Overview of the entire article --
Step 2. Veteran Additions ... IR Returns and Free Agent Additions
Today's Episode ... Step 2. Veteran Additions ... IR Returns and Free Agent Additions
RETURNS FROM INJURED RESERVE
Even though we know that the Niners were hard hit by injuries during the 2017 season, it's still shocking to look at the list of guys who will be returning this spring ... 18 in fact (excluding 2 more on IR who I expect to be released as forthcoming free agents ... DL Chris Jones and CB Asa Jackson):
RB Joe Williams
WR Aaron Burbridge
WR Pierre Garcon
WR Victor Bolden
TE Cole Hikutini
OT Trent Brown (79.3)
OG John Flynn
OG Joshua Garnett
OL Erik Mgnuson
DL Arik Armstead (78.9)
LB Jimmie Gilbert
LB Donavin Newsom
LB Malcolm Smith
S Chanceller James
S Don Jones
S Jacquiski Tartt (85.7)
S Jimmie Ward (46.9)
POTENTIAL FREE AGENT ADDITIONS
The free agent "tampering period" doesn't begin until March 12th; then, actual free agent signings can begin on March 14th.
What to do in free agency? Those that focus on the huge salary cap capacity that the team has (currently $115 million for 2018) will likely want to chase a number of free agents to strengthen the roster quickly. While there is no doubt that the addition of veteran free agents is needed, I don't think it prudent to go wild with that because, as I've said before, we need to continue to give the younger guys an opportunity to grow and develop and we need to save some of that cap capacity to extend those of the young guys who prove to be keepers for the long term.
So where is it that we need the most help in free agency?
Cornerback One obvious defensive position which needs starter-level improvement is CB. After 4 years of experience, Dontae Johnson (36.9) simply hasn't proven himself to be a competent NFL starter IMO. We must get a better starter to pair with Ahkello Witherspoon (81.1). We could conceivably try to do that through the draft if we didn't have other equally-important needs, but I think that we should BOTH sign an experienced young free agent CB as the starter AND draft a CB in the early-middle rounds to develop to eventually replace the free agent. As a general principle for a team in the roster-building mode I think that the focus should be on younger free agents coming off their rookie contracts rather than older veterans on the downside of their careers. Accordingly, there are several pending free agents who meet that spec who may become available (listed in alphabetical order):
Davon House (Green Bay Packers) 6'0" 195# / 28 years old
Trumaine Johnson (Los Angeles Rams) 6'2" / 205# / 27 years old
Obviously there are many other possible candidates, but I think that this group is the best of those most likely not to be extended by their current teams ... who really knows?
Among that group, my first choice would be Trumaine Johnson because physically he best fits Kyle's desired specs for a CB and is an aggressive press corner. While the Rams will have a bit over $50 million in 2018 cap space available they have more than 20 players (including Johnson) whose contracts expired after the 2017 season ... they can't extend them all and Johnson is the most expensive at $16.7 million, on the franchise tag. If he becomes available, I think that Johnson could be signed for approximately $15 million APY on a 4-year contract. Alternatively, if Johnson doesn't become available, my second choice from this group would be Kyle Fuller.
Edge Rusher ?? As we all know, above-average edge rushers virtually never become available in free agency ... their contribution to team results assures that their teams continue to extend them. However, they occasionally become available, since they are usually among the highest-paid players on a team, when a team gets into cap management difficulty. And that may be a circumstance of interest this year. Players to possibly become available include:
Ziggy Ansah (Detroit Lions) 6'5" / 271# / 28 years old
DeMarcus Lawrence (Dallas Cowboys) 6'3" / 251# / 25 years old
Trent Murphy (Washington) 6'5" / 261# / 27 years old
In addition, 25 of the Los Angeles Chargers are pending free agents but the Chargers have but $30 million in cap capacity for 2018 ... they can't extend them all. One of the most expensive guys to be extended is Edge Jeremiah Attachu. Thus, it is conceivable that he could join the list above.
All that said ... let's be honest here. The likelihood that ANY of these guys will actually become free agents is MINIMAL. Certainly the Niners will seek an edge rusher in this year's draft; but, IF a guy like Ansah should actually make it to free agency I think that we should go after him HARD. We'll see if that time comes.
