The San Francisco 49ers have elected to use their franchise tag on Dashon Goldson, a player who ranked 69th in our safety rankings for the 2011 regular season. Even for a player who registered his first Pro Bowl this season that could be construed as an extreme move to retain a seemingly average player.
It is an awful lot of money for a player who graded so poorly in the 2011 season and on just that consideration alone you might suggest this was a frivolous play by the 49ers. Off the back of an undeserving Pro Bowl nod, Goldson is in line for a contract his on-field production hasn’t earned, so this should be a prime opportunity for the San Francisco to move on and look to improve the safety next to Donte Whitner. However, paying the right person the right price isn’t the sole consideration a franchise has when building a team and re-signing their own free agents, so we’re going to take a deeper a look at Goldson and this decision. Do Goldson’s positive traits and upside make this a worthwhile move at the cost of a franchise tag for a safety?
A brief glance at our rankings for safeties in the 2011 regular season does not paint a positive picture of Dashon Goldson’s body of work in his contract year. His overall grade of -8.1 sees him rank 69th out of 87 qualifying safeties (who played 295 snaps or more), seeing him rank alongside such luminaries as Jordan Babineaux of Tennessee, Charlie Peprah of Green Bay, and Matt Giordano of Oakland. Players that you would characterize as “journeymen”, not the type you would consider placing the franchise tag on in ordinary situations.
Things don’t get any better for Goldson in terms of his coverage grade, where his -5.7 grade sees him rank 72nd out of those same 87 safeties, this time sitting between Kurt Coleman of Philadelphia and Abram Elam of the Cowboys. Things start to look a little better for Goldson in run defense where his +0.5 grade, pretty much slap bang average, sees him rank 37th out of 87, as I said average. So what does Goldson have that makes you consider him for the franchise tag? These are overall numbers, what is there on a play-by-play basis that makes the 49ers think that they cannot cope without or suitably replace? None of the other safeties mentioned would be likely to attract the franchise tag from their teams, so what do the 49ers see in Goldson?
Breaking it down one step further you start to see inconsistency in Goldson, where the peaks might convince a team that he is someone worth keeping around. Goldson graded above +1.0 for his coverage on four different occasions this season, including their conference championship defeat at home to the New York Giants. That is only one game fewer than Eric Weddle, Troy Polamalu and Kenny Phillips, all of whom finished the regular season graded amongst our Top 10 safeties in coverage. It is the sort of one game upside that a team can get excited about and his eight pass breakups (interceptions and pass defensed combined) in the regular season again saw him snapping at the heels of players like Kenny Phillips and Eric Weddle, with his six interceptions only bettered by Weddle. While he may be extremely inconsistent, Goldson is more than capable of surfacing with difference-making and game-changing plays at a moment’s notice. The 49ers have swung and missed trying to find playmaking safeties in the top rounds of the draft before. When they have Goldson’s ability to make these plays on the roster it might be tough to turn their back on it immediately.
Key for a free safety, surprisingly enough, is playing deep routes well and Goldson made a number of plays this season on such balls. Goldson collected two interceptions and a pass defense on “go” routes this season and his ability to keep a lid on opposing offense was a key part of a 49er defense that was stifling in the box all season long. If you can’t prevent big plays past the safeties, then that box play goes to waste.
A Different Kind of Average
Consistency, however, is also crucial at safety and this was an area that Goldson struggled. Unsurprisingly, considering his grade, Goldson was graded negatively on twice as many plays as he was graded positively in the regular season. When he wasn’t making the big play, he was either anonymous or causing issues for the 49er defense. Most of the top safeties in the league find a way to contribute even from a deep spot in every single game while Goldson struggled to do this. His eight missed tackles, like much of the rest of his game, saw him rank around the middle of the league, far short of the league’s worst (Tanard Jackson) but also well short of a player like Danieal Manning who only missed two tackles all season. His discipline in terms of penalties was also subpar among safeties, with only eight collecting more than the four that he yielded.
The more you dig in to Goldson as a player the more you reveal an average safety, not one who takes a baseline of performance and sticks to it, rather one who fluctuates between good and bad and rounds as an average player–and this is nothing new for Goldson. In terms of his grade, 2011 was a step back from 2010 (-3.8 overall) but a further step forwards from a dreadful debut season as a starter in 2009 (-11.9). He has not graded positively for a season in coverage. At some point, the occasional glimmer of hope has to be outweighed by the overwhelming glut of average and bad games that he produces. At what point does upside start to count against a player as unfulfilled potential?
