Saints their own worst enemy in defeat

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Saints their own worst enemy in defeat

BOX SCORE

SAN FRANCISCO -- The finality floated through the New Orleans locker room like a bad smell or, like a bad dream.Twice, the Saints' high-octane had put wooden stakes straight through the hearts of the 49ers. Late in the fourth quarter. And twice the 49ers pulled them out, licked them and threw them to the side."It's hard when you get that close and all of a sudden it slips away," said Saints coach Sean Payton. "It's difficult."49ers, 36. Saints, 32. But that only told part of the story.Because as the finality came to fruition for the Saints, it was especially hard to take for their record-setting quarterback. Consider: in 16 regular-season games, New Orleans lost five fumbles. Total. Against the 49ers, they lost three fumbles. And Drew Brees was picked off twice."The fact that we could turn the ball over five times and still have a chance to win is remarkable," said Brees, combing the ruins of the Saints' latest underachieving finish for something, anything positive to get him through the flight home."(The 49ers have) a big, tough physical defense and after you make a catch, they light you up."Indeed. But be sure of this -- the Saints were their own uncharacteristic worst enemy on a day in which they twice seemed to overcome their own ineptitude. Mind you, winning the turnover battle was seen as the only way the 49ers could compete with Brees, who threw for an NFL single season-record 5,476 yards this season.And the Saints obliged with four turnovers in the first half alone. And yet, New Orleans trailed by just three points at the half, 17-14."We were fortunate, honestly," Payton said.But it was who was lost for the game on the Saints' first turnover that hurt them most of all. Running back Pierre Thomas took a nasty hit to the head from Donte Whitner after catching a pass and lost the ball at the 49ers' 2-yard line.That it was on the Saints' first drive of the day only heightened the loss. And the lost opportunity to score first. Because if New Orleans cuts through the 49ers' vaunted defense like a hot knife through a fresh beignet on their first possession, we're looking at a totally different game.Yet while New Orleans is already one-dimensional, having little to no threat of a running game allowed the 49ers' front seven to simply pin back their ears and go.And stillBrees threw for 462 yards while completing 40 of 63 passes with four touchdowns and two interceptions.He hit Darren Sproles with a 44-yard catch-and-run touchdown that gave the Saints, who trailed 17-0 at one point, their first lead of the day at 24-23 with 4:02 to play."I think we got too excited," said Sproles, who caught a playoff-record 15 passes. "We didn't think that they could score like that, but they did. They proved us all wrong."Then, after Alex Smith answered with a 28-yard TD run, Brees found Jimmy Graham across the middle for a 66-yard score with 97 seconds to play. The ensuing two-point conversion put the Saints up 32-29."We have done it time and time again in close games," Graham said, "with just a little bit of time on the clock. You give Drew the ball late in the game like that, he is going to drive down the fieldunfortunately, it didn't get us the win."Not when Alex Smith engineered an 85-yard scoring drive, culminating with "The Grab" from Vernon Davis with nine seconds to play."We traded punches all day long," Brees said.The 49ers landed the last haymaker, though, and the Saints coughed the ball up enough to get knocked out.That whole finality thing?"You go from thinking about the NFC championship," Brees said, "and all of a sudden you're going home and there no more football until next year."

49ers extend one-year qualifying offers to Purcell, Bradford

49ers extend one-year qualifying offers to Purcell, Bradford

The 49ers on Monday extended one-year qualifying offers to nose tackle Mike Purcell and linebacker Carl Bradford as exclusive-rights free agents.

Purcell appeared in 15 games last season. He started the first five games of the season at nose tackle and was a reserve for the remainder of the season. Originally signed in 2013 as an undrafted rookie from Wyoming, Purcell has appeared in 25 games over the past three seasons.

The 49ers claimed Bradford off waivers in December from the Green Bay Packers. He appeared in the final two games of the season with the 49ers and was credited with two tackles.

Bradford entered the NFL out of Arizona State as a fourth-round pick of the Packers in 2014. After being inactive for every game as a rookie, Bradford was among Green Bay’s final cuts in 2015. He spent the season on the practice squad.

He appeared in four games for the Packers last year. The 49ers claimed him after he was waived in December.

