We are officially less than a month away from the start of the 2019 league year. On March 13th at 1 p.m. PT, the San Francisco 49ers will be able to formally execute player trades and begin signing free agents. A month and a half after that comes the draft and UDFA signings. There will be transactions through the summer, but those two periods are the big time for re-shaping the 49ers roster.
It’s fitting timing then that Bill Barnwell is back with his annual look at offseason moves to improve each team. On Tuesday, he published his analysis of five decisions each NFC West team needs to make this offseason. Here are his 49ers suggestions with a few thoughts of my own.
1. Move on from Pierre Garçon, Garry Gilliam and Malcolm Smith
All three of these moves make sense and the 49ers have already done one of them with the release of Gilliam Wednesday. We’ve heard some recent reports that Garçon will be cut and parting ways with Smith make a lot of sense as well. The team would clear over $7 million in cap space if they released all three, but I would argue it is more about moving to better options you can build around for the future.
The team is still in the rebuilding process, but they can afford to be aggressive in replacing all three players. Whether they trade for Antonio Brown or find another veteran, a replacement for Garçon is in the offing. A development option can be used for the now-vacant role that factors in the future after Joe Staley. Smith has never settled into a role when healthy, and it makes sense to find a younger option to pair with Fred Warner.
2. Franchise Robbie Gould
The 49ers kicker might not be a fan of getting the franchise tag, but it’s the logical call if the two sides can’t agree to a deal before early March. He has been one of the best kickers in the NFL the past two seasons and given how some kickers have struggled, he would be a popular option in free agency. The 49ers could very well out-bid everybody else, but given the unpredictability of free agency, it makes sense to guarantee they’ll have him around and buy some time to negotiate a deal.
3. Pursue a cornerback in free agency
A year ago, Barnwell included “Add a No. 1 cornerback” on his list of five offseason moves for the 49ers. This time around, he mentions finding somebody to compete with Ahkello Witherspoon and Tarvarius Moore, but also uses the section to talk about potentially adding a safety.
Moore and Witherspoon should make for a quality competition in OTAs, minicamp, and into training camp, but they need at least one more cornerback who can compete for significant time. In a league that makes it easier and easier to pass the ball, you can never have enough cornerbacks. It’s not a great market this year, so we’ll see if the 49ers overpay there, or see what the draft can bring them in April.
As for the safety position, Barnwell mentions the popular name, Earl Thomas. He also talks about Lamarcus Joyner, Tyrann Mathieu, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix as options the 49ers could pursue. I’m fascinated to see what the 49ers do with the safety position this offseason. They have quite a few players to compete for the free and strong safety roles, but does the front office see the group like the fans do in need of improvement? Or does the front office think they can roll the dice with that group?
4. Find a Leo
I’m a little surprised this was not further up the list (although I don’t think these are listed in order of priority). Some folks think the team should focus on the secondary, others think edge rusher is more important. Whatever the case, I imagine few people would be surprised to see the 49ers invest the No. 2 overall pick on an edge rusher.
The bigger question before then is what comes in free agency. DeMarcus Lawrence, Jadeveon Clowney, and Dee Ford are three big time pass rushers due to hit free agency. All three could end up either franchised or signed to a long-term deal. Trey Flowers, Brandon Graham, and Ezekiel Ansah are other options, and how the 49ers approach the position could provide some insight into how they plan on using the No. 2 pick.
5. Hold on to Nick Mullens
I have no idea what kind of pick the 49ers could get in a trade for Mullens. The quarterback market is always tight, but I have no idea how many teams think he has what it takes for this league vs. how many would give more credit to Kyle Shanahan.
Regardless, the 49ers found out the importance of a backup quarterback after Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL. C.J. Beathard struggled to get much going, but then Mullens entered the scene and surprised pretty much all of us. He did not necessarily look like a guy who could be a franchise quarterback, but he did look like a guy who could come on the field in a pinch and keep a steady hand on the wheel.
The question now is do you trade that, or do you hang on for minimal cost as insurance if Garoppolo gets hurt again. I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to say Jimmy G is injury-prone, but the ACL last year and his shoulder injury in 2016 makes it easy to be a little wary. It makes having a capable backup all the more important.