As expected, the 49ers did not use the franchise tag today, meaning that the top candidate for that designation - safety Dashon Goldson - is free to hit the open market beginning at 1 p.m. March 12.
Goldson was a free agent two years ago. He didn't find the riches he was seeking, however, and he returned to the 49ers on a modest, one-year deal that season. It's certainly possible he'll again find the market colder than expected. After all, the salary cap will rise by only a small percentage and the big pay days that free agents received in the past only have occurred for a few select players in recent years.
Then again, Goldson is in the prime of his career at age 28, has been healthy the last four seasons and is coming off two excellent campaigns. He has nine interceptions in the past two seasons and was voted to both the pro bowl and the All-Pro squad this past season. It's quite possible that Goldson, a fourth-round pick in 2007, has played his last snap for the 49ers.
If that's the case, who replaces him in the starting lineup? Here are the candidates:
C.J. Spillman. He is every bit as hard-hitting and aggressive as Goldson, and the 49ers have used him in goal-line and short-yardage situations the last two years. He got a lot of practice with the first-team defense in 2011 when Goldson was shopping himself in free agency and Reggie Smith was hurt. However, he lacks game-day experience and to this point has been more of a tackler/enforcer than a player who understands the nuances of coverage.
Darcel McBath. He's a restricted free agent this year who has a history with defensive backs coach Ed Donatell. McBath mostly was limited to special teams this year. But it's noteworthy that when Goldson had to briefly leave a game it was McBath who replaced him. The 49ers are likely to use the lowest-possible tender to retain McBath for one more season. He was a second-round pick by Denver in 2009.
Trenton Robinson. The team's 2012 sixth-round pick mostly spent his rookie campaign in learning mode. He garnered high praise from Jim Harbaugh at the scouting combine (Really, though, when has Harbaugh ever not dunked one of his players in praise) and showed a nose for the football at Michigan State. He's small for the position (5-9, 193), which would make for decidedly short safety tandem with Donte Whitner (5-10, 208).
Michael Thomas. Thomas spent the season on the 49ers practice squad but garnered interest from other squads by the end of the season. Like Robinson, Thomas is sub-6-foot, but as you would expect from a Stanford product, he's also very smart. Vic Fangio coached Thomas at Stanford and is fond of him
Other. The safety position is solid both in free agency and the draft, which perhaps is why the 49ers feel secure in allowing Goldson to test the open market. It includes one of the two best safeties in the last decade and a half, Baltimore's Ed Reed, as well as several college players expected to go in the first- or second-rounds like Texas' Kenny Vaccaro, LSU's Eric Reid, Florida's Matt Elam and South Carolina's D.J. Swearinger.
- Matt Barrows