ESPN’s Bill Barnwell authored an impressive and interesting take on free agency with “NFL’s Offseason Dominoes.” His piece simulates the chain reactions that can be dictated by a single player’s decision on the open market. The San Francisco 49ers were among Barnwell’s most active teams, making a slew of free agency signings, both preemptive and reactive. Let’s take a look at what’s in store for general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan:
Le’Veon Bell signs a five-year, $80 million deal with the 49ers
Coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch have shown a propensity for blowing away the market when they want a player. Le’Veon Bell’s patience as a runner and versatility in the passing game make him a dream fit for Shanahan’s scheme, and cap space isn’t an issue for the rebuilding 49ers.
The 49ers signing Bell to a contract averaging $16 million per year would be a surprising move, to say the least. Matt Breida, Jeff Wilson, Raheem Mostert, and Alfred Morris managed to prop up a 13th-ranked rushing attack last season, combining for 1,769 yards, six touchdown and an average of 4.9 yards per carry. In 2017, Bell totaled 1,291 yards, nine touchdowns and averaged 4.0 yards per carry in 15 games for Pittsburgh. He also caught 85 passes for 665 yards and two touchdowns.
Heading into 2019, Jerick McKinnon has a $5.75 million cap hit, Breida and Wilson combine for a $1,216,668 cap hit, and Raheem Mostert’s number depends on how the 49ers tender him as a restricted free agent — it could be $2,035,000, $3,110,000, or $4,429,000, unless the two sides agree to an extension that lessens the hit. Would Bell’s productivity in Shanahan’s offense outweigh a projected McKinnon/Breida tandem enough to justify an additional $10 million in salary?
The last time Shanahan fielded a dangerous one-two punch was as the Atlanta Falcons’ offense coordinator in 2016. Backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 1,599 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground and 883 yards and five touchdowns through the air.
As a domino to signing Bell, Barnwell projects the 49ers parting ways with McKinnon after just one season spent recovering from a torn ACL. It’s a brash move that would leave San Francisco with $6 million in dead money, having forfeited over $12 million in salary over two years for McKinnon to never step on the field.
The 49ers add Earl Thomas on a three-year, $36 million deal
Imagine telling a Seahawks fan in 2014 that the 49ers would line up Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas in the same backfield five years later. Yikes. Thomas would give defensive coordinator Robert Saleh one of the best free safeties in league history and form a fearsome duo with Jaquiski Tartt.
In stark contrast to Bell, this move makes perfect sense for the 49ers. The defense is in dire need of a free safety — a critical position in coordinator Robert Saleh’s Seattle-inspired scheme. Thomas, in the last year of his contract, began 2018 with an unsuccessful offseason holdout in hopes for a new deal. Four games into the season, Thomas broke his leg and his season was over. It’s safe to say there’s no love lost between he and the Seahawks. Joining former teammate Richard Sherman and the 49ers may be Thomas’ best avenue if he wishes to say thank you to the Seahawks twice a year for the next few seasons.
Lamarcus Joyner gets a three-year, $30 million deal from 49ers
Staying in their division, San Francisco adds a much-needed piece to its secondary by going after the rangy Joyner. While he converted from being a full-time cornerback for a reason, Joyner’s ability to come down into the slot and take reps as an occasional corner helps add value.
In this scenario, the 49ers missed out on Thomas, who opted to sign with the Dallas Cowboys. Landing Joyner would be a worthwhile consolation prize. The Los Angeles Rams free safety looked good in the team’s Super Bowl 53 run, totaling 78 tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack, three pass breakups and an interception. Joyner also earned a respectable 73.1 grade from Pro Football Focus. Barnwell touches on Joyner’s versatility, which would be a valuable asset for Saleh and give his defense another level of adaptability against the evolving NFL offense.
The 49ers trade with the Steelers for Antonio Brown
Brown, George Kittle, Dante Pettis and Marquise Goodwin would be a scary set of receivers for San Francisco, but it would be tough to trade the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft. If the Steelers are willing to accept San Francisco’s 2020 first-round pick in return for Brown, this move might make sense.
Brown’s discontent with the Steelers and his flirtation with the 49ers through social media has been well documented. The most recent development saw Pittsburgh publicly acknowledging Brown’s request for a trade and ensuring the disgruntled receiver that they would work to find him a better situation.
There’s no denying Brown’s ability on the field, catching 104 passes for 1,297 yards and an NFL-best 15 touchdowns in 2018. On the field, adding a player of Brown’s caliber would add a new dynamic to Shanahan’s offense along with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. It’s also fair to wonder what impact Brown’s polarizing personality will have on a cohesive 49ers locker room.
Lastly, the compensation of a 2020 first-round pick seems a bit rich for a receiver turning 31 before next season that comes saddled with well-documented drama. The 49ers would likely be able to land Brown for less, with one NFL executive claiming Pittsburgh should expect a fourth-round pick, at best.