© Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
The 2019 offseason will be the most pressure-packed of the Kyle Shanahan-John Lynch era. Last year’s may have been the most meaningful, simply for locking up Jimmy Garoppolo to a five-year, $137.5 million deal. That signing, mixed with the anticipation of the 2018 season now delayed to 2019, underscores the importance of a productive summer on the player market this year. Year No. 3 of the current regime is the logical time to start expecting results in the form of meaningful wins.
Twelve 49ers players will hit free agency, eight of which are unrestricted, March 13. All of the team’s cornerstone pieces are locked into their contracts beyond this year, but there are several contributors scheduled to become free agents.
Let’s take a look at these 12 players and predict who will be re-signed.
Unrestricted free agents
RB Alfred Morris
G Mike Person
LB Mark Nzeocha
DB Jimmie Ward
FS Antone Exum Jr.
LS Kyle Nelson
K Robbie Gould
P Bradley Pinion
These eight players have the freedom to sign with whichever team they please. They are no longer tied to the 49ers once they hit free agency.
Prediction: Of this group, the 49ers will re-sign Person, Exum Jr., Nzeocha, and Gould.
Person won the starting right guard spot in training camp over two first-rounders, Joshua Garnett and Jonathan Cooper. Person, who played center for Shanahan in Atlanta, was solid throughout the season. Pro Football Focus rated him as the NFL’s No. 18 guard in 2018. Considering the 49ers’ other guard options — Garnett has had injury and motivational issues, and Erik Magnuson hasn’t played much meaningful NFL football — it would be surprising if Person is not re-signed.
Exum Jr., who was initially a bubble player for the 53-man roster, ultimately started seven games this season as a result of the attrition at safety. He and Marcell Harris gave the 49ers their most consistent safety play, and the secondary finally started to click late. The safety outlook is cloudy entering 2019. Eight different players cycled throughout those two spots in 2018. Exum may not be the starter entering training camp, but he played well enough to warrant a chance — and a new contract.
Nzeocha is one of the 49ers’ top special-teamers. He also cycled in at strong-side linebacker, where he made 23 tackles this year. The 49ers coaching staff has praised the Germany native throughout the past season. Expect him to return.
Gould is the biggest no-brainer of this group. He went 72 for 75 on field goals in his two seasons with the 49ers, which is the most accurate two-year stretch for a kicker with more than 50 attempts in NFL history. He connected on all three game-winning field goal tries throughout his two seasons. He missed just one field goal this past season, making him the most accurate kicker in the NFL in 2018. He’s the second-most accurate kicker of all-time. For everything Gould has done on the field and off (he is a finalist for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award), it would be surprising if Shanahan entrusted the kicking duties to a younger, cheaper option. Paying Gould, even if it requires a hefty price, ensures reliability. The 49ers could franchise tag him, paying Gould about $5 million in 2019. That may be the smartest move considering there isn’t another obvious option.
As for the other players, Morris is the oldest option in San Francisco’s well-stocked running back carousel. Ward was the 49ers defense’s most expensive player this past year, but he, once again, struggled to stay on the field, playing just nine games. He has played a full 16-game season in one of his five NFL seasons. And the 49ers are grooming D.J. Reed to be the same versatile, nickel corner-free safety hybrid as Ward. Ultimately, if another team offers Ward a healthy contract, don’t expect him to return. The 49ers will likely only retain him for cheap. There’s little value in keeping Nelson, as he will be suspended the first six games of the upcoming season due to using PEDs. Pinion was below-average in punt average (43.7 yards) and punts inside the 20 (21) in 2018.
Restricted free agents
RB Raheem Mostert
DB Tyvis Powell
These are players with three accrued NFL seasons. Unlike unrestricted free agents, these players are unable to negotiate with other teams without the 49ers interfering.
Prediction: The 49ers will re-sign Mostert and let Powell walk.
Mostert is one of the NFL’s best gunners. Through the first three games of 2018, he led the league in special-teams tackles, a result of his breakneck speed and impressive timing on punt and kickoff returns. Mostert also provided a change-of-pace option in the running game. He rushed 12 times for 87 yards in Week 6 at Green Bay. Three games later, he broke his arm, ending his 2018 season.
Powell rotated from the practice squad to the active roster this year, playing in seven total games. He played every snap in San Francisco’s 34-3 win over the visiting Oakland Raiders in Week 9, but he only played 22 defensive snaps thereafter. He rarely stood out. With younger options in the secondary, the 49ers will likely let Powell walk, at least for the time being.
Exclusive rights free agents
LB Elijah Lee
CB Greg Mabin
This type of free agent is a player who has accrued two or fewer seasons. If the 49ers apply an exclusive rights free agent tender, neither Lee nor Mabin has the right to speak with other teams. They would become unrestricted free agents if the 49ers do not tender them.
Prediction: Both players will return.
Lee may be the reason why Malcolm Smith ultimately is not retained next season. Lee is younger, healthier, and played better this year. The second-year linebacker formed a productive duo with rookie standout Fred Warner as the season drew to a close. Lee recorded double-digit tackles in three consecutive games, and the 49ers coaches seem to like him. It’s unlikely the 49ers will let Lee walk.
Mabin, conversely, struggled in limited time in 2018. Green Bay picked on him to fuel its comeback win late in Week 6. In the season finale, he entered the game for Richard Sherman and was quickly beat for a touchdown. Yet Mabin will be retained due to the nature of his free agency.