Time To Spend Money on Defense
The knight in "Indiana Jones and the last crusade" was a smart man. "You must choose.....WISELY!" That phrase must be the philosophy that guides this new front office during free agency. Kyle Shanahan spoke during his press conference about not just doing things to do them. My interpretation, don't go out and spend a ton of money on players just because you have the financial resources to do it. I wholeheartedly agree. Don't be like the Washington Redskins of the late 90's and early 2000's. Signing the biggest names in free agency, just to make a splash. The players need to fit the culture. They need to make sense for a rebuilding franchise. That doesn't mean the 49ers should sit out of free agency like they have the past couple of years.
As of the moment I type this, the 49ers do not have a defensive coordinator. It is hard to project if they will run a 3-4 or 4-3 defensive front. The good news that most teams do not stay in their base defense very long. With the league being so pass happy, most teams employ an extra defensive back more times than not. So it does not matter which base defense they use. With that in mind, let's take a look at some players that should/could be targeted:
Defensive Tackle: As I have written previously, the 49ers are not void of talent on the defensive line. The focus should be surrounding DeForest Buckner with some help. Arik Amstead and Quinton Dial need to step up their production this year. If they do, there are plenty of options in free agency that can make this a pretty nice unit.
1.Johnathan Hankins - Hankins has the ability to play defensive tackle in a 4-3 or at the nose in a 3-4. He has had 3 very productive seasons (43 tackles and 3 sacks in 2016), albeit, his 2015 was cut short due to injury. He will only be 25 years old, so he would add another young piece to he defensive front. He won’t come cheap, but he also won’t break the bank either.
2. Terrell McClain - Injuries plagued McClain early in his career. Healthy last year, he was a disruptive force for the Cowboys. His presence would free up others to make plays in the front seven. He is 28 years old, so he should be productive for the foreseeable future. As long as he remains healthy.
3. Tyson Alualu - A return to the Bay would be a sweet homecoming for Alualu, who played his college football at Cal. While not the prototypical nose tackle, he can be a solid rotational defensive tackle. Considering his stats have never been eye-popping, don’t expect him to command a large contract.
Why didn’t I include Dontari Poe, Brandon Williams or Kawann Short? There are good reasons. Short will mostly likely be franchised by the Carolina Panthers. Thus removing him from the list. Williams, while a great player, is going to break the bank. Someone is going to overpay for the nose tackle from Baltimore. I’d prefer the 49ers allocate their funds elsewhere. Poe scares the hell out of me. No doubting his skills, but as a good friend has astutely pointed out, Poe seems content to get swallowed up by blocks at times. He is a very good, but not elite run stuffer. He will also be hamstrung by the fact that he is a 3-4 nose tackle only. If the 49ers employ a 3-4 base scheme, even 25% of the time, then Poe is a gigantic(no pun intended) waste of money. He will not provide enough value as he will only be on the field for a quarter of the defensive snaps.
Defensive End - Depending on how the 49ers line up, DeForest Buckner or Arik Amstead will man one of the defensive end spots. The other looks to be maned by Aaron Lynch. Lynch could be a very good pass rusher for the 49ers, but has never managed more than 6.5 sacks in a year. Those numbers have to increase. Unfortunately, this year is not the year to be in need of a true 4-3 defensive end. The free agent market is rather barren. Sure there are guys like DeMarcus Ware and Julius Peppers, but they aren’t exactly young, nor do I think they want to head to a rebuild. Fortunately, there are options in draft this year. That should be where the 49ers focus their efforts in this area.
Inside Linebacker - Luckily, there are a few really good players in free agency that would be welcome additions to the 49ers.
1. Zack Brown - No, not the band that makes people long for toes in the water, ass in the sand and a cold beer in my hand. The do-it-all linebacker from Buffalo. Think NaVorro Bowman before the injuries. He is a playmaker and is talented enough to man the middle in a 4-3 or inside in a 3-4. This is one time I would be willing to splurge and spend what it takes to land Brown. He instantly makes your run and pass defense better.
2. Malcolm Smith - I know, I know. All you can remember is Smith ending the 49ers chances at a Super Bowl trip with an interception in the NFC Championship against the Seahawks. But hear me out, the kid can play. He make not be the prototype, but he has put up very nice numbers in Oakland. He is also versatile enough to play outside in coverage. He is going to want a nice payday, but it shouldn’t be a cost prohibitive deal.
3. Manti Te’o - Ok. Get it out of your system. Laugh about the catfish hoax that was played on him. Poke fun at the girlfriend who ultimately did not exist. Are you done now?! Te’o would supply very nice depth to the inside linebacker group. He is coming off an injury which ended his 2016 campaign in week 3. He doesn’t wow you with his size, but he plays with fire and energy. He would be an instant upgrade over the current backup inside linebackers.
Outside Linebacker - This position is flush with talent this free agency period. Luckily, most of these players can play that hybrid outside linebacker/pass rushing defensive end. The “Elephant” position that made Charles Haley a Hall of Fame player.
1. Chandler Jones - If you want a backup the Brinks truck for anyone, this might be the guy. He has averaged around 9.5 sacks per year for his career. He is young and signing him would hurt a divisional rival in Arizona. He is going to command one the largest contracts this free agency period. Like Alshon Jeffery on offense, the risk might be worth the reward.
2. Lorenzo Alexander - Yes, he is 33, has really only been a special teams standout, and is a one year wonder as a pass rusher(12.5 last year in Buffalo), but he went to Cal, and should be a relatively inexpensive signing. If you can get him on the cheap, he would be worth the investment. Worst case, he would help the special teams unit.
Cornerback - There are plenty of young players in the free agent market. Not many really stand out as difference making, shutdown corners. Stephon Gilmore fits that mold, but the 49ers are not in a position of desperation here. With Jimmie Ward, Rashard Robinson, Tramaine Brock and Will Redmond, the 49ers should focus on inexpensive depth if they can. There is not one player currently that I think the 49ers should go after.
Safety - Eric Reid should have one safety position secured. Jaquiski Tartt seems the likely successor at the strong safety position as Antonie Bethea's status with the team is an unknown given that his production and age
does not match his cap number. This is a position I think the 49ers should address in the draft. Jamal Adams is a draft crush of mine, and someone the 49ers should seriously consider at the 2nd overall pick. But that is another article for another day. If the 49ers don’t feel comfortable with Tartt, they do have a couple of options.
1. T.J. McDonald - The son of 49ers great Tim McDonald, it would be nice to add a legacy player, who would also hurt another division rival in the LA Rams. While not the playmaker his father was, he is very solid in run support and is solid enough in coverage. He would add athleticism to the secondary.
2. Johnathan Cyprien - When you think of a true strong safety, this is it. Cyprien finally played to the level of his 2nd round draft status in 2013. His 127 tackles were a career high, but he has only managed 2 interceptions since entering the league. The concern here is that he posted a career year right before free agency. If the 49ers were to offer a contract, it would have to be a team friendly deal