While the 2017 NFL playoffs churn on, organizations excluded and eliminated from postseason play begin preparation for 2018. For the young, upstart San Francisco 49ers, the upcoming offseason represents a pivotal moment for the franchise—one that could ultimately help them push for a playoff spot next year. I examined the team’s biggest needs heading into free agency and the draft and ranked them in terms of priority.
Let’s take a look.
Rashard Robinson turned out worse than anyone could have expected in 2017. He was abused so badly by opposing wide receivers, he should have filed a report to local police. By midseason, Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch had seen enough—shipping the oft-penalized, beleaguered cornerback off to the New York Jets in exchange for a fifth-round pick in 2018.
Rookie Ahkello Witherspoon subsequently rose to the occasion and played very well down the stretch as the team’s no. 1 corner. The same cannot be said for Dontae Johnson, who filled Robinson’s void nicely as the guy routinely victimized in the secondary. How bad was it? Well, he was benched during the Texans’ game after surrendering 10 catches, 144 yards, and 2 touchdowns at the hands of DeAndre Hopkins. Let’s throw in two pass interference calls and one holding penalty just for good measure.
Bottom line: Needless to say, a true lockdown cornerback and depth are sorely needed at the position. Cornerback is one of the league’s most expensive positions, but the 49ers project to have a league-leading $116,669,127 in cap space. If cornerback isn’t in their first round selection plans with a guy like Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick, look for names like Malcolm Butler, E.J. Gaines, Rashaan Melvin, and Patrick Robinson to turn up on the free agency radar.
1B. Edge Rusher
The 49ers were one of the worst pass-rushing teams in the league this past season. They moved Arik Armstead to the LEO position, but he was mediocre at best in the role, and was ultimately placed on injured reserve. The team also brought in longtime veteran Elvis Dumervil. Although Dumervil led the team with 6.5 sacks, he was hardly the player fans remember during his prime in Denver. And Aaron Lynch continued his disappointing career with the 49ers, likely playing his last game with the organization. Robert Saleh’s unit could only muster 30 sacks on the year, a total that tied them for sixth-worst in the NFL.
Bottom line: The 49ers desperately need some firepower off the edge. This will not only help out a young secondary but will also serve as nice complement to DeForest Buckner, who proved to be disruptive force up the middle for the Niners. Ziggy Ansah is a name they could entertain in free agency; maybe Adrian Clayborn. Neither is a premier pass rusher though. If they target the first round of the draft, NC State DE Bradley Chubb and LSU DE Arden Key are the most likely possibilities. Oklahoma DE/OLB Ogbonnia Okoronkwo is another.
This position group was a disaster in 2017. Laken Tomlinson, Zane Beadles, and Brandon Fusco left much to be desired. Opponents routinely got pressure up the middle on the quarterback and often met running backs in the backfield at the point of the handoff. Joshua Garnett will be back from injury in 2018 but he’s a Trent Baalke regime holdover who’s still yet to prove himself. Brandon Fusco is a free agent and likely doesn’t figure into plans for a future starting spot. Beadles should be cut.
How the staff feels about Garnett’s potential and fit along the line will influence exactly where guard slots in among other priorities. Even with a favorable outlook for the third-year veteran, the franchise still needs another starter and depth at the position.
Bottom line: San Francisco could strongly consider Carolina Panthers’ guard Andrew Norwell, a pending free agent. He’s just 26 years old and would provide an instant upgrade, albeit an expensive one. Again, money won’t be an issue, so it boils down to where they feel most comfortable investing it and how they view Norwell. As far as the draft goes, if Notre Dame product Quenton Nelson is still on the board when the San Francisco select ninth or tenth (pending a coin flip with Oakland), his name could wind up on the selection card.
3. Wide Receiver
Marquise Goodwin proved to be much more than just a deep threat no. 4 wide receiver last year; Trent Taylor has all but locked up the slot position; and despite turning 32 in August, Pierre Garçon will return from injury as one of the league’s better possession receivers.
That said, a true no. 1 wide receiver ranks near the top of San Francisco’s list of offseason needs for, what, about the fourteenth year in a row, now? Outside of Allen Robinson, who’s coming off of an ACL injury, there’s not a ton to be had in the free agency pool. Josh Gordon is easily the most talented option, but the Browns can use the exclusive rights tag, and I can’t fathom Lynch and Shanahan trusting him enough—or ranking him too highly in the character department—to offer a contract if he were not tendered.
