NFL handicappers & bettors know that although free agency isn't over yet, all the big-name guys have found new homes. The San Francisco 49ers look worse today than on the final Sunday of the 2014 season.
Niners Swap Out Jims
In the worst-kept secret in the NFL, the 49ers let Coach Jim Harbaugh walk away to his alma mater, the University of Michigan, instead of perhaps keeping Harbaugh under contract and getting a draft pick for him in a trade. Certainly there would have been offers from at least Oakland and Miami (Dolphins are owned by big-time Michigan booster Stephen Ross). The Niners went 44-19-1 in their four years under Harbaugh, 49-22-1 including the playoffs. The front office was so eager to get rid of Harbaugh that it issued a statement just about the minute the final gun went off in the 49ers' season-ending 20-17 win over the Arizona Cardinals.
The 49ers surprised many by letting veteran defensive coordinator Vic Fangio leave instead of promoting him to the head coaching role. Jim Tomsula, who had been the Niners' defensive line coach since 2007, instead was promoted. Tomsula was the interim head coach at the end of 2010 after Mike Singletary was fired. Tomsula's only other head-coaching experience came with NFL Europe's Rhein Fire in 2006. The team interviewed Fangio, now-Bills coach Rex Ryan, Mike Shanahan, now-Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase, now-Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and now-Jets coach Todd Bowles. You could argue all those guys had higher profiles than Tomsula. Most of the current 49ers players were happy with the move, however. What's this mean for those making NFL picks?
Defense Devastated by Retirements
While Harbaugh's departure was expected, two 49ers players leaving were not: Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis and his presumed replacement, Chris Borland, both retired. At age 30, Willis decided to hang up the cleats despite being in his prime. He did battle foot and toe injuries last season and was placed on the season-ending injured reserve Nov. 11. The former Defensive Rookie of the Year had missed six games in his career before this latest injury sidelined him for the final 10 games of 2014.
So while Willis' retirement was surprising, Borland's was flat-out stunning. The 24-year-old was terrific as a rookie last season and looked like a future All-Pro, but Borland didn't want to be one of those guys with post-concussion symptoms for the rest of his career. When Willis aggravated a toe injury in the second quarter of an Oct. 13 win at St. Louis, Borland took over at inside linebacker. The former Wisconsin star had 107 tackles and a sack in 14 games, eight of them starts. He was the NFC's Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against the New York Giants in Week 11. He led the 49ers with 13 tackles in that game and became the team's first rookie linebacker with two interceptions in one game. Borland clearly isn't going to change his mind as he's repaying the team part of his signing bonus.
It's also expected that Pro Bowl defensive tackle Justin Smith is going to retire. Smith hasn't made anything official yet but is leaning that way, although adding it's not "100 percent." The a 14-year veteran has contemplated retirement the past several seasons. Smith played in all 16 games but he had shortened practice weeks for the entire season as his body was wearing down.
So that's three potential gut-punching retirements and the team said goodbye to five other starters in free agency: running back Frank Gore, guard Mike Iupati, linebacker Dan Skuta and cornerbacks Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox. Receiver Michael Crabtree hasn't signed with another team yet but isn't going to be back, either. The team could waive linebacker NaVorro Bowman. He is still recuperating from the devastating left knee injury he suffered in the NFC title game in January 2014 and his entire $4.7 million base salary becomes fully guaranteed on April 1. So expect a decision by then.
The 49ers have replaced Crabtree with former Baltimore Raven Torrey Smith and also signed former Lions free-agent running back Reggie Bush. The team also drafted Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde in the second round of the 2014 draft and he showed some good signs as a rookie so the Niners should be fine there. Defensively, the club added tackle Darnell Dockett, so he could slide into Smith's spot but there's no doubting that side of the ball is much weaker overall.