The 49ers are coming off the most exciting 6-10 season in team history; a season that had a nine-game losing streak, a five-game winning streak and an NFL record five consecutive losses by three points or less. Defensively, the team finished in the bottom third of the league in points allowed, yards allowed, pass yards allowed and rush yards allowed. Offensively the team was not much better; despite finishing in the top half of the league in yards per game (12th) and pass yards per game (9th) the team ranked just 20th in points scored with 20.7 per game. Even though the team finished on a five-game winning streak there is a lot that needs to improve if the team is to take the next step in to contention, and the expectations for the club, heading in to 2018, are high but are they realistic? Free agency, the draft and OTAs have all concluded, so where does the team stand heading into training camp?
The Free Agents
The 49ers came into free agency with the second highest amount of salary cap space in the NFL and quickly acted on their highest off-season priority, re-signing Jimmy Garoppolo. Despite making Garoppolo the highest paid player in the league (at the time of signing), the Niners did not spend money like a drunken sailor on shore leave. The front office clearly had specific targets in mind and acted quickly to upgrade several areas of need. Center Weston Richburg and running back Jerick McKinnon were added to the offense which looks to improve upon last year’s 21st ranked rushing attack. Former first-round pick Jonathan Cooper will be in the mix for the starting right guard position as the team continues to look for players that fit in Kyle Shanahan’s outside zone running scheme. The team also added guard/center Mike Person who played under Shanahan in Atlanta. Arguably the second biggest off-season signing (after Garoppolo) was cornerback Richard Sherman. The hope is that Sherman, who is coming off two off-season surgeries, can return to the level that made him one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Sherman will also provide a measure of veteran leadership for a young secondary and the defense as a whole. The 49ers added Jeremiah Attaochu, formerly of the Chargers, to the defensive line and Korey Toomer as depth in the linebacker corps.
The 49ers added twenty-two rookies via the draft and as undrafted free agents. While most of the rookies will be fighting to make the practice squad or to catch the eye of one of the other 31 teams in the league, a few are expected to make immediate contributions. First-round pick Mike McGlinchey will be the new starter at right tackle (replacing Trent Brown) and is a much better fit for the outside zone running scheme. Second-round pick Dante Pettis will add depth to the wide receiver group and could be an under-the-radar weapon in the passing game and on special teams. After Pettis, the team went defense with their next six picks. BYU linebacker Fred Warner has the best chance to push for a starting spot on defense at either the middle or weakside linebacker spots.
The other members of this year’s draft class add depth and need time to develop. Tarvarius Moore, a third-round pick from Southern Mississippi, has the physical tools and size defensive coordinator Robert Saleh covets but is making the transition from safety to cornerback. Defensive lineman Kentavius Street (4th round, N.C. State) will get a redshirt year as he recovers from a torn ACL and defensive backs D.J. Reed (5th round, Kansas State) and Marcell Harris (6th round, Florida) will compete for back up spots at cornerback and strong safety respectively. Seventh round picks Jullian Taylor (Temple) and Richie James are candidates for the practice squad. Of the undrafted free agents, cornerback Tarvarus McFadden (Florida State) has the best chance to make the 53-man roster.
Heading into Camp: Biggest Needs and Position Battles
The 49ers struggled to get much of a pass rush last season. Elvis Dumervil lead the team with six sacks and the 49ers managed just 30 sacks as a team. Only five teams had fewer sacks. Dumervil’s contract option for the 2018 season was not picked up, meaning the Niners would look elsewhere for a pass rush. After not finding an edge rusher in the draft, and due to franchise tags being placed on the best available free agent options, the 49ers will look at in-house options such as Cassius Marsh or Pita Taumoepenu, and hope that free agent signee Jeremiah Attaochu can show the pass-rush skills that made him a second-round pick in 2014. The 49ers are also hoping for increased sack production from DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas, and others by taking a more team-based approach to rushing the passer. Training camp is the time when teams begin to see how their pieces fit together and may find that they either have a surplus or lacking at a position, which tends spur action on the trade front. A couple of teams could potentially be trade fits for the 49ers in their search for a pass rusher. Denver Broncos outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett and Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham could be on the trading block due to their teams’ relative depth at those positions and the players’ impending free agency; however, it is more likely that both players hit the open market next season. In addition to Barrett and Graham, next year’s free agent class includes Ziggy Ansah of the Lions and DeMarcus Lawrence of the Cowboys, both of whom will be playing 2018 on the franchise tag. At this point it looks like the 49ers will be looking at next year’s draft and free agency for upgrades.
Finding a consistent pass rush may be the biggest need for the Niners, but it is hardly the only need. Last year 49er wide receivers caught just six touchdown passes, one more than Jerry Rice had against Atlanta on October 15, 1990. Getting more touchdowns from the wide receiving corps should be easy with a full year of Garoppolo under center along with a healthy Pierre Garcon as the primary receiver. Many people on Niners Twitter are on the Dez Bryant-to-the-49ers hype train, but unless the minds of Silicon Valley can develop an app that allows the 49ers to sign 2013 Dez, the team is better off developing Kendrick Bourne and Dante Pettis.
The most hotly-contested battle in training camp (with apologies to punters Bradley Pinion and Jeff Locke) is going to be at right guard. The 49ers invested significant resources in the offensive line this off-season by drafting right tackle Mike McGlinchey, signing free agent center Weston Richburg and signing guard Laken Tomlinson to a three year extension, all but settling four of the five offensive line spots. Competing for the open spot at right guard will be two former first round picks, Jonathan Garnett and Jonathan Cooper and dark horse candidates Mike Person and Erik Magnuson.
There will be no shortage of storylines in training camp this year from position battles, to new faces, to Garoppolo’s first training camp as a Niner, be sure and check www.the49ershub.com to stay up to date.
You can follow Travis on Twitter here!