So how about potential free agent additions on the offensive side of the ball? The first word out of nearly everyone's mouth will be IOL. I agree, but I believe that the needed IOL upgrades will be accomplished through a combination of free agency and the draft. In the past, Shanahan has repeatedly sought experienced veterans for the important Center position in his offense. Conversely, I expect Lynch to pursue an OG in the draft to compete for a starting job.
Center There are several pending free agent centers who may become available (if they aren't extended by their current teams):
Wesley Johnson (New York Jets) 6'5" / 297# / 26 years old
Among that group, my first choice would be Weston Richburg because he is young and is close to becoming a premier NFL center. Why, then, would the Giants not choose to extend him? Richburg was placed on IR at the end of October because of a concussion and he will command market rate to extend. Giants websites are speculating that the team will let Richburg go in free agency because, with a new GM and 28 pending free agents in 2018, they may be blowing up a significant portion of the roster and have very much liked the play of the younger (and cheaper) Brett Jones, who replaced Richburg when he was put on IR. We'll see what happens.
Wide Receiver As a group, the Niners have the shortest WR corp in the entire NFL. I believe that at some point in the near future Shanahan will try to get Jimmy Garoppolo his "Julio Jones" as a long-term #1 wide receiver, something that we haven't really had in ... seemingly forever. By #1 WR I mean adding an attribute that we don't already have ... a receiver with plus height, good hands, the ability to run good patterns, and the ability to high-point the ball in red-zone situations. I'm going to speculate that the Niners will try to satisfy that need in the 2018 draft. Why? There are TEN WR prospects in the upcoming draft with the right traits ... 6'4" or more, sufficiently fast, and varying degrees of "good hands". If that should occur and regardless of who the prospect might be, it will take time for Mike LaFleur to develop the prospect to the point of having significant playing time. However, the Niners need a #1 WR to pair with Garcon and Taylor right now. (I think that Goodwin is an important contributor, but he is not a #1 WR [except on a weak team] and not likely to ever be, but he can be a very significant contributor as a deep threat as he was in 2017.) Accordingly, given that they have the cap capacity, I think that the Niners will look to add a veteran starting wide receiver during this off-season. There are several pending free agent receivers who may become available (if they aren't extended by their current teams):
Brice Butler (Dallas Cowboys) 6'3" / 215# / 27 years old
Brandon Coleman (New Orleans Saints) 6'6" / 225# / 25 years old ... ERFA
Dontrelle Inman (Chicago Bears) 6'3" / 200# / 28 years old
Jordan Mathews (Buffalo Bills) 6'3" / 215# / 25 years old
Sammy Watkins (Los Angeles Rams) 6'1" / 210# / 24 years old
(My first choice would have been Northern California native Davante Adams, but unfortunately Green Bay just gave him a 4-year extension so he's off the market.)
Although they are somewhat smaller, two other guys could be added to the list:
Marquis Lee (Jacksonville Jaguars) 6'0" / 200# / 26 year old
Obviously a number of these guys are likely to be extended by their present teams so it's difficult to speculate which may really become free agents. I like the idea of signing Sammy Watkins because, looking down the road a bit, he could replace Garcon when Pierre's gone and pair with the bigger developmental WR draftee when that guy is ready to become a full-time starter. Should the Rams decide to tag Watkins, my next choice would probably be Mathews, Moncrief or possibly Butler ... while I liked the pre-injury Allen Robinson, it seems that he is looking for "Devante Adams money" and, given Garcon's contract, I'd be very reluctant to make that kind of investment in damaged goods until I was sure of a complete recovery from ACL surgery.
