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What a difference a year makes.
After a heartbreaking loss in the Super Bowl, the unofficial mantra was “run it back,” a task that seemed simple enough for a team that was set to return all but five Super Bowl starters. After a season riddled with injuries and unprecedented logistical challenges, the job of keeping the team’s championship window open is much more difficult.
For the first time since its inception in 1994, the salary cap is set to shrink, which is going to impact team-building efforts across the league. Teams in their championship windows are going to have to make some tough decisions regarding free agency and contract extensions and the Niners find themselves among those teams.
Forty members of the 2020 49ers are headed to one form of free agency or another, among them several starters and key contributors. The starting lineups to begin the 2021 could look much different, but just how different?
Defensive Line: Nick Bosa, Javon Kinlaw, Darrion Daniels, and Arik Armstead
Daniels is a player who has generated buzz for those in and around the organization since he signed as an undrafted free agent following the 2020 draft.
Linebackers: Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, Azeez Al-Shaair, Marcell Harris
Al-Shaair will assume a “starting” role in a base defense when the Niners deploy a third linebacker. Harris, a safety by trade, is better suited to play close to the line of scrimmage at a pseudo-linebacker role in a “Big Nickel” personnel grouping.
Cornerbacks: Jason Verrett, Emanuel Moseley, and Jamar Taylor
Verrett is an unrestricted free agent and should be Priority 1(b), behind left tackle Trent Williams. Verrett managed to stay healthy allowing him to display the skills that made him a first-round pick in 2014. Moseley, a restricted free agent, will most likely return and take the starting spot opposite Verrett. Taylor is an unrestricted free agent, as is the incumbent starter at nickel-cornerback, K’waun Williams, but Williams will be much tougher to re-sign. Taylor proved to be a more-than-capable replacement filling in for Williams in 2020
Safeties: Tarvarius Moore and Jimmie Ward
Offensive Line: Trent Williams, Laken Tomlinson, Alex Mack, Colton McKivitz, and Mike McGlinchey
Williams is priority No. 1 for the 49ers this off-season. The Niners acquired Williams from Washington in a draft day trade. After sitting out the entire 2019 season, Williams showed why he is one of the best left tackles in the NFL and will be highly sought after on the open market. Without a Plan B at the position the Niners should be very motivated to sign him to a long-term deal.
Center is an especially important position in the Kyle Shanahan offense and Mack is one of his favorites, having coached him in both Cleveland and Atlanta. Mack is an unrestricted free agent and 2021 will be his age-36 season. If he is willing to sign at a discount for a chance to play for Shanahan again, Mack would be the stabilizer that the offensive line needs.
Right guard is the most likely spot for a rookie starter, but Colton McKivitz would be the favorite among those already on the roster. McKivitz was a favorite among the Niners’ scouting staff and was selected in the fifth-round of the 2020 draft with the idea that he could compete for the starting right guard spot. McKivitz had a bit of a rough go in three starts during his rookie year but should benefit from a regular off-season.
Tight End: George Kittle
Running Back(s): Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson, and JaMycal Hasty
Kyle Shanahan will continue to spread the workload among his running backs in 2021, so labeling any one of them a “starter” would be a misnomer. Mostert was the best of the running on the team last season but after a year as the lead back, and nagging injuries, he seems better suited to a role where he can be used more judiciously. Wilson led the team in rushing and showed he could a capable receiver
Fullback: Charlie Woerner
Kyle Juszczyk is the incumbent at the position and the league’s highest-paid fullback, but he is also a pending free agent. Juszczyk has been a valuable member of the offense, and the offense was better with him on the field, which is why the Niners employ a fullback on a higher percentage of snaps than any team in the league and despite that fact Juszczyk played just 43 percent of the offensive snaps. Woerner, as a converted tight end, would have the blocking chops and receiving skills to present the kind of mismatch that Shanahan looks for. With a viable in-house option, will the 49ers allocate significant and scarce resources to the position?
Wide Receivers: Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk
Quarterback: Jimmy Garoppolo
Absent a better alternative, Garoppolo will be the starter in Week 1. However, Garoppolo should not get too comfortable right now because the 49ers are going to exhaust all avenues to upgrade the position. While Garoppolo played well in 2019, he is inconsistent, and misses too many games (Garoppolo has missed 43 percent of the potential starts in his career) for a franchise quarterback. With the 12th pick in the upcoming draft, a rookie quarterback to push Garoppolo is a real possibility. The Niners should also heavily pursue upgrades via trade, with Deshaun Watson and Matthew Stafford as the top options.
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