Image Credit: Bay Area News Group
As I sit somewhere around 30,000 feet and 17 days out from the start of the 49ers 2019 training camp, there’s a question that’s taken hold in the back of my mind that I can’t shake: did the 49ers do enough during free agency? Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch were heading into their third offseason and had established themselves as an aggressive team the previous two years. With $67 million in salary cap space and players hitting free agency at positions of need, all the pieces were there for the 49ers to have an aggressive and successful offseason.
Salary cap and contract wizard Paraag Marathe went to work quickly. Just after free agency started in came linebacker Kwon Alexander. At the time Alexander was the highest paid linebacker in history, but that distinction lasted less than 24 hours. The signing was a bit curious at first, since Alexander didn’t fill a position of need and was coming off an ACL tear that cost him the final 13 games of the 2018 season. But his speed and instincts are something that will help him excel in the 49ers’ Cover-3 defense, paired next to second-year linebacker Fred Warner, the defense will boast a lethal combination on the second level.
Out went a 2020 second-round pick and in came 2018 Pro-Bowler Dee Ford. A long-term deal was reached, and Ford quickly filled the biggest hole on the 49ers roster. Ford’s 78 quarterback pressures in 2018 more than doubled the best total by a 49er and his 13 sacks were about one-third of the of the team’s total for the year.
Four players had more than 200 carries for the offense last season, and that list doesn’t include Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk or 2018 free agent signee Jerick McKinnon, so running back wasn’t viewed by many as a priority. But Shanahan had different ideas and he reached out and signed former Falcons running back Tevin Coleman to a modest deal. Coleman is coming off three consecutive seasons of 900 all-purpose yards and gives the offense another dual-threat weapon at a bargain price.
Another surprise signing was receiver Jordan Matthews. With an already deep receiver group and the 49ers expected to draft at least one player at the position in the upcoming draft, a pass catcher wasn’t on the radar for many fans or analysists. But Matthews fills a few roles: he has played predominantly in the slot during his career and 16 of his 22 touchdowns have come from inside the red zone. Garoppolo has already praised Matthews during OTAs, so he seems like more and more of a lock on the 53-man roster.
The 49ers’ secondary was abysmal last year, and that’s putting it nicely. Multiple injuries and subpar play from starters doomed the group early in the season and they were never able to recover. The team made a low risk-high reward signing with cornerback Jason Verrett. Verrett was a Pro Bowl player in 2015, which also happens to be the only season in his career that he’s played more then six games. If he can stay healthy the 49ers may have the best value of any free agent this offseason. The Niners also brought back their own free agent Jimmie Ward; while he’s universally loved in the locker room and has shown flashes of his talent on the field, injuries have plagued him throughout his career. During OTAs the inevitable happened and he broke his collarbone diving for an interception. While he may prove to be a valuable depth piece, he’s shown nothing that should make the team comfortable in depending on him for 16 games.
The 49ers addressed their biggest need in free agency and brought in playmakers at other positions. But they could have done more. Safety Earl Thomas was the missing piece the defense needed to take the next step; in 2018 when they wanted a Richard Sherman-type to play cornerback, they went out and got Richard Sherman, but when the perfect player at one of the most important positions on the defense was available they kept their checkbook closed. It’s entirely possible that the front office and coaching staff believe that Ward, Adrian Colbert, or Tarvarius Moore will be the answer at safety and they may be right. But a first ballot Hall of Famer was there for the taking and they decided against it. Even without Thomas the team is better than they were in 2018 and should take a step forward, but they could have been that much better.
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