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The 49ers have addressed every position group in some fashion this offseason, aside from tight end. By signing six free agents, trading for Dee Ford, re-signing seven players, and releasing four more, the 49ers have been busy in the opening weeks of the new league year.
Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have divulged some of the thinking behind these transactions during recent interviews at last month’s NFL Combine, Ford’s and Kwon Alexander’s introductory press conference earlier this month, and this week’s annual owners meetings. Based on those comments, we know a bit more about the outlook at each position and what to watch when training camp approaches in late July.
Here is a projected 53-man roster, which accounts for unnamed draft picks.
Breaking: Jimmy Garoppolo will be the starter. But, according to Shanahan’s comments Tuesday, the backup competition between Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard will be wide open.
“We’ll flip a coin the first day,” Shanahan told reporters when he was asked about who will take the first rep.
That’s news, because Mullens outperformed Beathard in just about every facet during the 2018 season.
Mullens’ 2,277 passing yards are the fourth-most for a quarterback through his first eight starts in NFL history, behind only Patrick Mahomes, Andrew Luck, and Cam Newton. Mullens finished fifth in the NFL in 2018 with 8.31 yards per attempt. His 285 yards per game were seventh in the league. His 64.2 completion percentage was slightly better than Baker Mayfield’s. Mullens tallied 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Beathard posted 1,252 yards, eight touchdowns, and seven interceptions on 60.4 percent passing. He averaged 7.4 yards per attempt, which was right around the league average.
Shanahan has stood by Beathard, his 2017 third-round pick, through difficult circumstances. Shanahan clearly hasn’t given up on Beathard yet.
The 49ers made a surprising, yet cost-effective, move when they signed running back Tevin Coleman to a two-year, $8.5 million deal. The 49ers return Jerick McKinnon, who should be fully recovered from a torn ACL by the start of training camp, Matt Breida, and Raheem Mostert. Coleman and McKinnon are similar speedy, dual-threats.
Judging from John Lynch’s comments Monday, Coleman doesn’t deem McKinnon expendable.
“Jerick is going to be a part of us,” Lynch told reporters. “We’re excited to see that through. Jerick is working incredibly hard. It was an unfortunate blow that’s happened to him.”
Coleman played under Shanahan for two years in Atlanta. In each of the past three seasons, Coleman has amassed 900-plus all-purpose yards while splitting carries the majority of that time. Adding Coleman simply gives the 49ers another playmaker. They have built this offense from the inside out, stockpiling the running back position, featuring All-Pro tight end George Kittle, and adding most of their receivers through the draft.
“We were very fortunate to have a chance to get Tevin,” Shanahan said earlier this month. “(I) 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.”
The 49ers have typically activated three running backs on game day. The conundrum is whether to include Mostert, whose three-year contract extension shows he’s still very much in the team’s plans. He is San Francisco’s top special-teams gunner. For now, let’s expect the 49ers dress three running backs, along with Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk, and find special-teams production elsewhere.
Richie James (kickoff)
The lone addition here is Jordan Matthews. He will help replace Pierre Garcon, who was released after two seasons with the 49ers.
Matthews, 26, is an accomplished NFL receiver trying to find a home after bouncing around throughout the past two years. He battled knee injuries throughout the past two seasons. In his first three NFL seasons, however, Matthews averaged 75 catches, 891 yards, and more than six touchdowns per year.
Matthews can play any of the receiver spots. Shanahan values versatility. And he has seen improvement in Matthews over the years, despite regressing production.
“He has played a lot and we wanted to get a veteran into our group to add some competition,” Shanahan said this week, via The Athletic‘s Matt Barrows. “We played with a lot of young guys. We lost Pierre (Garcon), so that was one veteran that we don’t have anymore. … (Matthews) has bounced around a little in this league. I think he’s gotten better each year in this league, just studying him, and I think his skill set adds something to our group. He’s a bigger receiver who has good hands, very smart receiver and he also can run.”
*Drafted tight end
Nothing changes here. This group revolves around Kittle, one of the NFL’s breakout stars of 2018. The 49ers will likely add another tight end in the draft to compete with Garrett Celek.
*Drafted offensive tackle
The 49ers’ only transaction here was extending starting right guard Mike Person for three more years. Last year, in forming the new offensive line, the team signed Person and center Weston Richburg and drafted Mike McGlinchey. That trio joined incumbent starters Joe Staley and Laken Tomlinson.
This is all about building continuity. The 49ers retain all five of their starting offensive linemen.
“I think the o-line and the experience they got last year, the players we had, how much they played, I think it will give us a huge advantage going into this year,” Shanahan said.
The 49ers haven’t given up on Joshua Garnett, a 2016 first-round draft pick who has not quite shaken the injury bug. Garnett will compete with Person for the starting right guard role, though it is Person’s to lose.
