Who Gets to Stay? An Offseason Primer for the 49ers
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The 2020 season is complete for the San Francisco 49ers. After a surprise Super Bowl run during the 2019 season, the 49ers came back to Earth, enduring an injury plagued five months that saw the team lose star players on both sides of the football. The phrase “high ankle sprain” will leave 49er fans with a minor case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and has caused an argument of who should be quarterback next season throughout the fan base and all across Twitter.
Covid-19 caused multiple players to miss games, sometimes even with negative tests somehow, and forced the 49ers to start a cornerback who they signed off the streets for one game. Even with all of the turmoil and disappointment, the 49ers’ depth and coaches kept them in the playoff conversation into the final month of the season, and showed the promise the team’s future has if they can place all of their players on the field at one time. Pushing the Seattle Seahawks to the final seven minutes in the Week 17 loss, with no playoff chances alive, showed how hard the team’s will to fight for each other and head coach Kyle Shanahan really is. By finishing 3-3 in the division, the team showed they were still able to hang with the best teams of the division, even when starting their third-string quarterback, fourth-string running back, fourth- and fifth-string wide receivers, and a patchwork offensive line.
The true bright spot for the team was how well the defense was able to hold together after losing its most talented defensive player (Nick Bosa) and at times their entire 2019 starting defensive backfield. Finishing as a top ten defense was quite a feat, and it will probably cost them their defensive coordinator, who will be heading to one of the multiple teams who have already fired their head coach on this blackest of Mondays.
While this past season was supposed to be one of consistency, fielding 19 of 22 starters from Super Bowl LIV, the next season will probably be one of greater controlled change. With a drop in the salary cap and the need to extend key players (hello, Fred Warner), the team will probably not be big buyers in the free agency market. What the front office will need to do player-wise this off-season is identify which of their own free agents must be retained to keep that Super Bowl Window open, and who can be replaced by a rookie or bottom tier free agent.
The 49ers have 38 free agents, which accounts for 4.8 percent of the total NFL free agents (794) while only holding 3.1 percent of the leagues roster spots. This equates to a larger task than most teams to bring back key players after evaluating their own. With that many free agents, we won’t be looking at this player by player, but by position groups. If a position group isn’t included, then assume no free agents with that group should be retained. This list will mostly be based on bang for buck. There will be some popular players not mentioned here, strictly because the team will not be able to afford them. We will also not be discussion cutting this player or that player to create more salary cap space. Some players will be moved, we’re all sure of it. I will leave the salary math up to someone else writing a different article.
Here we go:
The 49ers have three free agent quarterbacks, two of which started multiple games (Nick Mullens and C.J.Beathard) and a third who was an emergency signing off another team’s practice squad (Josh Rosen). The Mullens and Beathard experiments should be over. The team knows what it has in Mullens and Beathard. Of the two, Beathard actually looked more in command and confident in his starts in 2020, and that’s saying something. I could see Shanahan holding onto Beathard for another season (on a league minimum contract), but a rookie replacement seems more likely. Josh Rosen, who is an ERFA can be kept at the league minimum, and I would expect to be kept. As a former top-ten draft pick and once the future of the Arizona Cardinals franchise, Rosen has the talent to keep around and see if he could amount to at least a solid backup QB. He could end up being a real end-of-the-season steal.
A decent list of RBs are hitting free agency for the 49ers, but I only see two of them coming back in 2021. The first is a no brainer, Jeff Wilson Jr. He has scored more touchdowns than any other 49er since Shanahan took over as head coach, and as an exclusive rights free agent, he will be back at the league minimum. He finished the season as the lead back, primarily because of injuries to Raheem Mostert. He also ended the season as the team’s top yard gainer on the ground with 600 yards over 12 games (Mostert had 521 over 8). The other returner should be offensive weapon, Kyle Juszczyk, whose role has expanded by nearly having as many rushes this past season (17) as he had for the prior three seasons with the 49ers (18). I know, I know, small sample size, but when you include his 19 receptions and take into account his six overall touchdowns (four catching and two rushing) he averaged a TD every six touches. He is also the best fullback in the NFL, and can line up as a lead blocker or be split out wide as a wide receiver. He is a Swiss army knife, and although he might have to take a slightly lower contract number than he came to the 49ers on, he should be retained.
With only bringing back these two RBs, the 49ers can end the Jerick McKinnon and Tevin Coleman experiments, allow JaMycal Hasty to get more reps and bring in one or two more rookies to compete for the last RB roster spot.
