While signings can’t be made official until 1 p.m. PT on Thursday, players have begun agreeing to deals in principle as they await putting pen to paper.
Equipped with almost $100 million in salary cap space and saddled with a roster bereft of talent, new general manager John Lynch and first-year head coach Kyle Shanahan have hit the ground running, primarily on the offensive side of the ball.
As we head into Thursday, the 49ers have reportedly agreed to terms with WR Pierre Garcon, QB Brian Hoyer, WR Marquise Goodwin, FB Kyle Juszczyk, and LB Malcolm Smith.
These signings aren’t splashy. What they appear to be are sound, prudent decisions, aimed at moving the 49ers forward—instead of backward—for the first time since 2014. There are certainly question as we await full contract details, but there are reasons for optimism.
Let’s run through the latest transactions...
Garcon is an excellent addition who fills an immediate need—a legitimate starting wide receiver with proven experience. The 49ers didn’t have any of those coming into free agency. At 30 years old, he’s no spring chicken, but still has plenty in the tank, especially considering his role as a possession receiver.
It remains to be seen if Hoyer will be the starter come opening day. Considering he’ll be the only quarterback on the roster come tomorrow, let’s assume he is. On the surface, this is a hard signing to get excited about. He’s a seven-year journeyman who has had some modest success as a starter, mixed with some truly awful performances and a penchant for fading down the stretch of the season.
The bigger implication is how—if at all—this impacts the potential trade for Kirk Cousins. Personally speaking, I don’t want Kirk Cousins in San Francisco period, but I definitely don’t want him to the tune of a premium price tag and sacrificing the No. 2 pick in the draft. Yes, Cousins has notched two great seasons in Washington, but neither of those has led to a playoff victory and, despite the numbers, you don’t hear Cousins talked about as being one of the league’s elite. If you’re giving up that much for a guy, he needs to be a proven winner.
It’s not the end of the world if the 49ers pursue him next season or even if they can still work out a reasonable deal this season; I just don’t see him ever being the guy. If Hoyer starts this year while they assemble the rest of the team and wait until next season to get a franchise quarterback, that’s not a terrible thing. Matt Schaub or Jay Cutler would be a terrible thing. Hoyer’s looked OK at times and he’s familiar with Shanahan’s system. He should be good enough to compete in a 2017 season that’s more focused on building a strong foundation for future success than it is on trying to make a Super Bowl run.
Goodwin comes over from Buffalo after a career year, appearing in 15 games (starting nine of them) and registering 29 receptions for 431 yards with three TDs. Speed is what Goodwin brings to the table—a hell of a lot of it. His 4.27 40-yard dash time at the 2013 combine is tied for fourth fastest in league history. For a more recent example, watch him blow by Darrelle Revis for an 84-yard TD last season.
Initial expectations are that Goodwin will play the Taylor Gabriel role in Shanahan’s offense. The fourth year veteran does come with some injury concerns though. He missed four games as a rookie in 2013, six in 2014, and was placed on injured reserve in 2015 with a rib injury after appearing in just two games. Last season, he cleared the concussion protocol in August after hitting his head on the turf, but missed time with a concussion.
The 49ers are expected to pursue more players at the wide receiver position—possibly even a big name like Alshon Jeffrey or Terrelle Pryor—but if Goodwin can stay healthy, he’ll certainly carve out a role in the pecking order and as a return man.
The fullback position will make a return in San Francisco after a year-long hiatus under Chip Kelly. After four years in Baltimore and fresh off a 2016 Pro Bowl appearance, Kyle Juszczyk is expected to sign a four-year deal. Juszczyk only has seven career carries, but with 97 career receptions and 769 receiving yards, the 49ers will count on him to catch passes out of the backfield and clear running lanes for Carlos Hyde. Shanahan is going to get creative with Juszczyk given his skillset and athletic ability. Look for him to fill the H-back role and line up all over the field in different formations.
It might take a while for 49ers fans to warm up to a name that intercepted their chance at a second straight Super Bowl appearance following the 2013 season. On the other hand, it may symbolize some poetic justice as the team forges a new identity. The 27-year old linebacker is expected to compete with Ray-Ray Armstrong for the weak side position, under the presumption that NaVorro Bowman will hold down the middle. Smith had a strong 2015 season in Oakland. He struggled mightily in coverage last season and showed some problems shedding blocks at times, despite racking up 103 tackles. If nothing else, Smith adds a veteran presence and much-needed competition to the position group.
Cutting dead weight
In addition to the aforementioned signings, the 49ers have also made some commendable moves, releasing players that don’t figure into the future to free up some more cap space. Colin Kaepernick is conspicuously missing from this list, simply because he opted out of his contract as opposed to being released. Furthermore, there’s not much more that can be said about the polarizing QB: some believe he can still be the player he was in 2012-13, while others are certain he’s plateaued.
Smith was undoubtedly a victim of the horrendous state of the entire roster and offensive scheme (or lack thereof), but when a perennial No. 3 WR like Jeremy Kerley is routinely showing you up, it’s not saying much. That’s not a knock on Kerley—he made the absolute most of the opportunity and was rewarded with a contract under the new regime—it’s an indictment of Smith’s lackadaisical effort. Smith is certainly not as bad as his two-year tenure in the Bay would indicate, but what he does bring to the table as a 28-year old, one-dimensional deep threat is not worth the price—even more so if Shanahan and company felt the speed isn’t what it was.
Bethea enjoyed a strong first season in red and gold back in 2014. His 2015 season was cut short due to injury, and let’s just say his 2016 performance was an extremely forgettable one. Bethea’s best days are seemingly behind him, and that’s reason enough to cut him loose. With the team in full rebuild, and Eric Reid, Jimmie Ward, and Jaquaski Tartt already on the roster, there’s no reason to have him around. Look for the team to add another safety in the draft—potentially with their first round pick. With John Lynch at the helm, few GMs and scouts in the league are in a better position to evaluate talent at the position.
Not even through the first official day of free agency and the 49ers have snared:
- A proven 1,000 yard possession WR
- A speed receiver/special teams threat to stretch the field
- A serviceable, if uninspiring, QB to steer the ship in Year 1
- A Pro-Bowl, versatile fullback
- Depth and a potential starter at linebacker
Toss in the pre-free agency signings of defensive tackle Earl Mitchell and cornerback K’Waun Williams, and the 49ers are making good on John Lynch’s promise that phones will be ringing in Santa Clara this offseason—a stark, refreshing contrast to the days of Trent Baalke’s trademark passivity during his reign as GM.