Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
Football is like chess: two opposing sides clad in different color uniforms battling for control of turf. The best chess players are always thinking several moves ahead and the same is true for football coaches and front offices. For John Lynch, Adam Peters and Martin Mayhew they need to be thinking about putting the best team on the field in 2019, as well as how the moves made this off-season impact future roster decisions.
Every 49ers fan can recite, chapter and verse, the team’s needs heading into the 2019 season, but what about beyond this season? In order to manage the salary cap front offices, look at their teams on a 3-year rolling basis, for example 2019, 2020 and 2021; just to illustrate the point, of the 46 players that were active for Week 1 of 2018, against Minnesota, 32 of them are scheduled to be free agents during that three-year period.
Looking beyond 2019, what positions should the front office be looking to address before they become a major need?
Usually the beginning is the best place to start and the end is just about the best place to stop but not in this case. In order to see how the moves made this off-season might affect future moves, one must look to the future first.
In 2021, the 49ers will have several key contributors (starters and backups) hitting free agency like tight end George Kittle, wide receiver Trent Taylor and fullback Kyle Juszczyk, but the position groups that will be hardest hit are defensive line and defensive backs. Cornerbacks Richard Sherman, Ahkello Witherspoon and K’Waun Williams along with safety Adrian Colbert will be slated for free agency, along with defensive linemen Solomon Thomas and D.J. Jones.
Next year will be a critical year in the trenches, on both sides of the ball, with the 49ers having nine offensive and defensive linemen scheduled for free agency. Joe Staley and DeForest Buckner headline a group that also includes Ronald Blair, Sheldon Day, Arik Armstead, and Joshua Garnett among others.
This year’s group of free agents consists mostly of backups and guys who will struggle to make the 53-man roster. Among the notable free agents are starting right guard Mike Person and linebacker Elijah Lee, who took over starting duties following the release of Reuben Foster.
What Needs Addressing:
Beginning with this off-season, the 49ers are going to have to do a lot of work to shore up the trenches on both sides of the ball.
The defensive line is arguably the deepest position group on the team and has the most draft capital invested in it with three consecutive first round picks from 2015-2017, but with the likes of Arik Armstead, Deforest Buckner, Solomon Thomas, Sheldon Day and Ronald Blair set to be free agents over the next three seasons more capital will need to be invested in this group. John Lynch and company have already begun to buttress against potential free agent losses by effectively stashing Kentavius Street and Jullian Taylor last season, but this year’s draft and free agency classes offer a deep pool of defensive lineman and it should not surprise anyone if the 49ers double dip at the position getting one each from free agency and the draft.
The offensive line was a much-improved unit last year with new starters at center, right guard and right tackle, but right guard Mike Person is currently (as of this writing) a free agent and left tackle Joe Staley is a free agent following the 2019 season, as are three key reserve offensive lineman. Kyle Shanahan doesn’t typically like to spend a lot of money on the guard position, but the 49ers could nab Rams guard Rodger Saffold in free agency and strengthen themselves while weakening a division rival if they choose to go the free agency route. The 49ers could also look to a draft class that lacks the top-heavy star power of the 2018 draft but does have some depth; it would not be surprising to see the 49ers select a player that could compete at guard in his rookie year and move out to tackle if Staley retires after this season.
Defensive back is another position group that needs to be addressed in both the near and long term. The cornerback spot opposite Richard Sherman was a revolving door in 2018 and needs to be solidified for the team to take the next step towards contention in 2019 and beyond. New defensive backs coach Joe Woods has been brought in to mine the talent that got Ahkello Witherspoon and Tarvarius Moore drafted in the third rounds of the 2017 and 2018 drafts respectively and hopefully turn them into starting cornerbacks long term, but the 49ers need to continue to invest in the position. In the pass happy NFL, a team cannot have too many quality defensive backs and with starters at each of the boundary cornerback spots and nickel cornerback up for free agency in 2021 and no clear heir apparent at any of the three spots this could be the most difficult need for the 49ers to fill going forward. This year’s free agency class lacks quality options, and outside of the first round, the draft is short on quality options meaning the 49ers may have to make do with players they already have on the roster with an eye toward the 2020 off-season.
The 49ers are flush with cap space and a little light on draft picks (the 49ers used their 2019 5th and 7th round picks on prior trades), but still have plenty of capital to address the most pressing needs along the defensive and offensive fronts while adding a some competition in the secondary.
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