The offensive line play for the 49ers was not good, and they should be looking to upgrade at least two positions this off season. With that said, there are three impending free agents that should be brought back. Let me restate that, the 49ers must bring back left tackle Trent Williams, who is a top three or five LT in the NFL, and they should bring back Ben Garland and Daniel Brunskill. Williams will be the big signing of the offseason. He could command anywhere from $18-20M dollars a season on his new contract, and the 49ers must make it work. Williams was brought in to replace retired Joe Staley, and at times played better than fan- and league-favorite Staley. As a newcomer to the line, there was not as much cohesion as there was with Staley, but with a full offseason to continue to connect with left guard Laken Tomlinson, Williams could very well be the top LT in the league next season. A team doesn’t just let a player like that walk away, especially after using two draft picks to trade for him.
Garland filled in at center for a large chunk of the season, and he continues to show that he is a responsible and capable fill-in depth lineman. He will never be an All Pro, but he is the type of player a team who wants to make a long run at the Super Bowl needs in the injury-plagued NFL, plus he won’t be too expensive. Brunskill continues to be the most versatile player of the OL. He played tackle, guard, and center throughout the season, and did so well. He could possibly step in to be a starting right guard or even push starting right tackle Mike McGlinchey, with the added bonus that he is also an ERFA, so the team can bring him back on a one-year deal at the league minimum.
Shanahan and the NFL have not been able to see what the offense would look like with a healthy George Kittle and Jordan Reed playing next to each other while combined with the other aerial offensive weapons (Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk). Reed did flash enough in 2020 that the team should look at bringing him back again next season. He showed he still has the hands and the ability to be a part of the “YAC Attack.” He started when Kittle was out, and when QBs could actually put the ball in his vicinity, he made other teams pay. He pretty much did what everyone hoped Ross Dwelley would do, which leaves Dwelley looking for a new address.
Thought to be the team’s deepest position group, they have seven players hitting free agency (Solomon Thomas, Ronald Blair, Kerry Hyder, Ezekiel Ansah, Dion Jordan, Jordan Willis, D.J. Jones). The team should let four of the six players walk. Thomas didn’t show enough be tendered a contract and Ansah didn’t even see the field much before being injured and placed on IR. There is a good chance that Blair and Jones will be too pricey to be brought back, even though both have been fan favorites and have executed their roles very well when on the field. Hyder showed that he can get to the opposing QB with decent frequency, even when the rest of the defense isn’t creating pressure, leading the team in sacks this past season. He should be the top priority for the team as far as the DL free agents go, and could take the DE starting position opposite Bosa should Dee Ford get cut or retire. Both Jordan and Willis showed that they could create pressure and be solid spot rushers for the team, and if both could be brought back, that would be a bonus, but keeping one of two and drafting another EDGE rusher could work out as well.
Every starting defensive back not named Jimmie Ward is a free agent this upcoming season. This means that the team is going to have to make some very hard decisions. Richard Sherman will be too pricey; even he knows it and admitted as much weeks ago. Jason Verrett, on the other hand, should be priority number two behind Trent Williams. Verrett played as one of the best cornerbacks in the league, even when the rest of the defensive backfield was walking around on the sideline banged up. He had the type of season that, if not for Alex Smith, would put him in the conversation for Comeback Player of the Year. The team should also do everything it can to bring back nickel-cornerback K’Waun Williams. Williams is still one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league, and played well when healthy. Emmanuel Moseley is a no brainer as he is a ERFA for one more season and can be brought back on the league minimum. If the team can bring back those three players and then somehow land Asante Samuels Jr. in the draft, they could have one of the best defensive backfields in the NFL next season. This does mean saying goodbye to Ahkello Witherspoon and Jaquiski Tartt, but each of those players will command too much money in the free agent market to warrant their returns. Ken Webster could also be brought back as an ERFA, but wouldn’t be a priority.
That would be signing 11 of their 38 impending free agents, and with 33 players under contract for 2021-22 already, they would only need to replace nine active roster spots, plus their practice squad through the draft and undrafted free agents, where they currently have eight picks and will receive a ninth when defensive coordinator Robert Saleh signs on to head coach somewhere else. Keeping these 11 players on the roster would allow the team to keep the depth that allowed them to be relevant this season as well as having first-rate starters all across both sides of the football.
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