SANTA CLARA — The day that marked the arrival of two key 49ers additions ultimately consisted of much more.
On Thursday afternoon, edge rusher Dee Ford and linebacker Kwon Alexander, the headlining signings of this 49ers free agency, were officially introduced. By the end of their 25-minute press conference with the media, they weren’t the team’s newest additions.
“I’m really excited to get out of here,” Kyle Shanahan said, referring to the press conference.
That’s because Shanahan had to welcome another player to his team: cornerback Jason Verrett, who was elsewhere in the 49ers facilities, about to sign a one-year, $3.6 million contract. Over the next two hours, the 49ers also signed linebacker David Mayo and wide receiver Jordan Matthews. 49ers linebacker Brock Coyle announced his retirement from football due to a back injury.
Thursday, the second official day of free agency, featured nonstop activity in Santa Clara.
Here are five takeaways.
The 49ers were on the wrong side of history as they forced two interceptions and seven turnovers in 2018. John Lynch expects Ford and Alexander to ensure that does not happen again.
“It is something we have to live with,” Lynch said. “It’s a reality, and we needed to change that. These are the type of players that we believe can reverse that trend. Starting with Kwon, he’s always had a propensity. He’s always around the ball. There’s so many things to like, but that is definitely something that jumps. And then Dee, he has a knack for getting the ball out. Eight forced fumbles last year, and as Kyle said, that first step is lethal. We think that can help our entire team get that virus going, where we’re taking away the ball on a regular basis.”
In 2016, Alexander led the NFL with 108 solo tackles. One year later, he recorded three interceptions in 12 games played. His ball-hawking, middle-of-the-field presence has been absent among the 49ers defense.
Ford addresses a more obvious weakness. The 49ers edge rushers collectively produced 14 sacks in 2018. Cassius Marsh led the group with 5.5 sacks and 39 pressures. Meanwhile, Ford doubled those totals, amassing 13 sacks and a league-leading 78 pressures with Kansas City. He led the NFL with seven forced fumbles. In Kansas City’s Wild Card playoff game, he added another sack and forced fumble.
“It was a mentality, something we talk about all the time,” Ford said about forcing fumbles. “It’s not really an intricate skill, it’s just a mindset. When most guys get to the quarterback, they just want to take them down. Just switch the mentality and swat the ball out. But you have to work it because everything happens so fast. It needs to be muscle memory.”
Ford’s one job
The 49ers paid Ford potentially $87.5 million over five years to specialize in one area: reach the quarterback.
They have already engrained that idea in him.
“My role is to go that way,” Ford said, pointing his finger forward.
“All gas, no brakes,” Alexander said, already uttering defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s favorite mantra.
“That way is toward the quarterback,” Shanahan added.
The 49ers envision Ford starring in the scheme the Chiefs didn’t. They will switch from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3, deeming him an unnatural fit as a true defensive end. But the 49ers view Ford as the paradigm at the team’s LEO position, based on the weak side opposite from the opposing tight end.
Ford will mostly line up across the left tackle. In Kansas City, the right and left end spots were interchangeable, and Ford’s production was nearly split at both.
The 49ers are simplifying his role in defensive line coach Kris Kocurek’s wide-nine system. Ford will seldom drop into coverage, contrary to his role with the Chiefs. The switch to more wide-nines also marks a change in mentality. The 49ers want to rush the passer relentlessly.
“Speed and violence affect the quarterback and make people do stupid things before they want to,” Shanahan said. “Both of these guys have a lot of speed, and they both play very violent.”
Whether that means drafting a top-tier edge rusher with the No. 2 overall pick is still unknown. Lynch dodged a question about the team’s draft-day plans. What we do know, according to Shanahan, is that Solomon Thomas’s role will not change much. He will play base downs on the outside and move to the interior on passing downs.
If the 49ers choose to add Nick Bosa or another top defensive end in the draft, the team will obviously have to find the best way to split up snaps. After all, that would mean the 49ers have five first-round picks, all under the age of 28, dispersed along the defensive line.
