The 49ers report to training camp today at their Santa Clara headquarters, bringing with them a…
What exactly is the plan here?
This is a team that could have used a splash over the weekend, which ended with the 49ers announcing the addition of linebackers Antwan Applewhite and Larry Grant, two young veterans who aren't exactly slam-dunk acquisitions. Applewhite was arrested in May on suspicion of driving under the influence in San Diego, and last week the Chargers rescinded their tender offer to him. Grant was released Saturday by the St. Louis Rams.
That's not to say neither can help the 49ers. Applewhite started 13 games for the Chargers last year and set career highs with 48 tackles and three sacks. Grant – the 49ers' seventh-round draft pick in 2008 before being plucked off San Francisco's practice squad by division rival St. Louis later in the year – started eight games for the Rams last year and had two sacks.
But they are, at best, complementary players that a team adds to the nucleus it's building around. That would be front-line starters, and the 49ers are now down five of those from their 2010 defensive unit and one from their 2010 offense. They also have their No. 1 wide receiver out with an undisclosed foot injury, a status that Michael Crabtree could carry into the regular season.
Yet, while observers around them start to get nervous, watching rookie quarterback Colin Kaepernick repeatedly fumbling snaps with fill-in center Adam Snyder – currently taking the place of former starter David Baas, who unexpectedly left the team early last week in free agency – the team's new regime of general manager Baalke and coach Harbaugh take a rather relaxed wait-and-see approach.
"We are going to be patient," Baalke said. "We have been patient. We do have a plan. We're executing the plan. And I guess the only thing that's going to tell is the test of time, and how successful this plan is will be measured with how successful we become on the field."
To be sure, it's too early to measure the plan today. But each day that passes without adding front-line help suggests the plan is putting the 49ers at risk of falling behind in their quest to upgrade the roster to the point they might not be able to catch up enough to help them this season.
When asked on the first day of camp practice whether he feels confident a plan is in place to take care of some of the 49ers' personnel issues through free agency, Harbaugh responded, "I do. I've been involved in it and Trent Baalke and I are talking every day on it and we're executing that plan, and I think smartly. We feel good about it and we'll let our time and results judge if we were correct in or thinking."
The 49ers won't discuss specifics of the plan, but its components appear to include this: The team wants to wait to see how everything shakes out through the first wave of free agency, hoping to strike during the second wave that will begin this week.
It could turn out to be sound strategy that leaves the 49ers with some key players they want and need at a relatively reasonable price.
There's also the possibility it could leave the team empty-handed, and then the 49ers would be left to make do with youngsters and unproven reserves to fill the holes on their roster that free agency and other defections has created.
"The initial stage of free agency, a lot of the big names come off the board and drop and command big salaries," Baalke said. "And then there's a lull. We're starting to get into that lull period. And then guys are going to start getting signed one by one from this point."
Linebacker Manny Lawson, nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin and safety Dashon Goldson – three key defensive starters in recent seasons – remain unsigned on the open market, and the 49ers are still in the running for Goldson and might also be for Franklin, who reportedly is set to visit with the team Monday.
Getting back one or more of those veterans could be vital to the team's success this year, particularly Goldson, considering San Francisco's current situation at safety. There's hardly a position on the team where the 49ers couldn't use some help, with immediate upgrades needed at cornerback and center. The team also could use experienced veteran help at receiver, linebacker and quarterback.
The Niners may have to spend to get it. Or they'll decide not to do that, which will leave them back where they started, and give 2011 the undeniable look of a rebuilding season.
"We are here to win," Baalke said. "I don't know if you look at any job in the National Football League as a rebuilding process. I understand it's tough for the fans to look at it and they hear us saying we're going to take a patient approach when we've had as many seasons as we've had and not made the playoffs. That's totally understandable.
"I'm not going to sit here and say that everyone who signed early is overpaid. But you do pay a premium in free agency. When you look back across the league right now, there are teams that are being ultra-aggressive. And that's the plan that they went into free agency with. And they're neither right nor wrong. That's their plan. Our plan was not to be ultra-aggressive early in free agency. And that's neither right nor wrong. Once again, only time will tell whose approach works the best.
"But if you look at this happening across the league, and you look at the 32 teams, there are a bunch of teams that are doing it the exact same way we are. And a bunch of those teams have been very successful doing it that way. I'm not going to sit here and try to justify what we're doing. Every organization has their own approach to this. There are going to be years when maybe we are ultra-aggressive. This isn't one of them. We have a plan. We're going to execute it. And it's not unlike a lot of other teams in the National Football League at this point and time."
So that's the plan. Will it be a winning plan for the 49ers? As Baalke said, only time will tell, if time doesn't run out first on the team's hopes for a successful 2011 season.
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