreased roles in the offense.
The NFL is a league of three-receiver sets, although the 49ers did not subscribe to that theory. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the 49ers were last in the NFL using three-receiver sets in 2013. They ran three-receiver sets on just 205 snaps. Green Bay ran the most in the NFL with 817 three-receiver sets.
The interest in Edelman and Nicks, both impact players, shows the 49ers want to get closer to Green Bay in that regard.
In the past both teams have signed the others' former players, claimed them off waivers or signed them off the practice squad. Among the names that have made the San Francisco-Seattle shuffle in recent years:
Perrish Cox, B.J. Daniels, Ricardo Lockette, Cameron Morrah, Chris Harper, Charly Martin, Ryan Seymour and Seneca Wallace.
Few of these players have made a big impact. Thurmond would be different.
The Seahawks are strong at cornerback, so they likely can handle losing Thurmond. But seeing the 49ers improve with the addition of one of their players would not go over well in Seattle.
Odds of landing them: There is competition. The Patriots want Edelman back and Cleveland has been connected to him as well. Nicks is visiting Indianapolis on Friday. Carolina is also interested. The 49ers don’t have a ton of salary-cap room, so they have to get creative in a deal with either player.
Who is the best fit? Probably Nicks because he is an outside receiver. Landing him on a short-term deal to see if he can become a top-notch player again could be smart. Don’t get me wrong; Edelman is good as well. You don’t catch 105 balls in a season if you’re not talented. But Anquan Boldin is essentially a slot guy as well. Still, I’m sure the 49ers could find ways to make it work.
How Crabtree, Boldin and the draft figure: Crabtree is a free agent next year and Boldin is 33. So, even if the 49ers sign Edelman or Nicks, I can still see them taking a receiver early in the draft.
Kaepernick factor: I’m sure quarterback Colin Kaepernick is paying attention. This passing offense could be nasty with Boldin, Crabtree, tight end Vernon Davis and Nicks or Edelman. It would open it up. It could also behoove Kaepernick to wait to get his contract done until next year. He could put up big numbers with another top weapon.
Should Seattle worry? Yes. The 49ers must get better on offense to beat Seattle. That was the reason why the 49ers couldn’t overtake Seattle in 2013. A big-time offensive weapon could even the playing field.
Scout's thoughts: “I was a little surprised to be honest, especially after the re-signing of Boldin. Quinton Patton also shows some promise, but this would be a heck of a receiver corps if is Patton is your No. 4. I would think if they were in the market for WR though, that they would be looking for a pure speed guy, which isn't Nicks or Edelman.” -- ESPN analyst Matt Williamson
Martin, in just his second public comments since the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal, predictably didn’t say much about the Dolphins’ situation. He said he wanted to focus on the future.
Martin said all the right things about the 49ers. He said he knows nothing is guaranteed and he has to earn his keep. That’s the right attitude.
It seems as though Martin understands this is his best chance. He is around Jim Harbaugh and some of his other former coaches at Stanford. He has a support system in place. He gets that.
It’s easy to tell that Martin is a Stanford man. He is articulate and spoke at length about his major at the school, which is Classics.
I don’t expect Martin to talk about his Miami experience. Thursday was about the future and I don’t expect that to change moving forward.