With free agency looming and the draft on the horizon, much of the current NFL conversation revolves around need, at least from the team perspective. Spend a short period of time looking over the 49ers’ current roster, however, and you’ll quickly realize that need is not the proper lens to view San Francisco’s upcoming offseason through.
The Great Purge of 2015, which saw the departure of numerous foundational players, left the 49ers’ roster looking like a barren wasteland compared to the NFC Championship days, absent of both depth at the bottom and blue-chippers at the top.
Outside of safety, where the 49ers have spent considerable resources in recent years, there’s not a single position on the roster that couldn’t use some help between now and the start of the 2016 regular season. There are some relative strengths — defensive line and safety come to mind — but even the strongest parts of the roster have significant question marks and mostly lack players with proven track records of success.
When your wish list extends to every corner of the roster, it makes little sense to focus on need. Needs are for teams looking for the last couple pieces of the puzzle, not teams that have no idea what the final puzzle looks like yet. So where should Trent Baalke & Co. be focusing their attention? Simply, on impact. Within reason, San Francisco needs to find as many impact players as possible over the next few months, regardless of position. Next to the development of young talent currently on the roster, there is no bigger priority for the 49ers this offseason.
Luckily, the 49ers have the resources to make considerable changes to last year’s sieve-like roster, should they choose to use them. Only the Jaguars, Raiders, and Giants have more cap space entering the start of the new league year, per Over The Cap’s numbers. Even better, their long-term cap outlook is also excellent. According to Over The Cap’s Commitment Index, which measures future cap commitments relative to the rest of the league, only the Raiders, Jaguars, Bucs, and Bears are in a better spot for 2017 and beyond. That doesn’t mean that Baalke should go HAM on the top of the free agent market, but it does mean he could potentially dip his toes into the top of the market for the first time in his tenure without mortgaging the team’s future cap health.
Toss in 12 draft picks, and Baalke has more ammunition to improve San Francisco’s roster than any other team in football. With that in mind, let’s look at where things stand entering the new league year and run through the moves Baalke should make this spring to prepare the roster to be more competitive come the fall.
1. Re-sign NT Ian Williams
San Francisco has already gotten to work on their unrestricted free agent class, inking tight end Garrett Celek to a four-year deal early last week. The remaining un-signed players don’t match up to last year’s class in terms of quality or stature, but the clear top priority should be Baalke’s greatest undrafted free agent success story, nose tackle Ian Williams.
Few interior defensive linemen were playing as well as Williams by the close of last season. With the possible exception of Aaron Lynch, no 49ers defender was a more consistent performer than Williams, who proved to be one of the league’s better run defenders in 2015. Unlike most nose tackles, however, Williams wasn’t simply a base-defense player, offering more pass-rush value than you would expect from the position. Eric Mangini frequently kept Williams on the field in sub-packages, resulting in Williams playing in 57.8 percent of defensive snaps, the highest among 49ers defensive linemen.
The biggest concern with Williams is durability, as a rough stretch of ankle injuries limited him to just 11 games from 2013–14 before playing in all 16 games a year ago. It’s always a questionable proposition to sign an oft-injured player to a contract after a career year in which he managed to stay healthy. But there has been little offseason buzz surrounding Williams and it shouldn’t wind up being too cost-prohibitive to keep him around. Baalke would be best served getting the deal done before the free agency period officially opens, ideally with guarantees contingent upon staying healthy. If he opts to wait, Jets nose tackle Damon Harrison might set the market for the position higher than Baalke is willing to pay.
It’s less clear whether Baalke should bother bringing back any of the team’s other UFAs. Alex Boone is the only other player with the potential for multiple years of quality football still to come, but given Boone’s unhappiness with his contract in recent years, it feels like a deal would have been done already if Baalke had Boone in his long-term plans. Anquan Boldin could fit into Chip Kelly’s offense as a physical slot receiver, but given where team and player are in their respective life cycles, it seems to make more sense for Boldin to link up with a contender and the 49ers to look to develop younger talent at the position.
