© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch spent their first two years together overhauling the roster they inherited and laying the foundation for the current regime. Their 10-22 record through two years has brought about some expected growing pains. There are still moving parts and obvious holes to address entering Year No. 3, but the expectations have shifted. Winning is now required. With a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo back, a young defense building continuity, and preferable draft position in waiting, the pieces are aligned for the 49ers to play meaningful games at this time next year.
The first course of action: put together a productive offseason. The 49ers will have between $65 million and $70 million in cap space during free agency.
Here is a step-by-step guide.
Add multiple edge rushers
This has always been priority No. 1. The 49ers collected 14 sacks from their edge rushers this year. Even worse, they forced seven turnovers and two interceptions as a team, both of which are the fewest in NFL history.
The 49ers ranked in the middle of the league in most offensive and defensive categories, but their -25 turnover differential was the NFL’s worst — by seven turnovers. Their 4-12 record, tied for second-worst in the NFL, is traced to this turnover disparity, which is largely traced to the lack of pass rush.
The 49ers need to add multiple edge rushers, via the draft and free agency. They have the second overall pick in a 2019 draft class stocked with pro-ready pass rushers.
If Arizona picks Ohio State’s Nick Bosa at No. 1, the 49ers will have access to Kentucky’s Josh Allen, Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell, Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat, and any of the other talented edge rushers remaining. The 49ers could trade the No. 2 pick to a quarterback-needy team, then draft one of those players later in the first round. But they must come away with one of the marquee players at the position.
There are also a handful of known edge rushers scheduled to hit free agency.
To name a few:
Detroit’s Ziggy Ansah
- Ansah, Detroit’s 2013 No. 5 overall pick, posted 14.5 sacks in 2015 and 12 more in 2017, but has battled health issues throughout his career, missing five games throughout the 2016 and 2017 seasons. This past season, he started two games and played in seven due to a shoulder injury that sent him to injured reserve in mid-December. The Lions likely won’t franchise tag Ansah for a second time.
Los Angeles’ Dante Fowler
- Fowler was Jacksonville’s No. 3 pick in the 2015 draft, but he disappointed in the first two years of his career. It was not until he joined the Los Angeles Rams in late October that his talent started to bloom. He had two sacks, one forced fumble, and four tackles for loss in eight games. He was the missing piece for a defensive line built on its imposing interior, similar to the 49ers. It’s unlikely the Rams will franchise tag the 24-year-old because of the bigger names set to his free agency.
Philadelphia’s Brandon Graham
- Contrary to Fowler, Graham is a proven, veteran defensive end with championship pedigree. Since 2012, he has 39.5 sacks and 72 tackles for a loss. He has missed just one game during that span. He registered a career-high 9.5 sacks throughout the Eagles’ Super Bowl run last season.
Denver’s Shaquil Barrett
- The 49ers would likely sign Barrett to a cheaper contract than any of the aforementioned names on this list. Barrett entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2014 and has been a steady contributor on the Denver defensive line since. He has 14 sacks in four seasons. Barrett, stuck behind Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, may want greater opportunity elsewhere entering 2019. On paper, he’s a fit for the 49ers.
The bottomline: the 49ers need to add at least two, preferably three, edge rushers by the time the 2019 season rolls around. You can’t have too many.
Enter contract negotiations with DeForest Buckner
Buckner is one of San Francisco’s two best players, and the team can’t afford to lose him. In his third NFL season, the star defensive tackle posted career-highs of 12 sacks and 17 tackles for loss, both of which led the 49ers. Entering his fourth offseason, the 49ers can begin to discuss a new contract with him.
The 49ers do not have to reach an agreement with Buckner just yet, but they will want to get a feel for his asking price. It’s important to note Jimmy Garoppolo’s cap hit decreases from $37 million in 2018 to $20 million in 2019, which gives the 49ers some wiggle room if they want to sign Buckner sooner rather than later. Garoppolo’s cap hit increases again, after 2019, in the form of at least $26 million in each of his final three seasons.
For all the talk about acquiring an edge rusher, ensuring Buckner is a 49er for the foreseeable future takes utmost precedence.
Sign Earl Thomas
Thomas’ current situation mirrors Richard Sherman’s last year. Both stars grew disgruntled with the Seahawks as the team did not prioritize re-signing them. Thomas, who was last seen flipping off the Seattle sideline as he was carted off the field, is likely to look for a landing spot. Look no farther than San Francisco, Sherman’s new home, a 4-3 scheme Thomas helped popularize, and two yearly opportunities to exact revenge upon Seattle.
The 49ers cycled eight players in and out of the two safety spots this season. The safety pair entering the season, strong safety Jaquiski Tartt and free safety Adrian Colbert, appeared to be the duo of the future, but neither player stayed on the field. Colbert particularly was inconsistent. There are question marks surrounding the free safety position — featuring Colbert, Antone Exum, and potentially D.J. Reed. Locking up Thomas, who was on his way to another Pro Bowl season before fracturing his leg in Week 4, would immediately elevate the 49ers defense.
Franchise tag Robbie Gould
Robbie Gould was at Soldier Field Sunday when Bears kicker Cody Parkey double-doinked the potential game-winning kick off the left goal post and crossbar, ruining the team’s Super Bowl hopes. That gut-wrenching miss had every Bears fan yearning for Gould, the organization’s all-time leading scorer who was released prior to the 2016 season.
