Under the Radar Free Agents the 49ers Could Pursue to Enhance the OL
Image Credit: New York Jets
NFL free agency is much like trying to get a date to spring prom. One cannot ask too early for fear of looking a fool, but the good dates have already been taken if one waits too long.
Reality and desperation then set in, and you figure out you want to go to the prom - but the only option is the guy who ate a golf-ball-sized dust bunny for $50 in the middle of English class.
Surprisingly, the San Francisco 49ers have been active in the free-agent market during the off-season. General manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan signed center Alex Mack immediately, along with linebacker Samson Ebukam and defensive tackle Zach Kerr.
I’m most impressed with the Mack signing for a few reasons. First, it’s nice to see Lynch and Shanahan prioritize the center position; and second, for signing the highest valued player at the position. Finally, it’s nice to see both men realize that the team would not win with Hroniss Grasu starting at center or Tony Bergstrom as the reserve.
But even with all these moves, NFL teams do not win championships in March and April. If that were the case, the Las Vegas Raiders would have a glass case full of Lombardi trophies.
The NFL draft is looming, so I understand inking a free agent to a one or two-year deal today might tip Lynch and Shanahan’s draft hand, but both men should consider signing one of these offensive linemen as soon as possible.
Each NFL offseason comes with at least one mystery per team with no extra charge. The 49ers’ great mystery is why Lynch has not offered center Ben Garland a new contract, yet tendered and then signed right guard Daniel Brunskill to a one-year contract. Garland was the unsung hero of the 49ers’ offensive line last year, and it was unfortunate he could not play an entire season.
Garland only took 333 snaps last year before straining his calf and finishing the season on injured reserve. But during that time, he did not allow a sack and only four total pressures of any kind. His worst game, at least according to the so-called experts at Pro Football Focus, was during the Week 5 loss against Miami. However, his stats were strikingly similar to left tackle Trent Williams who graded out at 75.5. Otherwise, Garland was a solid performer and would make a reliable backup or challenge Brunskill for the starting role at right guard.
Why the 49ers’ front office hasn’t offered Garland a new contract is beyond any rational thought. Here’s a franchise that willingly brings on veterans like Tom Compton or Spencer Long (who retired three days after signing with the team last year) but hasn’t done anything to bring back a proven player.
Unless Lynch and Shanahan have plans to take a guard or center in the upcoming draft, Garland is the team’s best free-agent option at this moment in time.
I remember when the Kansas City Chiefs took tackle Eric Fisher first overall in the 2013 draft. It wasn’t a sexy pick, but I loved it. Looking back, I don’t know if Fisher has fully lived up to his potential – he’s been named to an All-Pro team and has been to the Pro Bowl twice. In 2019, he played in just eight regular-season games due to an injury. Fisher did make it back for a successful playoff run and ultimate Super Bowl win.
In January, Fisher tore his Achilles during the AFC Championship game. Before the Twitter rage ensues, I understand Fisher might not be ready for the 2021 season. But if someone is allowed to do eight mock drafts and call it content, then I’d like the same latitude to play in that same pretend world.
I’ve consistently noted that 49ers’ reserve tackle Justin Skule is not fit to be on an NFL roster. At the same time, Shanahan continues to live the fantasy that he can convert Colton McKivitz, a college guard, into a tackle. Signing Fisher solves three problems.
First, Lynch can cut Skule.
Second, Shanahan can halt this wild idea to convert McKivitz into a guard and move him into a reserve tackle role.
Third, Fisher might be able to get right tackle Mike McGlinchey’s head straight and refine his technique.
Fisher brings high-quality, reliable play along with veteran experience that is always welcome in a locker room.
The unfortunate part of this idea is Fisher won’t come cheap. He’s still a young player, and after he recovers from his injury, he probably has between six and eight years left in his career. He’s not going to sign for peanuts or the promise of a ring – he’s going to want to maximize his value and compete for a starting role.
Overall, what’s left in the offensive line free agent pool is thin on talent. Left guard James Carpenter, who spent the last two seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, is still in the hopper and an option for the 49ers.
Carpenter is not an ideal starter despite starting 13 games for Atlanta last season. He had a rough Week 4 game against Green Bay and another against Las Vegas late in the year. But, he would make an ideal backup for left guard Laken Tomlinson or could be a one-game band-aid if Tomlinson needs to recover from a minor injury. Plus, Carpenter would probably come cheap, which Shanahan loves.
Whether it’s tomorrow or after the draft, the 49ers need to offer a deal to one of the above men, along with bringing back cornerback Richard Sherman. Mostly, I want to continue cheering for Sherman rather than see him play for another team.
There’s still a lot of time between now and training camp, and there are still many quality free agents in the market looking for a home. Lynch and Shanahan need to reinforce the 49ers’ offensive line, especially if they plan to sink the future in a young quarterback.
You can follow Bret on Twitter here!
Stay tuned to 49ersHub for more great 49ers coverage and analysis!