The Reggie Bush Experiment is almost certainly over after 14 uninspiring touches in five games. I tend to view paying top-tier money to kickers as poor investments given the inherent year-to-year performance instability at the position, but Phil Dawson appears to have a strongest chance of returning.
Outside of Williams, the 49ers could choose to move on from their other unrestricted free agents with minimal damages. Considering Baalke’s history of extending homegrown players before their contracts expire, that seems to be the most likely outcome.
2. Tender ILB Michael Wilhoite, cut loose all other RFAs
Due to the minimal cost associated with retaining restricted free agents, most of them tend to stay put during the free agency period. San Francisco, on the other hand, would be better served cutting most of their RFA crop — which consists of Michael Wilhoite, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Jordan Devey, amd Ray Ray Armstrong — loose and looking for contributions elsewhere.
The one exception would be Wilhoite. Should Gerald Hodges claim the starting role next to NaVorro Bowman, or the 49ers opt to upgrade the position via free agency or the draft, Wilhoite’s experience as a starter over the past two seasons would be valuable to keep around as a reserve inside linebacker.
3. Release expendable veterans
Given the aforementioned cap situation, the 49ers don’t need to create additional cap space by releasing veteran players, and one could argue they lost enough of them last offseason. But with a change of coaching staff typically comes some roster turnover, and there are a few players who would make sense to part ways with.
Most obviously is outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks. Brooks’s release was widely anticipated last year, but the move never came. San Francisco didn’t need to get rid of him, but it would be hard to argue keeping him around did any good. Though Brooks somehow managed to tie Aaron Lynch for the team lead in sacks (6.5), that feat greatly overstates his play on the field. In reality, Brooks was one of the worst defenders on the league’s 27th-ranked defense. As things currently sit, Brooks’s $9.6-million cap hit is the second-highest on the team, behind Colin Kaepernick. Barring a significant restructure, it would be legitimately shocking for Brooks to defy the odds in a second straight season and remain on the roster.
The other obvious candidate is tackle Erik Pears, who struggled mightily while starting all 16 games on the deplorable right side of San Francisco’s offensive line. Even on a unit lacking quality and depth, Pears didn’t show enough in 2015 to warrant keeping around. And considering he will be entering his age–34 season, there’s little reason to expect improvement going forward.
Again, these moves aren’t necessarily about creating additional cap space, but cutting Brooks and Pears would free up an extra $8.5 million, per Over The Cap’s figures. They’re not the only veterans currently under contract who could be looking for work in the coming weeks, and we’ll get to a couple other names here shortly, but they are certainly the most likely.
Two names to keep an eye on that could potentially become scheme-fit casualties are Bruce Miller and Quinton Patton.
Chip Kelly has never used a fullback, and though it’s reasonable to expect some scheme adjustments to take place in the 49ers iteration of his offense, that would be a drastic one. As far as Miller seeing time at tight end, which Kelly hinted at while speaking to the Bay Area media at the combine, I just can’t see it. At 6-foot–1, 248 pounds, Miller would be significantly undersized for a Kelly tight end. Though he’s been a quality receiving fullback, Miller doesn’t possess the athleticism or receiving skills to make up for his lack of size. Only time will tell if the "football player" will prove too sticky to get rid of, but it would be an upset to see Miller remain on the roster come September.
Patton is also undersized for his position in Kelly’s offense. But unlike Miller, who has been a positive contributor in the past, Patton has shown very little on the field worth getting excited about. He’s on the final year of his rookie deal, which means his salary is minimal and he’s a solid bet to remain on the roster through training camp. But unless the 49ers fail to add any more names to the wide receiver depth chart in the coming months, Patton should probably keep his bags half-packed.
4. Take a close look at the contracts of Bethea and Reid
Baalke has dumped a lot of resources into the safety position recently, using a high draft picks on the position in each of the past three drafts in addition to signing Antoine Bethea in free agency. Two of those players, Bethea and Eric Reid, warrant taking a closer look at this offseason, albeit for potentially different reasons.
