I’m getting back to this series of articles and starting with the team that’s closest to my heart, the 49ers.
Since Jim Harbaugh left it’s been a pretty dour few years. It’s been tough being a supporter of the red and gold. I’m not sure any supporter really thought Jim Tomsula was going to be successful. Chip Kelly came in with a tonne of baggage from his Eagles days, none of it good, and whilst we all thought he might be the best coach to get something out of Colin Kaepernick it never really got going. Following that 2016 season, Jed York cleared the decks of coach and GM Trent Baalke and whilst he hired a highly thought of Kyle Shanahan, the appointment of John Lynch as GM was met dubiously. What looked like a good off-season didn’t transfer on to the field and it wasn’t until the trade deadline day where Lynch handed over a second-round pick for Jimmy Garoppolo that things got going.
And got going they did. Five straight wins to close out the season and with Jimmy G at the helm a tonne of optimism heading in to the off-season and 2018 season. If I were writing this article a few weeks back, then ‘signing Jimmy Garoppolo to a long-term deal’ would be the first thing on my list! That’s now done, and the 49ers have made Jimmy G the highest paid player in the league. I’m confident it’s the right decision but what does Lynch and Shanahan have to do next?
Now that the 49ers have their QB they need to make sure he’s protected.
Trent Brown and Joe Staley are decent tackles that will return next year. Brown has had injury problems but if they can keep him fit then he’s a serviceable right tackle. Staley is getting a bit older now but shows little signs of letting up. They could look at getting in a new left tackle with a high draft pick but it’s the interior if the line that I think will be the focus.
There are two standout options at interior lineman in the draft they could consider should they opt to. Quenton Nelson from Notre Dame has been likened to former pro bowler Logan Mankins and has been predicted to be one of the best offensive line prospects coming in to the draft in 2018. He could have entered the NFL last year when scouts were also putting first round grades on him but chose to return to school. He would offer an instant upgrade at guard should the Niners select him and would slot straight into the starting lineup. There are however a lot of mock drafts that have Nelson going higher than the 9th/10th pick as he’s considered one of the best players overall in the draft.
The other option is Billy Price from Ohio State. He can play at guard but more recently has played centre in college. In his time at Ohio State he has held open a load of running holes for the likes of Ezekiel Elliot to run through. He is projected to play centre in the NFL and with that can hold up bigger nose tackles with his size and strength. However now that Daniel Kilgore has been re-signed, the 49ers could move him back to guard.
Lynch could also look to the free agent market to beef up the offensive line options. It’s too early to predict who will enter the market but one option could be Jonathan Cooper from Dallas. Dallas has previously had one of the best o-lines in football and I would expect Dallas to re-sign him themselves. Should they not then Lynch could swoop in which may mean they could either further bolster it in the draft or look elsewhere.
The last few weeks of the season showed what might await 49ers fans in the future with Shanahan doing the play calling with a good quarterback. After all they put 40+ points on the leagues best defence in Week 16 with what many would consider mediocre receiving and running talent. The Niners have a tonne of cap space and Lynch and Shanahan could go on somewhat of a spending spree to bring in some big-name talent. Goodwin has shown he can provide a deep threat and Garcon will return from injury next year but what else could they get?
I’ll start with the big one that won’t happen but could. Pittsburgh have very little cap space. They also have a premium back played in 2017 under the franchise tag in Le’Veon Bell. As it stands, the Steelers can’t afford to keep him. Shanahan is a big fan of RBs coming out of the back field and catching passes and there are few, if any, better at that than Bell. San Francisco also have the money. So it’s feasible, but it feels like a long shot so I’ll keep dreaming!
The other option is to look to the draft for a new RB to replace Hyde who looks to be heading to free agency. Saquon Barkley is getting a lot of hype following another good season in college. I think he’ll be gone by the time the 49ers pick but again, it’s an exciting option. If he is there when the Niners are picking then I hope to see their guy at the draft bulldozing people out the way to get the pick in! There are other options that could go in the first round in Derrius Guice and Ronald Jones II but I think a top ten pick for either is too high. They can look further in the draft for value at this position should they feel the need.
How about some new receivers then? The one issue we saw over the last few weeks of the season is San Francisco’s trouble once they get in to the red zone. A lot of their receivers aren’t the biggest and even the tight end Kittle isn’t massive and a little raw still. Garcon will help when he comes back next year but there are some other intriguing wide receivers with contracts set to end.
I expect Jarvis Landry, Allen Robinson and Sammy Watkins to be locked up with a new contract or franchise tagged by their respective teams but if they hit free agency then all would interest me! Taylor Gabriel had a lot of success in Atlanta with Shanahan as offensive coordinator so there’s a chance they rekindle their working relationship although I see Goodwin as a similar player. The other name that would intrigue me is Donte Moncrief. Now that the Colts have solved their coaching dilemma I expect them to sit down and figure out who to keep. I’m a fan of Moncrief, he didn’t have a great year last year but he was in a tough situation given the quarterback play on offer.