Shanahan’s first impression of Alexander still fresh
It’s no wonder why the 49ers gave Alexander a four-year deal with a potential of $54 million in earnings.
Shanahan has nightmarish memories of facing Alexander. In the 2016 opener, Shanahan’s Falcons played Alexander’s Buccaneers, and the second-year linebacker was all over the field. He recorded a career-high 15 solo tackles with a sack in a 31-24 win.
“He taught me a hard lesson that you’d better game plan for him, because I didn’t too well the first game of 2016,” Shanahan said. “I remember him having 20 tackles. I think he had maybe 16, 18.”
“Something like that,” Alexander replied.
Shanahan said Julio Jones asked if he could play fullback so he could block Alexander. His prolific debut was the start of his best statistical season.
“When you can turn on the tape,” Shanahan said, “he scared you as a coach because you could see how fast he gets off the ball.”
What does the Tevin Coleman signing mean?
On Wednesday, the 49ers signed running back Tevin Coleman to a two-year deal with a potential of $10 million in earnings.
At first, the deal was puzzling because running back is arguably the 49ers’ deepest position group If the 49ers added anyone, it figured to be a bruising, short-yardage option to complement the speedy trio of Jerick McKinnon, Matt Breida, and Raheem Mostert.
Coleman comes from a similar breed. He’s a dual-threat back, similar to McKinnon. Coleman has amassed at least 900 all-purpose yards in each of the past three seasons, despite splitting carries the majority of that time.
On Thursday, Shanahan insisted signing Coleman has nothing to do with McKinnon or his potential departure.
“No, not at all,” Shanahan said. “We were very fortunate to have a chance to get Tevin. Didn’t really think that at all that would be a possibility of going through. It ended up working out, and I remember going into this, I’ve never had where I’d say at least four backs right now who played at a high level last year. But, I don’t consider it a problem. I consider it a very good thing.”
If Coleman affects anyone, it’s Mostert. Shanahan has always carried three running backs on the active roster. Considering his experience with Coleman in Atlanta, he is likely that third option. What’s tricky is Mostert is San Francisco’s top gunner.
Mostert’s agent, Brett Tessler, seemed to feel the Coleman signing threatened Mostert’s future with the team.
Funny how the 49ers' 4th running back (my RFA client Raheem Mostert) is better than most teams' #2. He also happens to be the best special teams player in the NFL. Will be interesting to see what happens in the coming weeks.
— Brett Tessler (@TesslerSports) March 14, 2019
The 49ers offered a one-year tender of $2 million to Mostert. If he signs with another team, the 49ers will not receive compensation because he was undrafted out of Purdue.
49ers add cornerback competition
There is a trend with three of the 49ers’ first four free agent signings this year: all of them are one-time Pro Bowlers with injury histories.
That includes Verrett. In 2015, he produced 42 tackles, 12 passes defended, and three interceptions, while allowing just a 60 percent success rate when targeted, with the Chargers. Despite missing two games that season, Verrett was named a Pro Bowler.
In the following three seasons, he appeared in just 11 of 50 potential games. Knee injuries ended his 2016 season four games in. One game into the 2017 season, the Chargers shut him down because the team didn’t feel those injuries healed properly. Fast forward to 2018 training camp, and Verrett tore his Achilles during conditioning drills.
Verrett now has a one-year, prove-it deal with the 49ers. He will compete for the starting right cornerback role with Ahkello Witherspoon and Tarvarius Moore, a pair of third-round picks.
Throughout the past two seasons, the 49ers have only acquired cornerbacks taller than 6-foot and with 32-inch-plus — until Verrett. He’s the anomaly. At 5-foot-10, 176 pounds, and with 30 5/8-inch arms, Verrett is by far the smallest cornerback on the 49ers roster.
He doesn’t see an issue. Verrett called himself a top corner in the NFL when healthy.
“If you can ball, you can ball,” Verrett said.