Bethea exceeded even the most optimistic expectations during his first season in San Francisco, starting all 16 games and leading an injury-riddled defense to a top 5 finish. His 2015 didn’t go as well, with his play slipping a bit before landing on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle after seven games. Now, Bethea will be coming off a significant injury entering his age–32 season as one of the team’s highest-paid players ($6.0-million cap hit) and a promising young player behind him. The 49ers can easily sit tight, go into the offseason program, and let Bethea and Jaquiski Tartt compete for the job. But it’s worth at least considering a restructure, or if the team is convinced Tartt is the better player right now, releasing him outright.
Reid is entering the final season of his rookie contract, which is prime extension territory for young players Baalke plans on keeping around. Baalke has long followed the old Eagles model of extending homegrown talent before they reach the open market and he’s forced to pay top dollar for them. It’s possible Baalke lets Reid play out his lame-duck season and considers inserting Jimmie Ward as the starting free safety in 2017. But Reid is obviously talented, and might come at a slight discount after arguably his worst season as a pro. It would make a lot of sense for Baalke to use some of that cap space to lock up the former first-round pick to an extension.
5. Repair relationship with Colin Kaepernick
Lots of virtual ink has been spilled on Colin Kaepernick’s future with the 49ers over the past couple months, something that won’t change until the situation reaches a definitive resolution. Should Kaepernick find himself still on the roster after April 1, I’ll have much more on his potential fit within Kelly’s offense. But in the meantime, it’s hard not to think back to the Alex Smith situation in 2011.
Most observers, including the embattled quarterback himself, felt Smith’s time in San Francisco had reached its end by the conclusion of the 2010 season. The 49ers were rumored to be on the prowl for a quarterback with the No. 7 overall selection in the draft to pair with new head coach Jim Harbaugh; Smith was a free agent looking for a fresh start. Of course, the 49ers didn’t take a quarterback with the No. 7 pick, and Smith found his fresh start in San Francisco with a new coaching staff and went on to have a career year. In hindsight, it was the best solution for both parties.
Unlike Smith, Kaepernick is still under contract, but it’s not difficult to see the parallels between the two situations. Even if Kaepernick manages to coax a trade or release, he’s unlikely to find a better situation than playing for a coach who has spent the past three seasons making subpar quarterbacks look competent. And if the 49ers are hell-bent on getting rid of Kaepernick, they’re removing the highest-upside option from the quarterback equation in 2016, even if he’s not necessarily the home-run fit for Kelly’s offense that many presume he is.
With the way Kaepernick has played over the past two seasons, you can’t blame the 49ers for wanting to move on. With the way Kaepernick has been treated by the organization over the past year, you can’t blame him for wanting to leave. But, at least for 2016, it’s in the best interest of team and player to figure out a way to make it work.
6. Rebuild offensive line in free agency
Regardless of who winds up under center, upgrading the offensive line is the most direct path toward improved quarterback play, and improved offense, for the 49ers next season.
With the focus on impact rather than need, it makes the most sense to target the strengths of this year’s respective free agency and draft classes. We’ll touch on the draft class shortly, but perhaps no position is stronger in this free agent class than interior offensive line. Pro Football Focus listed five interior linemen among their top 25 free agents, including four of the top 11. Consensus rankings of five different top free agent lists I compiled (Pro Football Focus, NFL.com, Rotoworld, SB Nation, and ProFootballTalk) produced similar results, with interior linemen accounting for nine of the top 75 spots, the most of any position group.
Combined with the abundance of cap space, the strength of this free agent class gives Baalke the opportunity to rebuild the 49ers’ offensive line in a single offseason.
Ravens guard Kelechi Osemele, who would be an excellent fit in Chip Kelly’s zone-based run game, is an All-Pro-caliber guard and widely considered to be the best offensive free agent available. There’s still a solid chance Osemele winds up back in Baltimore, but if the Ravens are unable to get pen to paper before the official start of free agency, he might wind up fetching more on the open market than Ozzie Newsome can pony up.
