The San Francisco 49ers signed cornerback Richard Sherman to a three-year contract prior to the start of free agency proper, and it means we should be expecting a lot of different things as a result. San Francisco was expected to be in on guys like Trumaine Johnson and Malcolm Butler, but instead are unlikely to pursue another big-name at the position, at least in free agency.
San Francisco’s deal with Sherman includes a lot of incentives and bonuses that rely on Sherman seeing the field and playing. Some of them even require him to play well — imagine that. And while his recovery time is still a moving target, many have suggested that he will be ready to go by training camp.
It’s probably safe to say the 49ers consider that likely, making the acquisition of a potential emergency fill-in something that might be better-suited for the NFL Draft, where the 49ers have plenty of capital, than free agency, where the market is always fierce at cornerback.
Sherman will likely pair with Ahkello Witherspoon, and the two will be ahead of nickel cornerback K’Waun Williams on the depth chart. Add safety Jaquiski Tartt and Adrian Colbert to the mix, plus Jimmie Ward ... wherever, and the 49ers are looking pretty good in the secondary.
So let’s talk about where the 49ers needs lie going into the free agency tampering period and, after that, the NFL Draft.
Do 49ers still need help at cornerback?
First, let’s address the cornerbacks on the roster. Sherman, Witherspoon, Williams are the top three. Dontae Johnson would be next on the depth chart for the outside, but he’s a free agent. The same applies to Leon Hall and Asa Jackson, as well as Antone Exum, who plays multiple secondary positions.
All are free agents, leaving the 49ers with little else at the position. Greg Mabin, Trovon Reed and Channing Stribling are all under contract for 2018, and while the coaching staff seems to like Mabin, I don’t see anything in that group to inspire confidence. The 49ers may need to add a cheaper veteran, or draft someone to mentor under Sherman alongside Witherspoon.
Johnson would be interesting to keep around as a backup for the veteran minimum, truthfully — he had some rough, rough games last season, but he knows the system and did have some decent showings. But perhaps he did enough poorly last season to make that an unpopular opinion.
What’s the biggest need now?
The biggest need at this point is definitely a pass-rusher. The team elected not to pick up the 2018 contract option for veteran Elvis Dumervil, who led the 49ers in sacks last year. Dumervil was very efficient with his snaps and I’m honestly surprised that he is not sticking around.
Either way, Dumervil wouldn’t have changed this as the team’s biggest need after cornerback and, unfortunately, there’s really not a lot there in free agency. Both Ezekiel Ansah of the Detroit Lions and Demarcus Lawrence of the Dallas Cowboys, the top pass-rushers on expiring contracts, were given the franchise tag by their teams.
And, unfortunately, it’s looking rather grim in free agency as well. The team re-signed Cassius Marsh, and they seem to think he can grow in that area, but he’s far from a sure thing.
Trent Murphy, Alex Okafor and Adrian Clayborn are among the top names on the market, and with that haul, I’d rather the 49ers roll the dice that they can get something out of Marsh, Eli Harold and potentially even Arik Armstead.
Tank Carradine would be the other bigger name on the market, and I’d love to have him back on a very team-friendly deal, since Aaron Lynch seems destined for another team.
What’s the big free agency get?
Despite not being the team’s biggest need, wide receiver Allen Robinson is just too tantalizing to pass up. I am more than comfortable with the 49ers rolling with Pierre Garcon, Marquise Goodwin, Trent Taylor and Kendrick Bourne in 2018. I would be excited to see another year of Goodwin and a real year with Garcon.
But Robinson fits the need of a big red-zone target, and his skillset is such that, as the 49ers add more players, I’m getting more and more into the idea. Robinson wouldn’t JUST be a luxury, I tell myself. He’s young, and exceptional. A talent that doesn’t often hit free agency.
Just go do it, John Lynch. You’ve impressed thus far. Hook the biggest fish.
So what makes sense in Round 1 of the NFL Draft
It’s a very strong class at cornerback, and I could still see the 49ers liking someone enough from a best player available perspective to add one high. But the first-round would surprise me, unless they have an exceptional grade on Denzel Ward. I could see a corner going in the second, but the first round would surprise me.
Some think the 49ers should get a receiver in the first round, and I think they should only do that if they manage to trade down. I think they’d be best-suited getting a guard if Quenton Nelson is there, but many on this site are not fans addressing that need so high, and it can be argued that the guards on the roster improved dramatically when Jimmy Garoppolo was under center.
Short of Bradley Chubb falling to No. 9, I think the biggest contribution the team can make to its starting lineup at that place is a linebacker. Whether it’s Tramaine Edmunds or Roquan Smith honestly doesn’t bother me — both could have claim to being at least the ninth-best player in the draft. Short of one of those two, or Nelson, I’d be hoping for a trade back. This is especially the case if the 49ers land Robinson.
Sherman only fills one need, of course. We’ve talked about how he makes edge rusher the most important need, and we’re talked about the needs at guard and receiver.
The other need, at this point, would be running back. I tend to think this coaching staff feels good about Matt Breida, though I don’t quite feel the same way about Joe Williams. If the team doesn’t bring back Carlos Hyde, they need to address the position, likely in free agency. I don’t think they want to go into the draft with only Breida and Williams on the roster.