49ers 2021 Free Agency: Why the Best Ability is Durability
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The 49ers were left with a rash of tough decisions following their final game of the season on January 3rd: The players that were integral in general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan’s rebuild in 2017 were all in need of new contracts, all at once.
It’s a situation few teams are forced to deal with, and doesn’t even really take into consideration the team’s top priority, offensive tackle Trent Williams, was not even part of those 2017 signings, but rather a marquee signing following a blockbuster trade last year to balance out the sudden retirement of tackle Joe Staley.
On Sunday, following the late night drunken tweets of Jed York and John Lynch, Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported that the 49ers had three major priorities for this year’s free agency period, and none of them involved outside players.
"I would expect (Kyle) Juszczyk to remain in San Francisco when that deal gets finalized," Rapoport said. "That's not the only priority they have. ... Trent Williams, their left tackle, who they traded for last year, became a Pro Bowler and might have had his best season of his career. They want to bring him in. That's going to be big dollars. He has yet to accept their deal. We'll see if he ends up getting to free agency or if they can finalize it today. "And then, of course, Jason Verrett, one of the coolest stories in the NFL. A comeback story for a player who spent most of his career injured; had a resurgent year last year. There's an attempt by the 49ers to keep him there. We'll see if they're able to lock all three of those before business starts tomorrow."
Now that the initial dust has settled, the 49ers were able to complete those three major tasks, and then some. Adding OLB Samson Ebukam and center Alex Mack were both surprising moves, but when you look at them as responses to the previous season and within the totality of the other three moves, it all makes perfect sense.
The signing of Ebukam is very similar to Kerry Hyder Jr. the year prior: find an underutilized player buried on another team’s depth chart who hasn’t missed many games and offer them a rotational spot under the tutelage of defensive line whisperer Kris Kocurek and have them support an extremely-talented-yet-recovering-from-injury-plagued-2020 defensive line. Over four seasons, Ebukam has not missed a game and registered 150 tackles, 14 sacks and a pick-six and should fit in nicely in San Francisco.
Patience may be a virtue, but sometimes it pays off in ways we don’t expect. Since coming into the league in 2014, Verrett has shown flashes of a lockdown corner, but injuries kept him from realizing his full potential. The 49ers took a chance on him, letting him go at his own pace and never gave up on him, even after injuring an injury three snaps into his first game in 2019 sidelined him for the rest of the season. 2020 was a different story, appearing in 13 games and amassing two interceptions, seven passes defended and 60 tackles. Verrett had a multi-year deal on the table from another team, but opted to remain with the 49ers to bet on himself once again and attempt to reach his potential.
The fullback is an antiquated position in the NFL. Most players with the physical tools to be one in the past are turning to being a big-bodied receiver or tight end or gaining weight and attempting to be an offensive lineman. Juszczyk is the best of both worlds: an excellent blocker with soft hands whom Shanahan can scheme however he may like. That kind of versatility is key in helping Shanahan realize his dream of a position less offense, and having so many clutch catches meant there was a chance he may not return to the team and sign with a team on the east coast, where he and his wife own a home. The chance to chase a championship in an offense that suits him was too appealing though, and the 49ers kept one of their most versatile weapons who was available for every game in 2020.
The 49ers offensive line was truly duct taped together in 2020. The guard spots were a revolving door of players, tackle Mike McGlinchey had trouble in pass protection and starting center Weston Richburg, who was a key signing for the team in 2017, never saw the field while recovering from a patellar tendon injury. While Mack may be older and out of the prime of his career, he only missed two games in 2020: one game after suffering a concussion and one while quarantining from COVID-19. That kind of reliability mixed with his knowledge of Shanahan’s offense instantly upgrades the offensive line.
To say that Williams is special is an understatement. The internet fawned over top prospect Rashawn Slater after highlights from his pro day got people swooning, but even he doesn’t match up to the athleticism Williams offers the 49ers. All of the moves the 49ers made up to that point would have been for nothing if they couldn’t strike a deal with Trent, and they would have been forced to drastically change their draft plans.
When you take all of these signings by themselves, you see random addresses of positions of need. Looking at all of them, a pattern develops: durability. They say the best ability is availability, but after the 49ers injury riddled 2020 season, they may be changing that to durability. You can’t make long runs into the post season without the pieces that get you there, and signing players with a record of betting on themselves and staying healthy means the team is making a concerted effort to push farther than they got in 2019.
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