Since joining the 49ers in 2017, Gould connected on 72 of 75 field goals, the most accurate two-year stretch for a kicker in NFL history with more than 50 attempts. Out of San Francisco’s 10 wins in two years, Gould kicked a game-winner in three of them. As of today, he is the second-most accurate kicker in NFL history.
Gould will enter free agency March 13. He is by far the 49ers’ biggest contributor out of the crop of 12 soon-to-be free agents. Signing him could be expensive, but the 49ers don’t want to lose their most consistent player.
That’s why applying a franchise tag is the right course of action. If the 49ers tagged Gould, he would make about $5 million in 2019.
Tagging kickers this isn’t all that rare. Baltimore was the last team that tagged its kicker, in 2016 with Justin Tucker. Five kickers were franchise-tagged in 2012.
There isn’t another obvious candidate for the 49ers’ franchise tag. If they feel strongly about retaining another player without offering a new contract, the team should sign Gould to a new deal, even if it’s a bit hefty. He has simply been too good to let go.
As for the other 11 49ers set to hit free agency in March, we predicted who would re-sign.
Inquire about Antonio Brown
This has been the hot topic in 49er-land throughout the past 10 days. During that span, Brown has exchanged pleasantries with record-breaking tight end George Kittle on Twitter, followed several 49ers accounts, and posted a picture of Jerry Rice to his Instagram. Call it pettiness or genuine interest, Brown has 49ers fans drooling over the prospect of a future Hall-of-Fame receiver playing in Shanahan’s offense.
On Saturday, the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported the Steelers will consider trade offers for Brown. That should prod the 49ers to at least inquire about the seven-time Pro Bowl receiver. The 49ers have long maintained that they will entertain any possibility to improve the team. Brown would more than qualify — he is the only receiver to post six consecutive seasons with at least 100 catches.
Brown, however, is under contract through 2021, and he’s expected to make $36.4 in base salary over that span. Brown’s total cap hit is $22.165 million this year, but if the Steelers were to wait until after June 1 to trade him, they would have just $7.04 million in dead money. They would save more than $15 million in total.
Here is Brown’s current contract situation, via Over the Cap:
The obvious unknown is what the Steelers want in return. The 49ers would prefer not to touch their No. 2 overall pick in a deal for the 30-year-old receiver. But if they give up a couple second-round picks, or one second-rounder with a mid-round selection, for Brown, that could be a different story.
Regardless, the 49ers need to add another receiver to the room. Kendrick Bourne’s 487 yards led all 49ers receivers and ranked tied for No. 97 in the NFL.
Pick up Arik Armstead’s fifth-year option
The 49ers initially picked up Armstead’s fifth-year option last April with the hope that he will put together an encouraging enough season to warrant keeping him through 2019. Armstead did that. He played in all 16 games — the first time in three seasons — and was arguably the biggest reason for the 49ers’ improved run defense. San Francisco allowed 4.1 yards per carry (seventh-best in the NFL) and 113.4 yards per game (14th-best in the NFL). Armstead earned Pro Football Focus’ 16th-best run grade for all edge defenders.
Armstead won’t come cheap. The 49ers would pay him more than $9 million in the upcoming season. The team has until March to either part ways with Armstead or pick up his fifth-year option.
Kyle Shanahan said retaining Armstead isn’t so simple because it factors into how the front office wants to allocate the rest of its money. But there has been a consensus among the coaching staff: Armstead was excellent in 2018.
“Armstead is a very good player who, there’s no doubt that I don’t want to lose him and I don’t think anyone in this building wants to lose good players,” Shanahan said. “Hopefully that’ll work out.”
“I don’t think it’s a surprise that Arik Armstead’s probably having his best year,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “It just takes time. Love the direction he’s going.”
Ultimately, $9 million is a lot to invest in someone whose numbers may not reflect elite production. But Armstead was a central part of a defensive line that improved over the course of the year. Pair an edge rusher with Armstead and Buckner, two 6-foot-7-plus behemoths, and San Francisco could have one of the most physically dominant defensive lines in the league.
Consider cutting expensive veterans
In order to make room for these transactions, the 49ers will look into eliminating hefty contracts belonging to aging players. The three players fitting that description are Malcolm Smith, Pierre Garcon, and Earl Mitchell.
Smith has disappointed during his two years with San Francisco, mainly as a result of unavailability. He missed all of 2017 with a torn pectoral. This past season, he battled hamstring and Achilles injuries, which sidelined him for four games.
Elijah Lee, a second-year player out of Kansas State, started at the weakside linebacker spot in the final four games of the season and registered double-digit tackle totals in the final three. Lee has drawn compliments from the coaching staff for his intelligence and consistency. His partnership with promising rookie Fred Warner is likely to continue into the start of next season. The 49ers are also likely to add an inside linebacker to the roster.
In two seasons with the 49ers, Garcon played 16 of 32 games. In 2017, he was on pace for 80 catches and 1,000 receiving yards, but he regressed in 2019, posting just 24 catches, 286 receiving yards, and one touchdown in eight games. Those numbers don’t validate his $8.3 million cap hit next season. Bourne, who plays the same “Z” spot in the 49ers offense, can offer similar production at a cheaper price.
Mitchell played well this year, but so did the younger, cheaper nose tackle on the 49ers roster, D.J. Jones. Mitchell’s inclusion on the 2019 roster means a $4.4 million cap hit next season. It would not be surprising if he was let go in favor of Jones, who played well down the stretch of the 2018 season.
“Those guys understand the business, and they understand how it works,” Shanahan said in December. “That’s stuff that you don’t ignore.”