Exclusive rights free agents are player who have fewer than three years of NFL service who have no outside negotiating power if a team extends a qualifying offer.

Mailbag: Which 49ers vets are on shaky ground?

Mailbag: Which 49ers vets are on shaky ground?

The 49ers’ new regime heads to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis this week with the first major wave of offseason activity set to kick off.

Already, the 49ers have made roster improvements. And there figure to be plenty of activity ahead in the coming weeks.

Here are some questions submitted by readers on Facebook for this edition of 49ers Mailbag:

Do you see the 49ers cutting ties with larger contracts like Bethea, Torrey Smith and Ahmad Brooks?‬ (Blair Wilkins)
The 49ers have approximately $75 million in space under the salary cap – and that’s before any adjustment of Colin Kaepernick’s contract. So it’s not as if the organization needs to create cap room.

Any decision made to part ways with veteran players will be made solely on how that player fits into what the 49ers envision on the field.

And that’s what general manager John Lynch, coach Kyle Shanahan and his staff are doing now. They are studying the video from last season to determine which players fit their ideals.

Safety Antoine Bethea is scheduled to earn $5.75 million. Bethea, 32, enters the final year of his contract. There is no question he is everything the 49ers want in a player off the field. If one of the younger guys is not better than Bethea, there is no reason to get rid of him.

Brooks is on the books to earn $5.3 million in 2017. That’s not a huge amount for a starting outside linebacker or defensive end – whichever spot he might fit best. The 49ers must look to upgrade their pass rush. Brooks turns 33 next month. He’s good for six sacks a season. Again, it’s not as if the 49ers can’t afford him. And, as of now, it’s not as if the 49ers have anyone better.

Smith is scheduled to earn $8 million. He has been vastly underutilized in his two seasons since signing with the 49ers. He’s the most interesting case of the high-priced veterans.

Kyle Shanahan’s offense is predicated on using the running game to set up the play-action shot down the field. Smith is limited. He’s not a possession receiver. He’s not going to make plays over the middle. He is an outside receiver whose contributions come in the vertical passing game. But that’s what Shanahan wants.

If Smith is paired with a strong tight end, a running back who catch the ball out of the backfield, a slot receiver with short-area quickness to get open underneath, a very good receiver on the other side and an accurate quarterback who can throw the deep ball, there should be a role for Smith in the 49ers’ offense.

Will the 49ers continue to be aggressive pursuing free agents this offseason? If so, what positions?‬ (Bradley Lodge)
The 49ers have zeroed in on two veteran free agents and they signed them both.

The organization has already spent more money than it did all of last offseason on veteran free agency with the four-year, $16 million deal to sign defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, whom the Miami Dolphins recently released.

Nickel back K’Waun Williams has a history with 49ers defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley. The 49ers did not have to make much of a financial investment to sign him.

The 49ers will definitely go after a veteran quarterback or two in free agency or via trade. Pass rusher, inside linebacker and wide receiver are other positions the 49ers can be expected to look during free agency.

The opening of the new league year – when free-agent signings and trades can occur – is March 9. The draft is seven weeks later.

The 49ers must fill as many of their needs with smart deals that fit into the long-term plan with veteran acquisitions. Then, the draft is about taking the best players on their board when it’s time to select. Teams that reach for need generally strike out.

What are the chances of drafting a QB with first pick and playing them behind a Kap / Cousins until they're ready to become starter?‬ (Hillory Broussard)
If Colin Kaepernick returns, it will not be as a no-questions-asked starter. Just read what Lynch said on KNBR this week about the team’s needs:

“Do we have some places – probably the ultimate position, quarterback – where we need to improve? Absolutely. And we’re committed to doing that.”

That statement can easily be interpreted that Lynch does not believe the 49ers had a starting-caliber quarterback on the roster last season.

But if the 49ers were to go out and swing a trade for Kirk Cousins or Jimmy Garoppolo, it’s going to take a big commitment – in terms of draft picks and a suitable new contract. Then, the 49ers would have that player.

Cousins or Garoppolo would unquestionably fill the 49ers’ need at quarterback for 2017 and beyond -- at least in the minds of the 49ers' new decision-makers. There would be no reason for the 49ers to then draft a quarterback with the No. 2 overall pick – if the 49ers even had the No. 2 overall pick at that point.