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Pro Football Focus offers 3 realistic free agents for the 49ers

These players would be upgrades for the 49ers, but do they all make sense right now?

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The San Francisco 49ers have begun their rebuilding process, and the start of free agency next week will be the next big step. The 49ers have the second most salary cap space at around $80 million, and it could grow significantly larger if Colin Kaepernick decides to opt out of his contract.

The 49ers have a lengthy list of their own free agents to consider, but with only a handful offering some decent upside, this year’s free agency will be mostly about the outside options. The 49ers have already signed defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, cornerback K’Waun Williams, and wide receiver DeAndre Carter, spending more before free agency this year than they did during free agency last year. Mitchell is the most likely to make a notable impact, but all three bring something interesting to the table.

Pro Football Focus is unveiling their 2017 NFL free agency preview, and on Monday they posted their 49ers article. In it, they discuss biggest needs, notable free agents, who they must re-sign, a dream splash in free agency, and a few free agents that make sense on a more realistic level.

PFF said linebacker Gerald Hodges is the team’s must re-sign. They graded him No. 21 among qualified linebackers, and ranked him No. 15 out of 58 linebackers in run stops. Earlier in the week, Albert Breer included Hodges in his list of under-the-radar players who could get a decent contract this year.

The 49ers “dream splash” player is someone we can likely take off the list at this point. PFF suggested Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short, saying the 49ers should offer the bank to him as a significant upgrade. They did acknowledge Short would likely be designated their franchise player, and that is how it has played out. Short is not going anywhere this year.

PFF then offered three free agency prospects, all of which seem a little more realistic since they won’t cost draft picks. They included Chicago Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, Baltimore Ravens defensive lineman Brandon Williams, and Cincinnati Bengals offensive guard Kevin Zeitler.

WR Alshon Jeffery

Even coming off a down, injury-riddled season, at 27 years old Jeffery has already proven that he can be a dominant NFL receiver. Jeffery finished fourth among all wide receivers in 2015 in yards per route run at 2.87, and similar to Anquan Boldin in his heyday, Jeffery has demonstrated the ability to routinely beat defenders at the catch-point, which would bode well for a QB like Colin Kaepernick who has never been particularly accurate.

The 49ers badly need help at the wide receiver position. And yet, I would almost rather invest in Pierre Garcon for less and then invest a high draft pick in a wide receiver. Jeffery has an incredible ceiling, but it is questionable whether or not he will approach it on a consistent basis. Maybe the injuries are a short-term thing, but it is going to cost a lot of money to find out for sure.

DL Brandon Williams

Any fantasy football player from last season can tell you that starting a running back against the 49ers was a consistent recipe for success, the 49ers were routinely gashed on the ground by opposing offenses. Williams, despite coming off a bit of a down year, has been one of the premier run-stuffing defensive tackles since he stepped onto an NFL field. Williams’ 99 stops over the past three seasons rank as the ninth-most among all interior defenders.

The 49ers signed Earl Mitchell to a four-year $16 million contract to play interior defensive line. The deal likely does not carry heavy cap implications, but would they invest in someone like Brandon Williams following that deal? I can see spending a significant draft pick on an interior lineman, but I’m not sure I see free agency being the place they go this year at the position. Right now, it seems likely that Mitchell and DeForest Buckner will man the defensive tackle spots in their base defense. When they move to the nickel, Buckner and Arik Armstead would likely handle the interior roles.

OG Kevin Zeitler

Out of 73 qualified offensive guards last season, Joshua Garnett and Zane Beadles ranked 70th and 72nd, respectively, in terms of overall grade, with both struggling mightily in both pass-protection and as run blockers. Zeitler finished ninth among guards this season with a run-blocking grade of 83.1 and allowed just 19 total pressures, compared to the 38 surrendered by Garnett and the 36 allowed by Beadles.

The 49ers traded back into the first round last year to draft Joshua Garnett. Prior to that they signed Zane Beadles to a three-year contract. Beadles was very useful filling in all around the line as injuries mounted, but he is not a long-term option by any means. Andrew Tiller is a free agent, and could never seem to consistently win over previous coaching staffs and the front office. My guess is he departs in free agency, but he will be an internal free agent to track.

Zeitler is a talented guard, and could help solidify an offensive line that was creaky last year. There were some positives from the group, but upgrading from Zane Beadles is a must.

What do you think about these free agent additions?