Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
Over the next couple of weeks NFL free agency is really going to pick up steam. Teams can start applying the franchise tag and next week agents and front office types will all be mingling and kicking tires at the league’s annual job fair, the NFL scouting combine.
Even though 2018 did not go the way anyone in the 49ers’ organization thought it would, 2019 was always set up to be the year the team took its biggest leap toward contention; Paraag Marathe and company structured contracts to give the team as much salary cap flexibility as possible going into this year’s free agency period.
As the market takes shape, where should the 49ers’ focus be?
The case for focusing on offense:
The 49ers clearly have an offensive worldview; head coach Kyle Shanahan is an elite offensive mind and the team has invested a lot of capital, in terms of money and draft choices, on that side of the ball. In 2018, the offense was the team’s best unit despite quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and presumptive number one running back Jerick McKinnon missing a combined 29 games. So, why should they add to what is already the team’s best unit?
In his book, Gridiron Genius, former NFL general manager Michael Lombardi writes about “strengthening your strength” when building a roster (a philosophy he picked up from Al Davis) and one position on offense that could use a massive upgrade is wide receiver. Kendrick Bourne led all 49ers’ wide receivers in receptions, yards and touchdowns, but his 42 catches, 487 yards and 4 touchdowns ranked 54th, 69th and 48th in the NFL in those categories respectively. Adding a legitimate receiving threat to an offense with a healthy Garoppolo and McKinnon to go with last year’s breakout players, running back Matt Breida and tight end George Kittle, would certainly improve an offense that finished 21st in the NFL in scoring last year.
The case against focusing on offense:
The 49ers offense finished in the top half of the NFL in yards per game (16th), yards passing per game (15th) and rushing yards per game (13th) despite having to play large portions of the year with second-, third- and fourth-string players getting large amounts of playing time at quarterback, wide receiver, and running back, including getting zero snaps out of last year’s top free agent signee, McKinnon. Simply getting a healthy year out of players already on the roster will do more to improve the offense than signing any free agent from this year’s class.
Sparse is the most diplomatic way to describe this class of offensive free agents. Not only does it lack high-end talent overall, but it is especially lacking at the position the 49ers need most, wide receiver.
The case for focusing on defense:
The defense was clearly the weakest unit on the team last year finishing 28th in scoring, 22nd in sacks and dead last (32nd) in turnovers. Unlike the offense, there are no players that will return from injury and will fix what ails this defense. This year’s class of free agent defenders is loaded with talent and most importantly for the 49ers the available talent matches some of their biggest needs, edge rusher, linebacker and free safety.
The case against focusing on defense:
There isn’t a case to be made for the 49ers not spending heavily on defense in free agency.
How the 49ers should allocate their resources in free agency:
After laying out the cases both for and against, it’s clear that the 49ers should focus their resources on defense. The only offensive players the 49ers should concern themselves with are in-house free agents: kicker Robbie Gould, guard Mike Person and running back Raheem Mostert, while keeping an eye out for the one or two surprise cuts that happen each year.
The 49ers have somewhere between $65 and $76 million (depending on the source) in cap space available to spend this off-season and should be looking to add at least one starter at each level of the defense. Adding Earl Thomas at free safety should be the top priority (along with re-signing Gould) in free agency, but the team also has a significant need at linebacker, needing to find starters at both the Sam and Will linebacker positions. Even though the team has invested heavily, in terms of draft capital, in the defensive line the team still lacks an outside pass rush presence; there are several that fit the bill for the 49ers’ defense in this crop of free agents and the team should strike quickly to get their guy.
It is unlikely that the team will be able to solve all of its needs in free agency, especially offensively, so going heavy on defense and turning that unit from a weakness into a strength makes the most sense. The 2019 season marks the half way point in the Lynch-Shanahan regime and the time is now for the team to turn the corner from rebuilding to contending.
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