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Free agent targets for 49ers after Buckner trade, potential Sanders departure

© Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The stated aim of John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan at the NFL Combine was to keep the 49ers’ core together. They have mostly stuck to that plan, with at least one major exception in DeForest Buckner.

In addition to the five early restricted free agents who returned, Arik Armstead is back on a five-year deal reportedly worth up to $85 million, but with a $6 million year-one cap hit, and Jimmie Ward returned on a three-year, $28.5 million deal with a $4.5 million cap hit in year one.

Also returning are Ben Garland (one year, $2.25 million), Jerick McKinnon (on a restructured deal worth just $2.91 million per OverTheCap), Matt Breida and Kendrick Bourne (both at the $3.259 million second-round tender), Shon Coleman (one year, $962,500) and Ronald Blair III (one year, unreported amount, potentially around $4 million).

There was also the swap of Mike Person (cutting his $2.5 million salary) for Tom Compton, a veteran guard from Shanahan’s Redskins and Falcons days (reported one-year, $3 million, but potentially heavily incentivized, so assuming $1.5 million cap hit).

What’s left is a likely monumental extension for George Kittle. The 49ers will want to keep his cap hit low this year if possible, but if/when a deal gets done it will probably be worth at least three times the $2.21 million salary Kittle is scheduled to make currently. Something like a ballpark projection of around $8 million for this year.

One key note: the 49ers do have to budget for their 2020 draft picks, but it’s not their $8.16 million in rookie pool money. The only amount they really need to budget for are their top two picks, which are projected at $2.91 million and $1.97 million. That’s assuming they don’t trade down, which makes those numbers cheaper (that scenario and those numbers explained here).

So, assuming those draft picks stay in the first round (they won’t, but that’s the maximum amount), the 49ers really only need to budget about $3.39 million for incoming rookies.

Factoring all this in, the 49ers effectively have $3.68 million in cap space.That’s without cutting or trading Tevin Coleman (would save about $4.12 million) or Marquise Goodwin (would create about $2.91 million), trading Solomon Thomas (would create about $3.64 million), or extending Kyle Juszczyk (unclear, but probably a savings around $3-plus million), or cutting Mark Nzeocha (would save about $800k).

Assuming just Coleman and Goodwin are traded or cut, the 49ers have effectively $10.71 million in cap space. Again, they could trade Thomas, extend Juszczyk and cut Nzeocha to bump that number up to $18.80 million.

The Dallas Cowboys and Emmanuel Sanders reportedly have mutual interest. It’s clear the 49ers could re-sign Sanders by moving money around, but this scenario will look at the options assuming he doesn’t return.

We’re looking at three positions: wide receiver, defensive tackle, tight end.

Wide receiver

(Demarcus Robinson, © Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)

If the 49ers let Sanders go, they’re not replacing him one-for-one with a free agent. Barring a trade, it will likely be a veteran signing (a la a productive version of what Jordan Matthews was supposed to be) and one of the enticing prospects in the draft.

Demarcus Robinson: This goes back to shipping off Goodwin and looking for a speedy option to replace him. Robinson had a productive, but inconsistent season with the Chiefs (32 catches, 449 yards, 4 TD) with Patrick Mahomes. At 6’1″, he also provides size that the 49ers lack. His main issue is drops, but he is skilled at creating space for himself off the line of scrimmage and sitting down in gaps in zone coverage. He’s also just 25 years old and has steadily improved each year.

Phillip Dorsett: Dorsett has already been linked with the 49ers and is a solid, very fast option for a team that will almost certainly part ways with Marquise Goodwin. He only caught 29 passes for 397 yards in 14 games with the Patriots last season, but had 5 TDs.

Taylor Gabriel: Shanahan had him with the Browns in 2014 and brought him to Atlanta in 2016. He’s never had a breakout season, but he had a three-touchdown game in Week 3 last year before a concussion held him out. He ended up playing in 9 games and didn’t play after Week 12.

He’s a solid slot option with great yards after catch ability. Crucially, he’d be a veteran depth piece who Shanahan is familiar with, and that’s worth something in an offense that challenges players to pick up.

Rashard Higgins: Higgins is coming off a season which, along with everyone else in Cleveland, was disappointing. He had just 55 yards and 4 receptions in 11 games, targeted just 11 times all season. He played in Week 1 and then not again until Week 8 through 13, then was only used on special teams.

He was reportedly dealing with a knee injury and underperformed when he returned, never really recovering and getting into a spat with head coach Freddie Kitchens, who has not proven he’s capable at being the head coach of a football team. There was plenty of promise surrounding the still just 25-year-old Higgins going into the season after a 39-catch, 572-yard, 4 TD year in 2018. The bet here would be getting a cheap wide receiver who still has upside.