As soon as Goldson got that bizarre Pro Bowl nod, the 49ers surely would have known that Goldson’s long term contract demands would have been too rich for the player they know they have. At that point, the question becomes whether they have a suitable replacement on their roster and this is one regard in which the 49ers may have made a shrewd choice to keep around a known quantity.
Alongside Goldson in the San Francisco secondary, Donte Whitner was an undoubted success at strong safety in 2011 but the other safeties on the 49ers’ roster have proven in the past to not be capable of starting. Two other franchises benched and moved on from Madieu Williams and the 49ers would not really want to entertain the prospect of going back to him. As inconsistent as Goldson can be, Williams would be an unnecessary step back on the field for the financial saving of cutting ties with Goldson.
Outside of Williams the only other option would be Reggie Smith who came out of the University of Oklahoma as a halfway house between a safety and a corner and has struggled now for four years to find a home at either spot on the San Francisco defense. His only extended period as a starter in 2010 brought a slew of average games along with one awful game in coverage against Green Bay in Week 13. If the 49ers were to move on, clearly the replacement wouldn’t be found on their roster. If he was, then surely he would have seen at least some playing time in rotation with Goldson to ensure a seamless transition in 2012.
So the search would then advance to the draft and free agency. The 49ers in the past have not been averse to making a splash on safeties in the draft. They struck out on Taylor Mays, unfortunately for them, and with pressing needs on the offensive side with the need to upgrade at receiver and on the right side of the offensive line creating another need at free safety in the draft would have been unnecessary. Presuming they go offense early in the draft a mid- to low-round draft pick would be a very slow burn to replace Goldson.
That then leaves the 49ers looking to free agency for a replacement and the pickings here really are quite slim as well, made all that much slimmer by the 49ers neighbors across the bay tagging Tyvon Branch. If the 49ers had looked to move on they would be left hoping that players such as Thomas DeCoud, Reggie Nelson and Michael Griffin hit the open market with suitably lowered price tags to find a long term replacement for Goldson. Each of those come with their own question marks to put them not far ahead of Goldson in terms of long term prospects even though they all graded better than Goldson in 2011.
DeCoud you would be described as the definitive of a “Steady Eddie” at safety. You know exactly what you’ll get from him, nothing more and nothing less. He won’t give much away as a deep safety but he also won’t make much in the way of big plays either so if you’re looking to keep the big plays that Goldson is capable of then he’s not your guy. Nelson and Griffin are both capable of those big plays but each carries their own question marks and have never had an extended period of their career where they look like moving past these issues. Nelson is equally as likely to give up a big play as make one and does not fill particularly well against the run either. Griffin has never seen a play action fake that he didn’t want to bite on even when he has played behind good run stuffing front sevens he simply cannot help but poke his nose in to the box to sniff out a run that isn’t there. This has led to some truly baffling and catastrophic errors yielding the big plays that the 49ers do not want to give up and let up the pressure that the front seven builds on an opposing offense.
If you are looking to spend money on your free safety and lock him down for a number of years, do the available safeties on the market offer a great deal more than Goldson that they are worth the investment? They are better players but are they sufficiently so that they are worth the investment that you don’t seem Goldson to be worth?
Dashon Goldson’s chances of getting a new contract with the 49ers expired, ironically, as soon as he elected to the 2012 Pro Bowl. Agents spin Pro Bowl nominations in to big money contracts and Goldson’s play on the field simply isn’t worth a big money deal and the 49ers know that only too well. The saving grace for the 49ers though is that the franchise tags for safeties is one of the cheapest franchise tags and with no big name free agents hitting the open market this is a cheap way to keep hold of a known commodity.
Goldson’s level of play on the field is nothing to weep about if you lose him, but if he goes you would need to invest money and years to secure the position. The players available on the market are no more of a sure thing for quality play for the next four to five years than Goldson is, so deciding to keep Goldson on with the franchise tag is not the bizarre decision that it might appear to be on the surface. If you have the cap space (as the 49ers do), lack a readymade replacement on the roster or in free agency (as the 49ers are faced with), and want to keep a known quantity around, the 49ers could have done far worse than retain Goldson.
The franchise tag is merely semantics, Goldson is not the centerpiece of the 49ers’ franchise, team, defense, or even secondary, he is merely being retained on a one-year deal. This allows the 49ers to hold serve for another year at free safety before checking the lie of the land next offseason. Giving Goldson Pro Bowler money would have been a mistake. Giving him in excess of $6 million for one season might be a touch rich, but given the option of starting Madieu Williams, an unproven rookie, or paying an inconsistent free agent “Goldson’s money”, this move could turn out to be the lesser of three evils.
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