An air-tight case for Nnamdi Asomugha
By Mike Sando
San Francisco should build their defense around free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.
The San Francisco 49ers should throw suitcases filled with cash at Nnamdi Asomugha, the Oakland Raiders' perennial Pro Bowl cornerback, the minute NFL free agency finally begins.
There, I said it. Finally.
More than once I've used this space to awaken wishful fans from their Asomugha free-agency dreamlands.
Followers of the 49ers have proven particularly indulgent, and why not? Luring one of the game's elite corners across the Bay from the Raiders would qualify as a victory sweeter than just about any the team has enjoyed on the field in recent seasons.
That isn't a slap at the 49ers, either. Asomugha is that good -- as a player, of course, and as the type of person organizations build around.
But how likely are the 49ers -- ever confident in their personnel if they could only settle on the right coach/quarterback combination -- to break from their recent offseason restraint? Not very, it seems, and recent events validate that feeling.
General manager Trent Baalke went on the record this week lowering expectations for the 49ers in free agency, all but dousing fans' hopes for Asomugha by saying the team would lay low again this offseason. Team president Jed York seconded those comments.
They should make an exception for Asomugha. Let's count the reasons why:
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Cornerback Nate Clements' production doesn't merit the salary he is being paid.
The 49ers need a cornerback. Let's begin where it matters most: on the field. Veteran Nate Clements' contract has become untenable from cash and salary-cap standpoints. He'll need to take a pay reduction or the 49ers will release him. Clements has been generally solid for the 49ers and better than his harshest critics would suggest, but not good enough to justify his salary at this point. And the 49ers' pass defense has struggled by almost every measure, including one explored recently on the blog: Opponents posted a 118.4 passer rating when the 49ers sent five or more pass-rushers on first-and-10, up from 82.8 against four or fewer pass-rushers." The blitzes were effective when the 49ers produced sacks, but not when their secondary had to hold up with diminished resources. All the more reason to sign Asomugha.
The 49ers need a stadium. The 49ers made a splash earlier this offseason when they signed coach Jim Harbaugh to a five-year deal worth a reported $25 million. That was a flashy move and one the 49ers executed amid skepticism. Hiring a hot coaching candidate with strong ties to the Bay Area promised to give the 49ers some momentum in their continuing push to draw support for a new stadium. Landing Asomugha, a Cal graduate and the NFL's Man of the Year in 2009, would again demonstrate to fans the 49ers' seriousness about delivering a product worth their investment. How could anyone reasonably question the 49ers' credibility after landing Harbaugh and Asomugha in the same offseason?
The Charles Woodson effect applies. Asomugha turned 30 recently, so age could become a concern. But I also think Asomugha fits the Woodson profile closely enough to remain an effective defensive back as he ages, whether at corner or safety or a combination of the two. The NFL lists Asomugha at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, an inch taller and eight pounds heavier that Woodson. Woodson spent eight seasons with Oakland, collecting only one pick in each of his final two seasons there, before reemerging as an interception machine after moving to Green Bay. Asomugha has one pick in each of his last three seasons with Oakland. What's to say he couldn't return to his ball-hawking ways elsewhere?
The fit is a good one. The 49ers' new defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio, sought to build around a cornerback (Dunta Robinson) and a pass-rusher (Jason Babin) during his early years with the Houston Texans. The 49ers used their first-round pick this year for a pass-rusher. Asomugha would give Fangio the cornerback to build around.
Now, back to reality. The 49ers keep saying they won't become big players in free agency, and recent history makes them credible on the subject. They spent big for Clements and Justin Smith when they thought the roster needed serious patching. They've since pulled back, focusing more on re-signing their own top players.
Then again, the 49ers in general and Baalke in particular seemed to revel in keeping the team's draft plans secret this year. Few thought the 49ers would use the seventh overall choice for Missouri's Aldon Smith, and when they did, Baalke embraced a question about whether he took pride in keeping mock drafters off their trail.
"I think we take pride in the fact that there was no discussion outside of our own building," Baalke told reporters at the time, "and that says a lot about the quality of the people inside our building, that this stuff doesn’t get out."
If the 49ers plan to pursue Asomugha, they've done a phenomenal job hiding their intentions -- and a better job in assessing what they need as they build their roster and seek to get a new stadium built as well.