To be clear, Osemele, who is reportedly seeking $10 million-plus per year, will likely become the highest-paid guard in football when all is said and done, and it would be incredibly out of character for Baalke to put up that sort of money for almost any position, let alone an interior lineman. And in most situations, he’d be right not to. But should he opt to break from his established norm, Baalke has the means to sign a player like Osemele without risking San Francisco’s long-term cap situation going to hell as a result by front-loading much of the guaranteed money into the first couple years of the deal when the 49ers will have considerable cap space to work with.
Should Osemele prove too rich for Baalke’s taste, there are several other quality linemen worth considering. Alex Mack’s name will surely get tossed around by some, and though he’s an excellent player, relative to Osemele he’s older, not as good, and not likely to come with much of a discount. More realistically, Brandon Brooks or Ramon Foster would be strong options and could provide an instant upgrade at guard.
7. Supplement with a veteran cornerback, pass rusher
After interior linemen, the two positions to show up most frequently on the aforementioned consensus free agent rankings are cornerback and edge rusher. If the 49ers hope to improve upon their 30th-ranked pass defense from a year ago, they’d be well served to consider adding a veteran to the mix at each spot.
Baalke’s track record at cornerback has been to fill out the position with day-three draft picks and low-cost veteran free agents. Currently, San Francisco’s depth chart consists almost entirely of the latter. Tramaine Brock, who has been a solid contributor when healthy but is not a No. 1 cornerback, is the most senior of the group, but originally joined the team as an undrafted free agent. Every other notable name was added recently with a late-round pick.
A couple of those players, notably Dontae Johnson and Kenneth Acker, have shown positive glimpses for brief stretches, but neither player has shown the ability to produce at a high level for an extended period. So while it’s reasonable to hope for some development from this group, the 49ers would be well served by adding a veteran to the mix. Sean Smith and Janoris Jenkins are the biggest names available, but positional value likely means they garner more money on the open market than a top offensive lineman like Osemele. Players like Prince Amukamara and Patrick Robinson could come at more reasonable costs and still step in to be San Francisco’s best cornerback.
The edge-rusher group in this free agent class is heavy on 4–3 defensive end types, and San Francisco is unlikely to find anyone here who could slot in as an every down player at outside linebacker in their 3–4. But with the significant amount of time San Francisco, and every defense these days, spends in four-man fronts while in sub-packages, they could still look to add one as a situational pass rusher if the price is right. Jason Pierre-Paul, Mario Williams, and Chris Long will attract most of the headlines, but names like Williams Hayes or Derrick Shelby could be more in San Francisco’s wheelhouse.
8. Impact defender, or quarterback, at top of the draft
I’ll have much more on the draft in the coming weeks once I have an opportunity to spend more time studying this draft class, but upon initial glance the 49ers appear to be in a solid position at No. 7 overall.
The 2016 draft class is widely considered to be light on offensive talent — as is the free agent class, which doesn’t bode well for the 49ers adding a playmaker at wideout this offseason — so San Francisco’s decision will likely come down to a quarterback or one of the top four defenders. Presuming the Titans wind up selecting Ole Miss tackle Laremy Tunsil, as basically every expects at this point, some simple math tells us that one of those six players — quarterbacks Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, defensive linemen Joey Bosa and DeForest Buckner, defensive back Jalen Ramsey, or linebacker Myles Jack — will be sitting there for Baalke when the 49ers go on the clock.
Though most draftniks are lukewarm at best on this quarterback class, the insane positional value of quarterbacks means teams will often do insane things to get one, and I would be surprised if either Goff or Wentz are sitting there at No. 7. Either way, the 49ers should be set to get a difference-making defender out of the highly-regarded top four in the class or a talented, but flawed, young quarterback to develop under Chip Kelly, both of which the 49ers could desperately use.