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Why I’m skeptical of the 49ers moves since hiring John Lynch

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NFL: Denver Broncos at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Two months ago, a person who writes about the San Francisco 49ers asked if I wanted to debate about the quality of John Lynch’s moves as GM. I have been very critical of most things the 49ers have done since hiring Lynch, and that has nothing to do with any sort of “rivalry” between them and the Seattle Seahawks. I just think the spending and talent evaluation has been a little poor, which goes against what most people seem to believe about the Niners, since they’re a popular pick to return to the playoffs next season.

That would certainly give credence to the idea that Lynch is a quality GM, since they were 2-14 just two seasons ago, but I remain skeptical until more of these moves pay off in a way that many of the initial ones did not.

Anyways, I accepted and wrote a very long response to this person. Then two months passed. I tried following up a few times to see if we’d still be collaborating but nothing happened. Probably not a clever rouse by a 49ers writer, so much as a person (me) giving them way too much work to look over in the form of 4,000 words on what I liked and didn’t like about San Francisco’s transactions from 2017-present. This is the life we chose, I guess.

So in the interest of not entirely wasting those words, I present to you what I wrote, (nearly) in its entirety.

_________

I’ll just start with my thoughts on John Lynch as a GM from the beginning. I think the initial announcement of the hiring sounded unusual, but fine to me. I think we overrate things like GM, coach, and player evaluation, with too many people thinking they know what a “good” addition or “bad” addition really is. That people are “gurus” or psychics and that they know for sure what the future will bring based on their own evaluation of that person’s resume. I certainly do not pretend to know what the future will bring, and I think the best GMs do not pretend to know what the future will bring. The best GMs know how unpredictable prospects and free agents can be and instead take as many shots as they can get; the Patriots have made the most draft picks in the NFL since Bill Belichick took over. That’s relevant. And so with the hiring of Lynch, even though he had no front office experience, I don’t want to pretend like that meant he would automatically fail; we’ve seen some of the most experienced execs in history fail as GMs. We’ve seen John Elway win a Super Bowl in that role. I am not even sure if I said at the time that it was a bad hire -- maybe I did -- but I would say today that there was nothing inherently wrong with the hire itself.

[the following was added by me as of this morning, pointing out that Lynch is just one person in the process —

Then there’s this from the Niners Nation hiring announcement comments thread:

The day after this, Lynch hired Adam Peters as the VP of Player Personnel:

Peters had spent the previous eight seasons in the scouting department for the Denver Broncos — much of which of course happened under Elway. Interesting. His previous six years was spent in the New England Patriots organization, moving to Denver when Josh McDaniels did in 2009. So the commenters theory above starts to take shape.

Hire Kyle Shanahan as the head coach, let him build the roster and pick a GM who will passionately go to battle with him. Hire John Lynch as GM. He doesn’t handle the salary cap. He doesn’t handle all the personnel decisions. He hires a VP of Player Personnel who has six years under Belichick, a couple years under McDaniels, and a few more years under Elway, with multiple Super Bowl rings. (It doesn’t hurt that Peters grew up a 49ers super-fan.)

Note that hiring Peters was the first thing Lynch did as a GM and Peters is widely viewed as a GM-in-waiting. Lynch didn’t even interview him. He just hired him.

In Peters’ last draft as Director of College Scouting with the Broncos, Denver selected quarterback Paxton Lynch in the first round, trading up to get him. I don’t know if it’s necessary for me to point this out, but I did it anyway. I think that Peters carries significant responsibility for San Francisco’s hits and misses over the last year and a half. We also can’t ignore the impact of Martin Mayhew, the former Detroit Lions GM who Lynch hired on February 9 of last year to be Senior Personnel Executive.

So my addendum to the following is that John Lynch is just one person, even as the GM of a football organization, and that all decisions are part of a collaborative effort. In the case of the 49ers, it may be even more collaborative than most, and much like John Schneider in Seattle, we can’t ignore the impact of the head coach in all decisions either.

Moving on ...

— end addition]

I would say though that if I was a 49ers fan, I’d be concerned about the last year or so of transactions. I do not like a lot of the moves. People can say that I believe this because I am a fan of/writer about the Seahawks, but I simply do not care about rivalries like a lot of people do. I hold no bitterness to the 49ers, Rams, or Cardinals; at most, I hold some bitterness towards some fans of those teams, but only because the internet can be an ugly place and people can get very personal once you criticize their favorite team.

I personally do not care if people criticize Seattle either. I criticize Seattle. If I think something is a good move, for any team, I compliment it. If I think if it’s a bad move, for the Seahawks or any other team, I criticize it. My favorite thing about following and writing about football is trying to find the formula for success. “What do successful teams do?” If anyone acts like Pete Carroll and John Schneider have not been successful from 2012-2016, that’s just inaccurate.