Tight End ?? I expect Lynch to try to improve the Tight End group in the off-season ... Celek really lacks the athleticism to excel in Shanahan's scheme and, at $2.675 million, he's far too expensive for his level of production. Nonetheless, I think that Celek competes for a spot on the 2018 Final-53 ... whether he's successful or not remains to be seen. Paulsen is far less expensive but is one-dimensional, almost exclusively a blocker. Kittle will likely be the long-term starter (assuming that injuries don't continue to be a problem) and Hikutini may make it as a move TE. We need to add another all-around TE with superior skills to Celek's. The question is how will they do that ... free agency or the draft? If in free agency, there are several pending free agent tight ends who may become available (if they aren't extended by their current teams):
Cameron Brate (Tampa Bay Bucs) 6'5" / 245# / 26 years old ... RFA
Richard Rodgers (Green Bay Packers) 6'4" / 257# / 25 years old
I have deliberately excluded Jimmy Graham from this list because of his age (31) and likely cost ($10 million APY in his last contract). Tyler Eifert has had a number of injury issues since being drafted ... sort of Cincinnati's version of Jimmie Ward. Thus, of the guys I've listed, I like Cameron Brate as the best scheme fit for the Niners. The difficulty is that Brate is a Restricted Free Agent (RFA), not unlimited. Thus, Tampa Bay will have to tender Brate (in early March) at a particular draft round and related specific compensation amount; inasmuch as Brate was originally undrafted, they can't use an "original round" tender; I doubt that they would tender him at a first- or second-round level because of the cost to do that ... Tampa Bay has $61 million in 2018 cap capacity but have 23 free agents to consider extending so they'll have to pick and choose. Further, since TE O.J. Howard was their 1st-round pick last April he is getting more and more of the snaps. Thus, Brate could be "available" under two circumstances: (1) he receives an offer from a less cap-limited team which Tampa is unwilling to match, or (2) he just becomes an outright cap casualty. Brate would be a significant upgrade over Celek, particularly in the red zone, and would be affordable if he is able to test the market. Once again, we'll see what happens.
Conversely, if Lynch should decide to look to the draft, the better mid-round prospects would include:
Mike Gesicki (Penn State) 6'6" / 252# / Estimated 4.74 speed
Troy Fumagalli (Wisconsin) 6'6" / 249# / Estimated 4.80 speed
I have no clue how Lynch will try to solve the TE upgrade situation, but those are some possible alternatives. How about Brate and Gesicki to replace Celek and Hikutini?
Offensive Guard ?? First, I expect the Niners to draft an OG in either the 1st or 2nd round of the draft in April. Josh Garnett will be returning from IR supposedly with a "new body" much better suited to Kyle's zone-run scheme and Laken Tomlinson has another year on his contract. It's possible that they may also add a free agent OG (including re-signing Brandon Fusco) to the mix. The performance level for both Tomlinson and Fusco improved significantly once Garoppolo was inserted into the starting lineup. Potential free agents whose skill-set is suited to a zone-run scheme could include the following (if they aren't extended by their current teams):
Brandon Fusco (San Francisco 49ers) 6'4" / 306# / 29 years old
Jack Mewhort (Indianapolis Colts) 6'6" / 305# / 26 years old
Justin Pugh (New York Giants) 6'4" / 301# / 27 years old
No doubt people will wonder why Andrew Norwell is not on the list. First, I doubt that Carolina is going to let Norwell get away; then, I see Norwell as a much better fit for a power-run-scheme team (like Carolina) than for Shanahan's zone scheme. I'm always surprised when fans don't seem to understand the importance of proper match of a player's traits and the specific needs of the position in different schemes.
Certainly there are other possible candidates, but of the group listed the guys that I think are the best scheme-fits are either Jack Mewhort or Justin Pugh. Nonetheless, if the plan is to seek an OG early in the draft, it's unlikely that a free agent other than Fusco would be signed.
So ... if I'm in Lynch's chair, I bust my butt to try to sign CB Trumaine Johnson, Edge Ziggy Ansah, C Weston Richburg, WR Sammy Watkins, and TE Camaron Brate. And, of course I should be fired if I don't get JG signed to a LTC before March 6th (pre-franchise-tag) or by July.
Some folks will respond to the proposed signing of 5-6 significant free agents (including Garoppolo) as unrealistic because "we can't afford that within salary cap limits". I can assure them that that is not the case and the proposed contracts are not back-loaded so as to create a salary-cap hell in the future. To prove that point I will include a salary-cap spending table that summarizes the effect of all of my suggested moves made in getting to my proposed 2018 Final-53 roster in my final episode.
Next Epidode: Step 3. Prospective Player Trades