The 49ers may only dip a cautious toe into free-agency waters each offseason, but when it comes to pre-agency, they tend to cannonball into the deep end.
The week before the official start of free agency is a period when teams typically unload pricey or older veterans who then can be scooped up at relatively bargain prices. That’s what the 49ers did Thursday, first agreeing with ex-Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Darnell Dockett on a two-year deal, then signing troubled wide receiver Jerome Simpson on a two-year contract.
The brash and colorful Dockett, 33, spent the previous 11 seasons with the Cardinals and once loved to nettle 49ers players and fans on social media. On Thursday, however, he was full of praise for his new team and seemingly eager to face his old one.
“I gave the Arizona Cardinals two, three times to match the (49ers) offer,” Dockett told 910-AM radio in Phoenix. “When I did (wait for Arizona), I was willing to take less than San Fran offered.”
Dockett seemingly will slide into the role – left defensive end – Ray McDonald held the past four seasons. The 49ers cut McDonald in December after he became the subject of a police investigation for the second time in four months. The team also has not yet said whether right defensive end Justin Smith will return for a 15th season.
Dockett sat out the 2014 season after tearing his ACL in training camp. But he passed a physical with the 49ers and pronounced himself ahead of schedule as far as his recovery. He missed only two games in the 10 seasons before his knee injury.
Simpson, meanwhile, also missed the 2014 season but for non-medical reasons. He’s been a staple on police blotters in recent years, beginning in January 2012, when, while a member of the Cincinnati Bengals, he was arrested for having 21/2 pounds of marijuana sent to his home. He was sentenced to 15 days in jail and three years probation on a drug-related charge.
The next year, he was arrested on suspicion of DWI and later pleaded guilty to careless driving and refusal to submit to a breath test. In July, he was cited for violating a limited license, marijuana possession and open bottle after being pulled over in a traffic stop in Minnesota.
Earlier this offseason, team owner Jed York used “winning with class” as a mantra during a news conference about the parting with coach Jim Harbaugh. The concept, however, apparently won’t keep the 49ers from signing bargain-rate players in free agency.
The team has taken chances on other players with checkered pasts in recent offseasons, including a trio of cornerbacks – Perrish Cox, Eric Wright and Chris Cook. Cox, in particular, has made the most of his chance. He took over a starting role last season when Tramaine Brock was injured in Week 1 and led the 49ers with five interceptions.
He and Cook are both poised to become free agents next week, and both could be back with the team. Wright appeared in seven games for the 49ers in 2013 but retired the following year.
Simpson, meanwhile, could provide the 49ers’ offense with something absent in previous years – a wideout with deep speed. He ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine in 2008 and averaged more than 15 yards per catch in 2013 with Minnesota.
Said general manager Trent Baalke at the combine last month: “I think it’s no mystery we’re looking for guys that can run and get down the field.”
Because players such as Dockett and Simpson were available before the free-agency period begins Tuesday, they do not count against the 49ers when in comes to the formula for calculating next year’s compensatory draft picks.
In essence, a team is awarded compensatory picks if it loses more – and more expensive – free agents than it signs. The 49ers, for example, expect to be awarded two compensatory picks later this month based on last year’s free-agency period.
And they may not be finished shopping in pre-agency. Pass rusher Trent Cole, whom the Philadelphia Eagles cut Wednesday, reportedly has drawn their interest. Cole met with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday and was deciding which teams to visit next.