When the Seahawks were awful in 2008-2009, they deserved the harshest criticisms. They were the worst team in the NFL in 2009, regardless of what the records said. They were the worst. Carroll gutted the team and they were still terrible, but won a playoff game miraculously and it was fun. Then they started to get good. Now they seem to be trending the other way. They deserve criticism, but they also deserve some benefit of the doubt.

The 49ers started 1-10 last season, so I don’t see how they don’t deserve some criticism. They won their last five games too, so I’ll certainly throw them some benefit of the doubt. However, I think that the total package needs some work and that many of the moves are not defensible simply by saying “Well, San Francisco has so much cap space” and “These are Kyle Shanahan-type guys, so it’s okay to overpay them.”

I don’t see it that way, and I’ll start by citing some free agent additions in 2017.

Jeremy Kerley

The first move I remember Lynch making was signing Kerley to a three-year deal. This would’ve been an immediate red flag for me, because Kerley was one of the worst receivers in the NFL in 2016. FootballOutsiders ranked him 93rd out of 94 receivers ahead of only Tavon Austin, by DYAR, and 90th in DVOA. And Kerley got a three-year deal. Terrelle Pryor and Alshon Jeffery of course got more guaranteed money, but they only got one-year deals last year. It’s one thing to say, “Well, Kerley is this nice veteran receiver and we think he’s a good presence even if he wasn’t much of a football player on the field, so we gave him $1 million, non-guaranteed” but they gave him 3-years, $10.5 million.

I just have like one really big question about that: Why?

What does Kerley give any team that a rookie couldn’t give them? And a rookie costs almost nothing. So it just seemed like a confusing, bad move at the time, and then Kerley didn’t even make the team; $2.36 million in dead money because Lynch (et al) wanted to retain a 29-year-old receiver who was awful during his one season with the team.

These tweets were 5 months apart:

Earl Mitchell

The Seahawks wanted him too. His deal was modest ($4 million APY) and he seemed to outplay it in 2017. I think this is proving to be the good move that it appeared to be initially. The only potential downside I could see is that Mitchell turns 31 this year, but even if he was never good again, he’s cheap. These are the types of moves you’d like to see more of, though with San Francisco, surely you’d hope (for their sake) that they’d be on the younger side.

Malcolm Smith

I love Malcolm Smith, Seahawks Super Bowl MVP, and even I can tell you this was a horrible deal from the jump. A $7 million signing bonus and Smith has never been a viable, high-end starting linebacker. The Seahawks wouldn’t have let him go if he were, and the Raiders certainly never would’ve let him go if he were. Smith got a 5-year, $26.5 million deal, didn’t play in 2017, and carries dead money of $8.1 million 2018 and $4.2 million in 2019 if released early ($2.8 million in 2020, $1.4 million in 2021 also isn’t nothing) and I would be surprised if he’s around past next season.

Not everyone agrees though:

Brian Hoyer

I support this signing, especially for San Francisco at the time, though I’d probably like to see a GM stand firm on not going more than one year. Hoyer carries $2 million dead money in 2018.

Pierre Garcon

I love Garcon as a player and again, for a team that was as talent-poor as the 49ers, I couldn’t really criticize the addition of any good player. The injury was unfortunate, but perhaps not as surprising given that he’s 31. Given that Donte Moncrief got almost $9 million (or up to that) it’s harder to be critical of paying Garcon $9 and $8 million respectively over the next two seasons, but one team’s mistake does not excuse your own. The Seahawks have always been willing to spend big on receivers (Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin, Doug Baldwin) for better and for worse and Garcon falls in line with being a good receiver. That being said, Rice and Harvin were around 26 when they signed big contracts.

If I wanted to give a signing an A grade, I’d want to look for players entering their prime rather than being in the middle or on the back end of their likely primes. Garcon falls in the category of being a good signing, for me, but I’m not all that surprised that he missed half of 2017 even if he had been relatively healthy for the first nine years of his career.

Marquise Goodwin

Case in point. Goodwin signed at age 27, his cap hit was $3.25 million, and he remains a fair bargain on his new three-year deal. Wouldn’t 49ers fans like to see a lot more signings like Goodwin, and a lot less of the over-30, or Kerley variety? There was some risk to giving Goodwin $3 million if only because he wasn’t very good in Buffalo, but I’d prefer a $3 million risk on Goodwin than the ones they took on Smith and Kerley.

Or even on Garcon, considering how far away from competing they were going to be in 2017; practically speaking, the 49ers were a team in 2017 that should have been preparing to compete at 2018 at the earliest. In 2010, the Seahawks weren’t trying to do anything to compete in 2010, or even 2011; if anything, they were shedding and tearing it down and getting worse. But they were ramping up for something better to come about in 2012, and it did.