“I would love for Garnett to step it up,” Shanahan said at the Combine. “He showed us some good things this year, but he has just not been able to stay healthy long enough to become a consistent enough player of his ability.”
The 49ers are likely to add an offensive tackle in April’s draft. They released backup tackle Garry Gilliam.
*Drafted defensive lineman
The team’s splashiest free agency move was acquiring Ford, who had a league-leading seven forced fumbles and 78 pressures during his 2018 Pro Bowl campaign. This was the signing the 49ers fanbase collectively wanted for some time. In 2018, the 49ers edge rushers combined for 14 sacks. Ford had 14 himself, including two playoff games.
Ford, the team’s new LEO, has one mission: reach the quarterback.
“Whether he’s getting the sacks or not, he’s extremely hard to block,” Shanahan said earlier this month. “He’s been that way always. That’s why he was a first round pick out of college too. So hopefully, you keep doing the same numbers and it keeps going up. Regardless of that, we have a very good player, and there’s not many people better at getting after the quarterback.”
The 49ers also exercised Arik Armstead’s fifth-year option. The 2018 season was the first time since his rookie year that he played in all 16 games. After starting 11 career contests in his first three NFL seasons, Armstead started all 16 last year.
The 6-foot-8 defensive lineman was a major reason why the 49ers defense ranked seventh in yards per carry and allowed one opposing player to rush for more than 104 yards in a game against them. Pro Football Focus rated Armstead as the NFL’s No. 15 edge defender in run defense. He compiled 37 pressures, three sacks, and a career-best 48 tackles.
“I don’t think it was difficult at all,” Shanahan said about the decision to retain Armstead. “We are not into losing good players. He has played very well for us. I think he can take it to a whole other level, and I hope to see him do that this year. If he does, that’s going to be very good for the Niners, and very good for him. He has the ability to do it. He has already done some very good things for us these two years. Hopefully he can stay healthier. Hopefully the addition of changing our style up a little bit on the d-line can help him. I expect him to get better.”
Kentavius Street, the team’s fourth-round pick in 2018, will return to the field after losing his rookie season due to a torn ACL. He will battle with Jullian Taylor at the big end position. For roster constraint purposes, we included Taylor over Street in the above projection.
It took the 49ers fewer than two hours into the legal tampering period to agree to a deal with linebacker Kwon Alexander. He was signed to a four-year, $54-million contract, record-breaking annual money for an inside linebacker, at the time. Alexander, who tore his ACL last season, was named a Pro Bowl reserve in 2017.
Alexander will pair with promising second-year linebacker Fred Warner.
“With Kwon, he’s always had a propensity, he’s always around the ball,” Lynch said earlier this month. ‘There’s so many things to like, but that is definitely something that jumps.”
Shanahan has a simple reason for signing Alexander and Ford.
“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.”
The 49ers also signed David Mayo, who spent all four of his NFL seasons in a backup role with the Panthers. Brock Coyle retired after five seasons, all with the 49ers. Elijah Lee signed his one-year exclusive rights tender.
Last year, the lack of secondary competition preceded a poor start to the season. That won’t be an issue in 2019.
The 49ers signed cornerback Jason Verrett to a one-year, $3.6 million deal. In the lone season he played 14 or more games, he was named a Pro Bowler, in 2015. In Verrett’s following three seasons with the Chargers, he appeared in 11 of potentially 50 games. He has endured one season-ending injury after the next, including knee injuries and an Achilles rupture suffered during 2018 training camp.
Verrett will compete with Tarvarius Moore and Ahkello Witherspoon for the starting right cornerback role opposite from Richard Sherman. That battle seems to be wide open.
Kyle Shanahan said he anticipates that Jason Verrett, Ahkello Witherspoon and Tarvarius Moore will all compete to start opposite Richard Sherman.
— Joe Fann (@Joe_Fann) March 26, 2019
Of the team’s biggest weaknesses last season, the one they have not addressed via free agency is safety. The 49ers re-signed oft-injured Jimmie Ward to a one-year deal. He will compete for the starting free safety job.
“Jimmie Ward has played at an extremely high level throughout his career when he’s been healthy,” Lynch said earlier this month. “We all know he’s struggled to stay healthy, which has been unfortunate for him. He played very hard. He’s very talented. And that’s why it’s been very hard for him to go out there and get really what he deserves as a player. But, to have Jimmie back here with the talent he has and if he can stay healthy, and we’re going to give him every chance to, we know we’ve got as good of a safety as we can get.”
There has been lots of special-teams news throughout the past month.
The 49ers applied their franchise tag to Robbie Gould. They signed punter Justin Vogel to replace Bradley Pinion, who signed with the Buccaneers. The 49ers also re-signed long snapper Kyle Nelson to a four-year deal, though he will sit the first six games due to a PED suspension. Colin Holba will start in his place.