Some say that the collective of Garçon, Goodwin, and Taylor is enough to reduce the need for a big time, playmaker at the position; I still say the team needs a game-changer or, at the very least, another wide receiver who’s the caliber of Garçon (although not the same skillset). Rookie wideouts can sometimes take a few years to develop; others catch on immediately—it’s a crapshoot. Shanahan is no doubt confident in his ability to get the most out of offensive players; that skill was apparent in the rookie performance of Trent Taylor and Marquis Goodwin turning in a career year. In Garoppolo, he has a quarterback who can make everyone around him better. But he also knows what a player like Julio Jones can do for an offense after his time in Atlanta.
Bottom line: There aren’t any Julio Joneses out there in free agency, so expect the Niners to go bargain bin shopping like they did with Goodwin to help round out the corps. Paul Richardson, Donte Moncrief, Jordan Mathews, and Taylor Gabriel (the latter of whom spent time with Shanahan in Atlanta) are some names to keep an eye on. Alternatively, the team could use one of its top three selections in the draft on a receiver such as SMU’s Courtland Sutton, Florida State’s Arden Tate, Indiana’s Simmie Cobbs, or Oklahoma State’s Marcel Ateman.
4. Running Back
I don’t anticipate Carlos Hyde coming back next year, nor should fans really even want him back. As an underwhelming, middle-of-the-pack runner who hasn’t managed to stay healthy or crack 1,000 yards, the 49ers stand to improve their rushing attack by adding a young, talented back at a fraction of the cost.
The team already has a solid rotational back in Mastt Breida, and 2018 provides a chance to see what Joe Williams can do after a “redshirt” rookie year. With Williams being an unknown commodity and Hyde potentially walking, there is still a pretty significant need at the position.
Bottom line: Lynch and Shanahan could make the biggest splash of the offseason and sign Le’Veon Bell, but I imagine they’ll opt for more reasonably-priced alternatives. Look for San Francisco to target a running back anywhere from rounds two through five. Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson, Georgia’s Sony Michel, Alabama’s Bo Scarbrough, Iowa’s Akrum Wadley, and Grambling State’s Martez Carter are some interesting names to chew on.
5. Middle linebacker
Reuben Foster showed some incredible skill and potential in 2017. He also flashed a lot of concern with his numerous injuries and time being evaluated by trainer’s on the sideline. His unreliability and the departure of NaVorro Bowman leave the cupboard a little bare at inside linebacker. The Niners will get Malcolm Smith back from a torn pectoral injury that shut him down before the 2017 season even started. The team envisions him as the weakside (WILL) linebacker, but his role will be closer to that of a middle linebacker than a true outside linebacker. Brock Coyle played pretty well down the stretch, most notably stripping the ball away from Delanie Walker during the 49ers victory over the Titans. Coyle, however, was only signed to a one-year deal, so San Francisco would have to re-sign him if they feel strongly enough about him. He had surgery on a torn labrum earlier this month, and will need five to six months to get back to 100 percent.
Bottom line: Don’t expect any big names for this position after the selection of Foster last year. The organization will likely find a free agent on a modest deal or bolster in the later rounds of the draft.
6. Left Tackle
Joe Staley can still play, but he turns 34 heading into the 2018 season. As the quarterback’s no. 1 protector, left tackle is arguably the most important position across the offensive line. With the 49ers looking to lock up Jimmy Garoppolo long-term, they’re also going to make sure they protect that asset as best they can.
Staley recently admitted that he found himself in a rut earlier this season; even contemplating retirement. A pep talk from Shanahan, coupled with the team’s late season surge, helped right the ship and reinvigorate the 5-time Pro Bowler. Nevertheless, he’s not getting any younger and has had to deal with some injuries. It’s reasonable to expect Staley to stick around for the next two seasons, barring injury. It’ll be important for the Niners to use that time to identify the next cornerstone at the position, be it free agency or through the draft.
Bottom line: The reason this position is ranked last is because it’s not as much of an immediate need; even so, addressing it now will help when the time comes to usher in a new left tackle. Veteran Nate Solder tops the list of free agents, but Solder is 30 and has dealt with some injuries as of late. I imagine the team would want to get much younger at the position. If San Francisco doesn’t take a flier in the late rounds of this year’s draft, look for them to prioritize it in 2019.
Well, that wraps it up. It should be fun to revisit this during free agency and the draft to see where the team made expected moves and where they threw us a few curveballs.
How do you rank the Niners’ needs heading into 2018? What moves do you expect or hope they make? State your case and make your predictions in the comments section.