Grant Cohn: 49ers’ free agency strategy — rebuild leadership

Yesterday, I gave you Part 2 of my four-part series on rebuilding the 49ers from the perspective of Eliot Wolf, one of the leading GM candidates. This is Part 3.


The 49ers finished the season $43 million below the salary cap. Next season, the cap may increase to $170 million, meaning the Niners may have more than $90 million they can spend in 2017.

Time for a shopping spree, right?

Not if the GM is Eliot Wolf or anyone from the Ron Wolf tree of personnel executives, including Packers director of player personnel Brian Gutekunst, the other leading candidate for the Niners GM job.

Those guys are extremely cautious during free agency. They see free agents as other teams’ castoffs. Players who were let go. Why were they not re-signed? There must be a reason.

Wolf and his disciples don’t like to draw from the discard pile. They prefer to build teams through the draft.

There is an exception to this philosophy. People from the Wolf tree will spend big money in free agency if they can sign a great player like Reggie White. Someone who shouldn’t have been discarded in the first place. A franchise-altering talent.

But, the Niners won’t find any of those in free agency this year. The best player available is Alshon Jeffery, a solid No. 2 receiver who will get paid as if he’s a future Hall of Fame, a No. 1 receiver. Eliot Wolf will pass on him.

That doesn’t mean Wolf will pass on every free agent this year, though. That would be a mistake. Wolf needs to make a few signings. Not blockbuster signings - strategic ones.

Before I tell you whom he’ll sign, let me explain what I mean by “strategic.”

I’ll use Reggie McKenzie as an example - he’s from the Ron Wolf tree. When McKenzie took over the Raiders, he tore apart the roster and rebuilt it mostly through the draft. And in doing so, he created an extremely young team which lacked leadership and maturity. McKenzie had to fix that.

So, he signed older players near the end of their careers who came from championship organizations. Signed defensive tackle Justin Tuck, who won a Super Bowl with the Giants. Signed linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who won a Super Bowl with the Steelers. And signed wide receiver James Jones, who won a Super Bowl with the Packers.

McKenzie didn’t sign these players for their talent. They didn’t have much talent left. He signed them to show the younger players how to be professionals. How to be grownups. How to act in the locker room. How to act during meetings. How to take notes. How to ask questions. How to watch film. How to practice. How to work out. How to be winners in the NFL.

The Niners currently have no clue how to win. They’re the Raiders from a few years ago. After NaVorro Bowman got hurt this season, the young team had no leadership or maturity. No one to model behavior for the younger players. No one to show them losing wasn’t acceptable. No one to stop them from singing and laughing during a 13-game losing streak. No one to smash that disgusting ping-pong table that never should have been in the locker room to begin with.

That’s what Frank Gore would have done. Or Patrick Willis. Or Justin Smith.

Wolf needs to sign veteran leaders who will establish a standard of conduct.

He’ll start by signing DeMarcus Ware. Ware won a Super Bowl with the Broncos last season and he’ll be 35 in July. He fits the criteria. He also had back surgery in December, which means he no longer is a full-time player. He’s what coaches call a “situational player,” someone who rushes the quarterback on third down. Someone coaches keep fresh. Not someone who defends the run on first down. Think Fred Dean on the 49ers’ first Super Bowl team.

Ware is one of the most respected players in the NFL. He instantly will raise the level of seriousness in the Niners locker room - he will command respect. And he will mentor the 49ers’ best young player - Aaron Lynch, another pass-rusher. Lynch is only 23, and was a force his first two seasons in the league. But last season was a waste for him. He missed the first four games after failing a drug test and, when he returned, he was overweight. Ware will put him on the right track.

Next, Wolf will sign defensive tackle Tony McDaniel, who won a Super Bowl with the Seahawks in 2014. McDaniel will help the 49ers stop the run.

Finally, Wolf will sign fullback James Develin, who won a Super Bowl with the Patriots in 2015. Develin will make the offense tougher. He comes from the best organization in the NFL.

Next year, when the 49ers are better and more mature, then Wolf will sign his own version of Reggie White.

Stay tuned for Part 4 where I examine Wolf’s strategy in the draft.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at

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