Kyle Juszczyk

I think this is where a lot of 49ers fans would violently disagree with me, but I really didn’t like this signing at the time and even now, even after he made the Pro Bowl, I am just not going to turn around and say that a fullback should make over $5 million per season. Not now, and not in the near future.

He has a higher APY than the next two highest-paid fullbacks combined.

Were his 33 catches and 315 yards transformative for the 49ers? FootballOutsiders didn’t think so, ranking him 27th in receiving by running backs. He doesn’t rush the football. He blocks and he picks up 9 yards per catch and he had more fumbles (2) than touchdowns (1).

And he’s getting paid more than Adam Thielen, Ted Ginn, and Vernon Davis. For me, give me Vernon Davis, even today. Do those guys work in Shanahan’s offense? I don’t know. But I don’t feel all that confident that Juszczyk carries a $5 million value in this offense either. Also passes caught by RBs aren’t as valuable as passes caught by other players.

Elvis Dumervil

Not a bad signing, more just like a signing that the world did not notice and would not have made a difference either way. Dumervil had little impact in a lost season and won’t have an impact on the future of the franchise. Okay, they added a veteran; I just don’t see that much value in adding veterans to young teams that had no shot at making the postseason. And I think that John Lynch probably had a habit of doing too much of that in 2017. The moves may have not hurt them and may not have an impact on the future; I also just don’t that I see it as a good sign because the moves never had a chance of helping the 49ers in a significant way, so why make most of them?

Laken Tomlinson

I can’t really fault Lynch for trading for a former first round pick who was only 25, and cost almost nothing, but as Niners Nation points out, Tomlinson was horrible.

Brandon Fusco

A one-year deal that didn’t hurt them much, but Fusco also proved to be a bad player most of the time. As Niners Nation points out.

Brock Coyle

Another former Seahawks player, which makes sense under defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, Coyle is another ho-hum contributor. You probably know much more than me on him at this point but he wasn’t special in the times he had to play on defense during his time in Seattle and his three-year contract in 2018 with the 49ers seems a bit rich.

Garry Gilliam

Might as well talk about this one too. Gilliam was really bad with the Seahawks. (I mean, SF fans must know this based on comments about Seattle’s offensive line; Gilliam was not good enough to play on that line anymore.) Taking him on for a year makes some sense but his two-year contract in 2018 is a little mindblowing.

Obviously Lynch and the 49ers do see something, I just don’t know that I couldn’t see something similar in a much cheaper player with some more upside on the horizon.

Trade for Jimmy Garoppolo

I think for the most part I’ve been painted as someone who thought the trade for Garoppolo was a bad one, but I think that’s misunderstood. I just don’t think that there was anything more tangible about Garoppolo after three years than there was about Brock Osweiler after three years.

Mid-to-late second round quarterbacks rarely become starters, let alone good players, so to me, Jimmy Garoppolo was still just a second round prospect and his small amount of playing time in the best system possible wasn’t going to change that. The 49ers gave up a high second round pick to acquire him, but Garoppolo was now not just a “second round prospect” because the difference between him and a second round QB in 2018 is about $130 million. So I just think it was a move that carried more risk than people were / are willing to admit.

That move may indeed pay off, in which case, who cares about the second round pick they gave up, but there was little way to know what would become of Garoppolo once he did get his chance to start. Really the draft pick is not a big deal, the money is what I’d be looking at now; and I have that stance with all players, including the Seahawks and Russell Wilson. I think the bubble could burst on these types of contracts and few teams actually win Super Bowls with high-paid quarterbacks. At least, not at the times that they are high-paid. Wilson, Carson Wentz, Joe Flacco, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers; all won Super Bowls on rookie deals or on cheap deals in the case of Brady. It’s not my favorite way for a GM to do business and it concerns me with Wilson and his future just the same.

Not that there aren’t things to like, it’s just unfortunate (if you’re rooting for the 49ers) that the organization missed all of the value years. He’s now costing a record $37 million in 2018 cap space.

2018 Moves

Weston Richburg

This is another good example to me of me criticizing a signing and people assuming it’s because it was by a team that wasn’t the Seahawks. No, if the Seahawks signed an interior lineman with a recent injury, and who may be good but who also may not be that good, to a $47.5 million deal, I’d be concerned. Put it another way: The Giants didn’t rush to bring Richburg back and they had the worst o-line in the NFL.

