Goldson: Worth Gold?

This week I’m going to tackle perhaps the biggest remaining burning issue of the 49ers offseason – contract issues surrounding one of our players, Dashon Goldson. Why is he such an issue? First of all, a little background. Those of you who watched the team last year will know that there is no doubt that one of the main reasons, if not the main reason, for success last year was the 49ers defense. Without going into stats, because that’s not really my thing, it’s pretty obvious that the success of the team was in large part down to the ability of the D to force turnovers and keep the scores down, thereby meaning that the O, regardless of how much of an ‘off day’ it was having, was capable of winning the game. One particular example would be the comeback win in Philly, where some serious hard work by the D, and a couple of turnovers, helped us to victory. As far as Goldson goes, he’s clearly a key member of the defensive unit. This, however, wasn’t always the case.

Goldson joined the team when he was originally selected in the 4th round of the 2007 NFL draft, as a raw converted CB out of Washington. After much work on his position, despite the awful coaching staff, and a few years of sitting behind Mark Roman (what humiliation),  he finally grabbed the starting job in 2009, with 2 years remaining on his rookie deal (keep this in mind, it’s important). He went on to have a pretty good season that year, in spite of the team being relatively average. Thus, Goldson headed into a contract year in 2010 with a lot of leverage, and a solid year behind him. The 49ers were attempting to sign him to a new deal around this time, however, with his agent being Drew Rosenhaus (yes, he of ‘next question’), no progress was really made. Possibly for this reason, or maybe a ‘sophomore slump’ (yes, I know he wasn’t a rookie in 2009, but it was his first year as a full-time starter), his 2010 season wasn’t the greatest, marred with inconsistent play and boneheaded errors (I certainly know that I found him one of the most frustrating players to watch in that season). It’s fair to point out that his loss of form also coincided with the team as a whole’s decline under the death rattle of Mike Singletary’s tenure.

However, with a regime change undergone with the hiring of Jim Harbaugh and promotion of Trent Baalke, I’m guessing that not many 49ers fans would’ve been sorry to see him leave. Once again, despite the 49ers showing willingness to spend money to lock up Ray McDonald amongst others, a deal couldn’t be reached with Goldson (it’s unknown how much effort was made). Thus, free agency beckoned for Goldson, and after a short free-agency tour (during which he was reputedly looking for Eric Weddle type money – yes, even after that season) which yielded no results beyond a short visit with the New England Patriots (and as we know, they always splash the cash…), he signed to a 1-year, $3 million deal with the 49ers. We all know what happened this year – partnering with Donte Whitner, himself paid decent money from the Buffalo Bills, Goldson formed the backbone of a talented D, riding all the way to the NFC Championship game and his first Pro Bowl.

Of course, having upped his value with a blockbuster bounce back season, there’s a pretty obvious problem – the player’s already-high opinion of his value has gone up even further. The 49ers struggled to meet his lower demands a year ago, so it was not a great surprise, following more failed attempts to agree a long-term deal, when the player was franchise-tagged, and even less of a surprise when the deadline for a long-term deal passed without a new deal being agreed. However, if he has a good year under the tag, it’s quite likely that contract negotiations will be revisited when allowed – e.g at the end of the season – and attempts to reach a new deal will continue. After recent signings, such as Michael Griffin (5yr/35m) and the aforementioned Eric Weddle (5yr/40m), it’s clear that the market has been set, with rumours of Goldson wanting on or around the same amount of money as in those two big deals. The question the 49ers – and I – have to answer is – is he worth it?

Of course, the ultimate decision lies with football minds far more qualified than myself, but having watched Goldson for 3 years now, it’s clear that there has been great progress made. A raw, frustrating player in the embryonic stages of his career, fans like me finally saw what Goldson was capable of in last year’s playoff run. He took a step up from borderline starter to top-level starter, and became a vocal, hard-hitting leader of the defense – indeed, last year was his best statistical season in terms of pass deflections and interceptions. With that kind of progress visible, it’s hard to buck against the trend that the likes of the Titans with Griffin and the Chargers with Weddle have followed – signing a player reaching their prime to a long-term deal. In addition, it’s hard to support the possible breaking up of an elite defensive unit. I talked last week about ‘windows’ for a Superbowl run. Letting a player like Goldson go, especially when the D appears to be reaching the top of its form, would not so much slam the window entirely shut, but it may certainly reduce it in size and time, especially when considering how long it took Goldson to reach his peak – would a replacement take the same amount of time to blossom, thereby meaning the likes of Justin Smith and Isaac Sopoaga would have passed their peak and/or left the squad?

