Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch’s first San Francisco juggling act will take flight later this week in Indianapolis at the NFL’s scouting combine.
There will be trade negotiations with New England (and potentially Washington), dinners with top prospects like Myles Garrett and epiphanies on a late round sleepers in the draft. The 49ers could realistically head home with their franchise quarterback, or a firm realization of the quarterback they’re taking in the draft. Not to blow smoke, but this is one of the bigger weeks in recent franchise history.
Simultaneously, free agency is set to begin days later on March 7, and will be factored into every decision. No position group needs to undergo reconstructive plastic surgery more than wide receiver.
The Chicago Bears are not franchise tagging Alshon Jeffery for a second straight year meaning the 27-year-old is in line to make Julio Jones money on the open market — five-years, $71 million with $34 million guaranteed. I think we can all agree Alshon Jeffery is not Julio Jones.
This is the question facing Shanahan and Lynch: Can we go into next season without a No. 1 receiver? The 49ers are in a rare spot with sufficient cap space and a glaring need that only Jeffery can fill.
On the bargain bin, they’ll have to sort through a trio of 30-year-old No. 2 receivers — Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson or Victor Cruz — and all three won’t be exactly come cheap. Outside of Terrelle Pryor, there are some complimentary wide receivers, but nobody up to the task of being covered by Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson twice a season out in the NFC West.
The 49ers could use their second round pick on a wide receiver and pray he’s capable of transitioning to the NFL without any hiccups. What they’ll likely do is go for cheaper contracts on players like Baltimore’s Kamar Aiken or Dallas’ Terrence Williams, banking on Shanahan’s ability to squeeze the most out of a skill player. Even though it’s not a final solution, adding players with untapped potential Aiken or Williams would be a significant step in the right direction.
When you take a look at what will be close to $80 million in cap space — thank you Trent Baalke — you’d think the 49ers might as well place a bet on the roulette table. There are clear advantages to the 49ers adding Jeffery.
We all know Shanahan’s recent track record with Jones. For the first time since his Houston days with Andre Johnson, the dynamic play caller had one of the most dangerous weapons in the league, and in turn, everyone else on offense in Atlanta was able to ride the coattails. If Shanahan decides during his film evaluation of Jeffery that he can make the 6-foot-3 target a bona fide 1,500-yard, 10 touchdown receiver for the next five seasons — all while freeing up other pass catchers on the team — you put and offer on the table and never look back.
There are concerns. Jeffery is a fringe top 10 receiver on his best day and the 49ers will be paying him as if he’s the best in the NFL. He’s had two 1,000 yard seasons in five seasons with Chicago. Durability has been an issue. He’s missed 17 career games across three different seasons. He also had Brandon Marshall and Martellus flocking beside him for much of his success. That won’t be his supporting cast for possibly two seasons in San Francisco.
The conundrum here is that Jeffery alone won’t be enough. For Shanahan to get this team to the playoffs, he’ll need a minimum of four electric playmakers. Does that mean the 49ers should wait for a less risky No. 1 wide receiving option next season in the draft? These players don’t exactly grow on trees, and it’s kind of wild the Bears are letting Jeffery walk away. On the flip side of the coin — do you try and solve a major component on your roster while you can?
The 49ers really might be okay with playing the long game at quarterback and wide receiver. Spending this much on Jeffery now could hinder their quarterback search monetarily next offseason. If the Redskins franchise tag Kirk Cousins this season, and he doesn’t win a playoff game, Dan Snyder’s reactionary culture in Washington will rise to the surface. Cousins would hit the open market and gravitate towards Shanahan. Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins is also scheduled to hit the open market. Talk about a combination worth waiting for.
Still, that’s looking entirely too far into the crystal ball, though. In the NFL, plans rarely go according to how you schedule them.
Can the 49ers eventually win a Super Bowl with Alshon Jeffery as their best receiver? It’s an age old debate how much receivers even matter in the grand scheme of the big game in February. But the Falcons likely would not have gotten as far as they did without Jones. If Shanahan determines the same about Jeffery, then we can expect No. 17 to start house shopping in the South Bay.