Maybe because they feel good with Brett Jones and signed Andrew Norwell (don’t like that deal either) but I don’t see Richburg as being Shanahan’s next “Alex Mack.” Mack is a great example of a center elevating an offense, but even that had its limitations as we saw in 2017. Seattle signed Luke Joeckel to an $8 million AAV, but only for one season, and they are now completely free from Joeckel. It’s something they can afford now, but I mean, do people really get giddy about Richburg? Maybe they do. $9.5 million in 2018 for a center of his caliber seems like a lot, and they were fortunate to get this done so they could rid themselves of the $11.5 million Dan Kilgore deal that Lynch handed out a month earlier.

Cassius Marsh

Another former player from this side. He never showed out with the Seahawks. He’d do something good and then do two things that would frustrate you. I’d say he’s a net below-average player because he couldn’t regularly contribute on defense, so a two-year $7.7 million deal for a special teamer would not excite me.

Richard Sherman

A lot of people saying that Sherman just handed over a too-good-to-be-true contract to the 49ers because he was representing himself. Russell Okung did this same thing with the Broncos in 2016. It ended up paying off for Okung. I think Sherman was a great signing, and that he really wanted to play for San Francisco, so good for them for not letting him get away.

Jerick McKinnon

This is a good one to end on because it’s one of the oddest contracts I’ve ever seen.

The value of running backs has nosedived over the last decade and teams are not just shying away from them in the first round of the draft and free agency, but also on the field. (It’s so fitting that I wrote this before the draft in which the Seahawks took a running back in the first round.) Teams pass more and they need running backs who can catch the ball because of that, but that also means they often need multiple “starting” running backs. The value of the position has gone down so much that when he’s drafted, Saquon Barkley will be a top-five paid running back before he ever plays.

We used to see this with QBs before the 2011 CBA, but that fixed that issue, for the most part. Except for at RB, where teams are paying far less AAV for them, but some teams (I think fewer and fewer though) still think they’re worth of top-10 picks. (I don’t, but that’s for another day.) This means that you can find not just quality RBs, but All-Pro RBs, on day two. And I’m not talking about, “sleepers” either, I’m talking about highly-rated RB prospects who fall out of the first round because teams know they can wait and instead use those early picks on premium positions like OT, QB, DE, OLB, CB, S ... That is especially true of the 2018 RB class, which might be the best and most well-stocked of the last 10 years.

It’s Barkley at the top, but you might see eight RBs go in the top 75. I mean, Sony Michel, Ronald Jones, Royce Freeman, and so on... So a highly paid RB is now getting like $5 million per season; $5 million AAV would rank 9th overall at the position, which is what Carlos Hyde got from the Browns.

So how did McKinnon get $7.5 million AAV and $10.5 million in 2018 alone?

McKinnon showed out at the 2014 combine but I think he really disappointed in his four years with the Vikings. When opportunities presented themselves in 2016-2017, he averaged 3.6 YPC. Last season, he had three fumbles on 201 touches. He had 421 receiving yards, but I’ll go back to my reference on the overall value of RBs catching the ball, even in a Shanahan offense. I don’t necessarily see the added value of $10.5 million to McKinnon vs $4.95 million to Dion Lewis, the AAV he got from the Titans. Or the $1 million they could’ve spent on a rookie, who may be a better prospect now than McKinnon ever was; the 49ers traded their second round pick, but still own picks 59, 70, and 74. That’s a great spot for a RB.

(The 49ers actually had pick 67 in 2017, but traded it to the Saints for a seventh rounder and a future second round pick, which turned into pick 59 above. San Francisco actually dealt pick 59 to Washington, who turned around and used it on a running back: Derrius Guice. Now here’s the funnest part of all: that pick 67 that they traded away a year earlier was used to select Alvin Kamara. Now imagine Kyle Shanahan/John Lynch/Adam Peters acquiring Kamara in 2017 instead of spending $10.5 million on Jerick McKinnon in 2018. Imagine.)

And they may still take one (they didn’t) but then I’d be even more confused by the $10.5 million to McKinnon. McKinnon ranked 40th in DYAR and DVOA, and his receiving value was 23rd, behind guys like J.D. McKissic and Austin Ekeler. This is perhaps the worst deal I’ve seen during this offseason, but that’s just my opinion and it goes so much deeper than the 49ers. I criticized the Bills for signing Chris Ivory. What could I possibly have against the Bills? I root for the Bills to win whenever I can. This is more, to me, about the improper valuation of not only running backs in general, but McKinnon based on his four-year career.

I could be wrong about how much of an impact he’ll have -- maybe he puts up a great season -- but I still wouldn’t back down from the idea that you don’t pay $10.5 million for that. Not in the 2018 game. Regardless of how much cap space you have.

So that’s a “brief summation” of my thoughts on the 49ers moves since hiring John Lynch. We haven’t even talked about the draft yet.