Niners Columnist Kyle Stack’s Interview with Football Outsiders Writer Ben Riley

The 49ers have been very active in free agency as they continue to reshape their team into a playoff contender. 49ersgab.com talked to Football Outsiders writer Ben Riley for his thoughts on the organization’s quarterback competition, their recent free-agent signings and more.

49ersGab: With the organization’s investment of time and money into Alex Smith, is the starting quarterback battle between him and Shaun Hill sincerely split or will the organization give Smith every opportunity to win the job?

Ben Riley: One of the first things you learn in Economics 101 is the concept of “sunk cost,” that is, a cost already incurred that cannot be recovered no matter what happens in the future. Say your girlfriend buys you $500 nonrefundable, nonscalpable tickets to the opera. Unfortunately for you, the opera is the same night as the NFL draft. So even though you grumble and moan and it kills you to do it, you decide to go to the opera because, hey, your girlfriend spent the $500 and it would be a shame to let it go to waste, right?

Wrong. You don’t “earn” your $500 back by going to the opera. Your girlfriend’s already bought the ticket — the cost is “sunk” — and all you need to evaluate, all you should be evaluating, is whether you’ll have more fun dressing up in a suit to watch some fat woman yodel for three hours, or curling up with a cold one and listening to Mel Kiper yammer for 16 hours. I mean, it’s not even close.

With that economics lesson in mind, in theory the amount the 49ers are paying Alex Smith is a “sunk” cost that should have nothing to do with whether he starts over Shaun Hill. In reality, many people don’t think like economists, and that may include the 49ers office that — for reasons that aren’t quite clear to me — just renewed a multi-million dollar investment in what looks very much like a bust of a first-round pick. Does that mean Smith has the inside track? I doubt it, because Mike Nolan knows that he doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for Smith to figure out the NFL — if the Niners don’t turn things around, Nolan’s gone at the end of the year, and he knows it. So I think it’ll be a legitimate camp battle.

Gab: Will Isaac Bruce make Hill or Smith that much more comfortable throwing the ball?

Riley: Bruce is on the downside of his career and the wrong side of 35, yet arguably he’s the best wide receiver on the 49ers roster at present. That tells you more about the Niners wide receiving corps than the skills of Bruce. And I’m not sure what comfort it will be for Hill or Smith to see him blanketed downfield by the opposing team’s best cornerback.

Gab: As offensive coordinator of the Detroit Lions last year, Mike Martz presided over an offense that threw the ball 587 times, versus 285 rushes from its running backs. With Martz as the 49ers’ OC this year, how will this commitment to the passing game affect Frank Gore‘s production? And how will Martz implement DeShaun Foster into the gameplan?

Riley: Sticking with that same theme, you’ve got to remember that Martz had Roy Williams, Calvin Johnson, Shaun McDonald and Mike Furrey to play with in Detroit. The man may love to pass but who does he think is going to stretch the field? Darrell Jackson? And before you say “Vernon Davis” bear in mind Martz has never really known how to use tight ends, perhaps because they require him to think about foreign topics such as “blocking” and “running.”

So I think Frank Gore will feature heavily in the Martz offense, because he’s the 49ers’ best player and he can catch the ball out of the backfield. Unfortunately, he’s also starting to remind me of Fragile Fred Taylor, The Early Years and I think that’s why Foster’s been brought on board — he’s a backup and occasional spot-relief guy, nothing more (unless and until Gore goes down with the seemingly inevitable injury.)

Gab: Will the offensive line improve this year? Or will the losses of Larry Allen and Justin Smiley be too much to overcome?

Riley: Larry Allen hit the wall last year, but Smiley’s departure will hurt. Hard to see how this unit can improve, particularly since it usually takes one or two years for a guard to develop in the NFL after being drafted.

Gab: Switching to defense, in what ways will Justin Smith improve the unit? Is he worth the financial gamble, with $20 million of his $45 million contract guaranteed?

Riley: He will improve the unit by giving the 49ers a semblance of a pass rush that was nonexistent last year. He’s not injury prone and the 49ers have (or had) a ton of cap space, so I think this is a great fit.

Gab: Have the 49ers done enough thus far this offseason to feel comfortable about their roster heading into the draft?

Riley: How can you feel comfortable with the wide receiving corps? The holes in the offensive line? The “quarterback battle” between two guys who might not even be worthy of being backups? The problem is that there are so many questions at so many critical areas that even a series of great free agency signings couldn’t be expected to address all the issues. But new GM Scott McCloughlan is off to a rough start (apart from Smith).

Gab: Which positions should the 49ers target with their first three picks? Any players whom you think would make a good fit?

Riley: I think I just answered this question, though I doubt they’ll take a quarterback. Every team needs a dominant defensive tackle, and the Niners don’t have one, so that’s another possibility.

Gab: With all of this said, is Mike Nolan the coach who can take the 49ers back to the playoffs?

Riley: No. But the problem isn’t the head coach — it’s the owner(s), and I’m afraid things are going to get worse before they get better. (Who am I kidding — I’m a Seahawks fan, so I’m not afraid at all!)

A big thanks to Ben Riley (despite his fanaticism for the Seahawks) of Football Outsiders for his insight

Stay tuned to 49ersgab.com for more 49ers news and notes.

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