If they were going to go down the trade route then there are two interesting options, though both come with a tonne of personal baggage which I think will put off Lynch and Shanahan. Dez Bryant has had a very mediocre couple of years and has little chemistry with Prescott. He’s also coming in to the final year of his contract which will cost Dallas $16m – a large price to pay for an ineffectual player. He would provide the 49ers with a red zone option though as Jimmy would just need to put the ball up and watch Dez come down with it. There’s a chance that Dallas might just cut him as, given his contract for 2018, he’ll be difficult to trade away.
The other option would be Martavis Bryant from Pittsburgh. He’s obviously got a chequered history but with the emergence of JuJu Smith-Schuster has seen his targets diminish and was making a lot of negative noise about it at the end of the season. For this reason alone I could see the 49ers steering clear. What with the above money troubles Pittsburgh have they may be keen to clear some money should an offer come in.
Lastly there’s the draft option. 49ers will be picking in the top ten and I think that’ll be too high for this class of receivers. Alabama’s Calvin Ridley is the consensus top wide receiver prospect heading to the draft but for me, looks too similar too Garcon. I could however see Shanahan getting excited about Courtland Sutton from SMU. Standing at 6’4” and 216lbs he has a similar stature to Julio Jones (6’3” and 220lbs). Sutton has the ability to go high point the ball in coverage as well as having good pace (though probably a bit slower than Jones) but unless the 49ers trade back he’s not worth the top ten pick they hold (be it 9th or 10th). If he’s not taken in the first I would expect to see him taken early in the second and with New England holding the original pick, then if this is a player they want then they’ll need to trade up.
Shanahan and Garoppolo look to be good for the offence irrespective of whatever pieces they bring in.
The next thing they need to look at and given the current circumstances it might be the first – the defence. Reuban Foster has put them in a tricky position. He is undoubtedly talented and came out of 2017 with very good reviews and excitement about him for his future. Then he goes and gets arrested for possession of marijuana. That’s bad enough but to follow it up with an arrest for domestic violence is even worse. Whether he is guilty or not is one thing but if he stays in San Francisco (and I think that’s a big ‘if’ now) then he needs to stop putting himself in the positions where such allegations can be made.
That aside, the 49ers need to improve their pass defence and getting a premier corner from the draft is one way to do that. I’ve seen several mock drafts giving the Niners Denzel Ward from Ohio State. I’d be happy with that, he’s an aggressive corner who I think will be a strong addition to any team. Whilst he’s a bit shorter than many would like to see he plays with heart and toughness and is very good at covering receivers, preventing them from getting the ball.
Jaire Alexander could be a second-round steal for whatever team does pick him up. He’s had injury troubles which will cause concern and that’s what’s stopping him being a sure-fire round one pick. Alexander has potential to be a great cover corner, he has speed and athletic ability to be a good player.
The 49ers also have the cap space to go out and sign a good free agent at the cornerback position. Trumaine Johnson from the LA Rams played under the franchise tag in 2017 and as it stands, looks like to hit free agency. The other option could be Super Bowl 49 hero Malcolm Butler. New England should be tagging him but given the fact that he was left on the bench for the Super Bowl would indicate that they’ve lost confidence in his abilities and that he’ll hit free agency.
Despite taking linemen in the first round for the past three years, I still think the Niners lack a good pass rush. Improving the defensive back unit will help to keep receivers covered for longer and give the defensive front more time to get to the quarterback but adding a new shiny weapon wouldn’t be a terrible thing! As well as Denzel Ward, Tremaine Edmunds is a prospect that has been linked with the Niners in the first round. The Virginia Tech product has great size and speed and is strong in the tackle. I think he might be better served to kick inside and play as an inside linebacker as he’s great at spotting the inside hole and bursting through it to either stop the run or get to the QB.
To complete the defensive front, there’s a few premier defensive ends primed to hit free agency. I think both will get tagged but DeMarcus Lawrence from Dallas and Ezekiel Ansah from Detroit are possible players to target in free agency.
So, what next?
The most pressing need of the off-season has been dealt with by keep Garoppolo in San Francisco for the long term. Next, Lynch will need to go out and identify which free agents he wants to bring in. He’s got a tonne of money to play with but that doesn’t mean he should spend it all. I would rather bring in a select few right players than a lot of highly touted wrong players. Character must be a big factor within their search and they need to bring in players who fully buy in to what Lynch and Shanahan are trying to build.
With regards to the draft, Lynch showed us in 2017 that he’s not scared to move up and down the draft board and I think that’s a distinct possibility in 2018. There are four highly thought of QBs coming in to the NFL in 2018 – Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen and Baker Mayfield. There are also many QB needy teams who will pick after San Francisco. Trading in to the top ten from outside is an expensive business but I’ve read more than one mock draft which points to a team like Buffalo swapping their two first round picks in 2018 to move up. I think it’s a distinct possibility that the 49ers will move back and pick up draft capital.
All in all, this 49ers fan will be glued to every bit of coverage before the 2018 season starts in anticipation of a strong showing next year!