Compounding the problem is the lack of safety depth on the roster. It was originally planned that Reggie Smith would be his eventual replacement, but he bolted for Carolina. Taylor Mays was (rightly) traded, and several others bolted. At present, the 3rd safety on the team is CJ Spillman, and I’m glad at this point that mainly 49ers fans will read this column, as I’m relatively sure no one else is going to know who he is. Essentially, he is a special teams player – a very good one, though – and not a starting NFL safety. Perhaps seeing this problem, Baalke did add Trenton Robinson in the draft, but he is only a 6th round pick and incredibly raw. Any arguments of adding depth or a new starter in next years draft (assuming Goldson plays under the one-year tender) fall down under the same assumptions. With no replacements, it’s a kind of necessity that Goldson is kept around in the short-term, and with his talent level and seemingly no development of a replacement, it may become one in the long-term too.

On the other hand, how vital is Goldson? While there are a number of free safeties being paid top whack money in the NFL, there’s easily an argument that Goldson doesn’t fit into these brackets. For example, while he had a good season last year, his previous NFL path has been up-and-down to say the least. As explained, 2009, his first season as a starter, was good, but 2010 was average, hence the lack of interest when he originally entered onto the free agency market, culminating in that climb-down, and the one year deal that leaves he and the 49ers in this situation now. As explained above, he may be hitting his peak, as 2011 was his best season yet, but looking at his stats compared to the people whos numbers he’s chasing (Griffin and Weddle), at the top end, i.e his 2011 season, he can compete with them and may well best them, but in terms of overall consistency over the lifetime of his deal, he lags behind, especially with Michael Griffin.

This begs the question if Goldson’s only motivation is his contract, knowing he would be headed into free-agency after this year. If so, does the franchise tag demotivate him, and do we see a decline in performance, as with when a long-term deal wasn’t reached before the 2010 season? That’s a question only he can answer, and frankly, one that we’ll pretty soon find out about, what with opening the season against the Packers along with the Lions. He will be tested early, and tested often. To justify a big contract, he has to ease the fears I suspect Baalke and I share – that he’s a ‘contract year wonder’ who will chase the contract, get it, then settle back having taken the money and force us to suffer a huge decline in performance. Also, for all the talk about lack of depth, it’s a little hard to tell what depth there is until it gets its chance. That one will also be down to Harbaugh and Baalke at the end of the year.

In summation, it’s a tough decision on whether Goldson is worth the money, contingent on a lot of non-visible factors. However, while writing, I’ve noticed how much I’ve talked about things other than Goldson in this column – external factors such as the lack of safety depth, desire to keep the unit together, etc. It appears to me that a lot of the reasons for wanting to keep him around are fear of the unknown – a new defensive unit, lack of experience at safety, worries about a replacement, and so on. These, with the greatest of respect, aren’t really our problem, and fear of the unknown should not necessarily mean that something average is kept around at a high price – that’s how contenders become pretenders. Thus, if Harbaugh/Baalke decides that the team should move on, then we have to respect that, show a little faith, and realise that we must have a replacement in mind.

In addition, it’s become clear to me during the writing of this column, particularly with the slant I gave a lot of the points I made, that I really don’t believe that Dashon Goldson is either a top safety, or deserves top safety money. That said, if a reasonable compromise can be reached, I’d be more than happy to keep him around. At his present level, however, barring another consistent superstar season (in which case the Niners would certainly pony up), I see him in a different uniform come next year’s big kick-off. It’s also quite likely in the current situation that any contract he would get as a free agent will be of a value much higher than his true value, struck by some desperate team looking for star power and big-name signings. In other words, not too much unlike the kind of deal that the 49ers used to strike when in the NFL doldrums (Nate Clements, Michael Lewis, I’m looking at you). That’s a relic of the past, of the cellar-dwelling 49ers, and will not happen again under the new regime of Trent Baalke. Ending on the news that Goldson has signed his franchise tender and reported to camp, an interesting year beckons, and hopefully a good one for the 49ers.

Until next time. Your reading and feedback is, as always, appreciated.

The Pundit of 49ersNews. I do what I can to supply the Niner fans with their fix.