One of the first dominoes to fall in free agency, was the news that the San Francisco 49ers had signed former Washington Redskins wideout Pierre Garcon. The 9ers receiving corps was the worst unit in football in 2016, so new coach Kyle Shanahan needed to add anyone he could in order to run his offensive scheme.
The move on the surface wasn’t really met with much ridicule, Garcon is still a capable player who had his best ever year under Kyle Shanahan in 2013 when he got 1300 yards and five touchdowns. Garcon is a physical mismatch for the majority of defensive backs, and it was vital that he was picked up.
It has been reported by Chris Mortensen, that Garcon is set to make $16 million in his first season in San Francisco. If this holds true, then it will make him the second highest paid receiver in the League next year, behind only Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Whilst this statistic is skewed by the fact that many of the elite receivers still haven’t signed a new contract under the new cap, it is clear that Garcon is earning a premium amount of money alongside players he isn’t as good as.
This figure, caused many people, including journalists, to laugh off the Pierre Garcon contract. Some saw it as a desperation buy, and a sign that John Lynch isn’t ready to become a General Manager. Many pointed to the fact that Garcon wasn’t a number one target at any point of his career, and that this gross overpay could seriously hurt San Francisco in the future.
To me, this analysis is unfair, and blinded by a short-term view. Whilst Garcon’s money is huge, this is a move that has the potential to make the team a lot better in the short term. This will in turn make them a more attractive free agency destination in the future.
Kyle Shanahan’s offence is all about creating physical mismatches against the defence. While this isn’t exactly a revolutionary concept, Shanahan lines his players up in such a way that they attack their opponents ‘weakest’ player. This doesn’t necessarily mean the worst player, but the player that is the worst matchup for a specific offensive player. For example, in the regular season matchup against the Seattle Seahawks, Kyle Shanahan targeted the Seahawks run stuffing linebackers by lining up tight ends against them and playing out of play action. The results led to a fight on the Seahawks sideline between Richard Sherman and Kris Richard, who were both exposed by Shanahan in a way.
The 49ers roster of 2016 had no player who could provide a mismatch on anyone. Jeremy Kerley is a fine slot receiver, but that is about as far as his skill set goes. Torrey Smith only runs routes that simply aren’t a part of Kyle Shanahan’s playbook, and don’t even get me started on Vance McDonald or Bruce Ellington.
Whilst Garcon is in no way a top five receiver, hell, he might not even be a top 20 receiver, he is a guy who can perform a huge role for Kyle Shanahan. Garcon stands at six feet, and he is a guy who can play nearly anywhere on the field. Shanahan likes to stretch teams horizontally and although Garcon doesn’t necessarily do this with speed, he does it with versatility. He can play on the outside and match up against corners, but he also has enough speed and good enough route running to be able to outwit safeties and linebackers.
It is important that a rebuild shows some signs of progress, even if this doesn’t necessarily translate into wins. Pierre Garcon is a player who allows Shanahan to run his system, and it is for this reason that the signing should be praised to at least some extent.
To critics of the signing, I question what the alternative was. Sure, they could have gone for Alshon Jeffery, but if he wants out of a half-rebuild in Chicago, why would he have joined a full-scale rebuild in San Francisco? The 9ers could have used a high pick on a wide receiver, but draft capital is somewhat overvalued, as even with excellent scouts, a draft pick being a success is never a sure thing.
When this is coupled with the fact that the 49ers need to build a new defence in a new scheme, the move to fix the receiving corps in free agency makes a lot more sense. The contract may hurt them at some point in the future, but they may be at a point in a couple of years where it doesn’t really matter.
When hiring an offensive coach, you have to try and surround them with players who can run their scheme, and for a scheme as succesful as Shanahan’s, these players come at a hefty price unless you luck out in the draft.
From a purely financial point of view, the decision to front-load the contract makes a great deal of sense. The 49ers need to reach the cap floor, and they are also paying higher now as this is when Garcon will be most valuable. He isn’t a guy who will necessarily decline, but he will likely only be able to be a WR1 in the 9ers for system for one or two seasons.
San Francisco had to overpay for Garcon, but he is a player who will take the pressure off some of the younger players they will probably end up adding to their roster in the draft and over the rest of the Off season. He is a player who can have an offence run through him, and Shanahan will be happy that he has a genuine target to work with.