Devin Funchess: Funchess is coming off of a broken collarbone which ended his season after just one game with the Colts last season. It’s not exactly the type of injury that concerns teams in terms of long-term longevity, though, and he proved he’s at the very least, a consistent rotation option well before that, with a 63-catch, 840-yard, 8 TD season in 2017 with the Panthers. He regressed some the following year with far fewer targets, but he’s clearly a more proven receiver than Dante Pettis, Richie James Jr., Trent Taylor or Jalen Hurd, and stands at 6’4″, which would make him the second-tallest option on the team outside of Hurd.

Defensive tackle 

(Timmy Jernigan, © Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Timmy Jernigan: Jernigan was drafted by the Ravens before being traded to the Eagles and signing a three-year, $15.83 million extension, which was largely based in a sizable 2019 team option that the Eagles declined both due to the $11 million salary and the fact that he suffered a neck and back injury in 2018.

He returned on a one year, $1.625 million deal and showed that he’s still explosive and disruptive in the backfield. He stood out on film against traditional run-stuffers like Harrison and Mebane because even though he’s not going to rack up tremendous sack numbers (career-high of 5.0 in 2016, 2.0 last season), he wreaks havoc on the interior.

Shelby Harris: Harris operated in a 3-4 scheme in Denver, but he effectively played as a 3-technique outside of the opposing guard, while many of these guys are oriented towards nose tackle status. That makes him a decent option as far as looking for some value in replacing Buckner’s void. Another bonus is that he’s got a weird knack for batting balls down at the line of scrimmage, reading the quarterback and knowing when he can’t get through, dropping back almost like an NBA center

He’s a true power rusher who creates problems one-on-one for any below-average guards and is a very reliable run defender in addition to creating rare interior pressure on the quarterback. He had six sacks last season, and is one of the better options out there for the 49ers in terms of recouping some of Buckner’s lost value (recouping all of it will prove impossible). It will be interesting to see what his price is after making $3.095 million last season.

Damon Harrison: Harrison is your classic run-stuffing nose tackle. He’s lost a lot of his explosiveness in the last few years, but he still knows how to read the run effectively and use his leverage to shed blocks. The issue, though, is he won’t really be pressuring the quarterback, so you’d have to look at him as a Sheldon Day replacement or a backup for D.J. Jones. If viewed in that light, he’s a solid option on the right price.

Ndamukong Suh: He’s not what he once was, but Suh is still a menace on the interior. Since his rookie season, he’s never had a cap hit of less than $6.1 million, though, so while he’s proven he’s still effective, he won’t be cheap.

Tight end

(Tyler Eifert, © Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)

This is a tricky position because the 49ers aren’t going to pay someone a ton of money to be a backup tight end unless they’re elite (see: Austin Hooper), but Shanahan is always ahead of the curve in terms of adjusting and improving the offense.

The 49ers were one of the teams who inquired about Hooper, a sign that Kyle Shanahan wants an upgrade there, which may have happened regardless of Levine Toilolo’s departure to the Giants. Shanahan loves to follow what the Patriots do, and said earlier this season he watches their tape every week.

He might just be looking for a solid complement to Kittle. Not quite Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in terms of two elite tight ends, but someone else with size who defenses have to think about, in trying to turn back the clock a bit with a solid two tight-end approach, which also functions to benefit the running game.

He could well target this through the draft, with someone like Notre Dame’s Chase Claypool (a wide receiver in a tight end’s body) if/when the 49ers trade down to the third round, or wait for someone like Colby Parkinson of Stanford (the 49ers drafted his old teammate, Kaden Smith, in the sixth round of last year’s draft and Lynch loves his Stanford guys).

But they’ll probably need to bring in someone before the draft, even if it’s an unexciting veteran.

Delanie Walker: A Walker reunion in San Francisco? He was far from a star when he left for Tennessee in 2013, but broke out in the second half of his career. He wouldn’t be that same guy if he returned, but if healthy, he’d be a tremendous second tight end option.

Tyler Eifert: This could be the best option here. Eifert made just a tick over $3 million last season and was at his most productive since a laundry list of injuries derailed the previous three seasons of his career. He played in 16 games for the first time, catching 43 passes for 436 yards and 3 TDs. If he is healthy, he’s at the very least a decent red zone target.

Jordan Reed: If Eifert’s career has been hampered by injuries, Reed’s might be permanently sidelined. He’s had at least 7 recorded concussions in his career and there’s a fair question if should actually be playing football. He missed all of the 2019 season due to a concussion. Still, he was with Shanahan in Washington and if he can convince anyone he’s healthy, he could be an option. He, like Eifert and Walker, might be delayed, however, given their injury histories, because of the coronavirus and the fact that getting medicals at the signing team’s facility isn’t an option.


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