The start of each offseason brings optimism for the future and assessments of what the San Francisco 49ers need to do in free agency and the draft to take the next step. Each February, ESPN’s Bill Barnwell breaks down five moves each team needs to make in the coming months.
He has not released his 2019 series yet, but now seemed as good a time as any to take a look back at what Barnwell said the 49ers should consider a year ago. It was the second offseason for Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch, and a week prior to Barnwell’s article publishing, the 49ers signed Jimmy Garoppolo to a contract extension. With that out of the way, Barnwell offered the following five transactions. I’ve added some thoughts on what went down with each.
1. Pick up the fifth-year option on Arik Armstead
The 49ers did pick up the option, but now have to decide if they want to pay Armstead’s option, release him before it becomes fully guaranteed on the first day of the new league year, or try and negotiate an extension that lowers his 2019 salary. He had a very solid season and Lynch, Shanahan, and Saleh all offered praise for him, but acknowledged a lot goes into the decision for keeping Armstead on the option price.
A year later: Still a question of their plans for Armstead.
2. Re-sign Trent Brown and upgrade the offensive line
They worked to upgrade the offensive line, but they went in another direction from Brown. The 49ers initially extended center Daniel Kilgore, but then traded him once they were able to sign Weston Richburg. They subsequently signed Mike Person to compete at guard, drafted Mike McGlinchey and traded Trent Brown, and then signed guard Laken Tomlinson to an extension.
A year later: Still need to upgrade at guard. Mike McGlinchey had a very solid rookie season and will book-end with Joe Staley for at least another year or two. Trent Brown had a great year in New England, and now hits free agency with a potentially huge market.
3. Sign Dion Lewis and Trey Burton
The 49ers wanted a different kind of running back than Carlos Hyde, and they were aggressive in going after Minnesota Vikings free agent Jerick McKinnon. Unfortunately, McKinnon tore his ACL shortly before the start of the season, and we’re left waiting until this fall to see if the signing was worthwhile.
At tight end, they did not make any big changes, and instead saw George Kittle emerge as one of the best tight ends in the NFL. Burton was a solid presence for the Bears, but nothing like Kittle.
A year later: Matt Breida broke out in place of McKinnon, and Kittle broke out at tight end. The 49ers will welcome back McKinnon this fall, and very well could make a move for a tight end to replace Garrett Celek.
4. Add a No. 1 cornerback
The 49ers signed Richard Sherman shortly before the new league year began after Seattle released him. It took him some time round back into form, but he seemed to rebound quite well from his torn Achilles. Opposing quarterbacks did not challenge him for the first half of the season, and while they did go after him more in the back half, he was still a capable cornerback.
Meanwhile, Ahkello Witherspoon regressed in his second season. He looked better in the back half of the season, but he faces stiff competition this offseason from 2018 third round pick Tarvarius Moore.
A year later: Sherman is a solid presence, but he’s not a long-term answer. Moore and Witherspoon will compete to start opposite Sherman, but the team could very well add another body. I doubt they spend a high pick on Greedy Williams, but if they moved back in the first round, you never know what they might decide to do.
5. Sign insurance for Reuben Foster
Welp. The 49ers drafted Fred Warner to pair with Foster, only to see Foster released during the season after getting arrested at the team’s hotel in Tampa. Brock Coyle suffered a compression fracture in his back in Week 1, and Malcolm Smith first struggled to stay healthy, then bounced around before being benched late in the season. Elijah Lee, who spent all of 2017 on the 49ers practice squad, eventually moved into the starting lineup next to Warner.
A year later: The 49ers now need to find somebody to pair with Warner for the long haul. Smith could very well be released this offseason, and while Lee was solid late in the season, he seems more like a depth option and special teams ace than a long-term starter. But who knows, maybe he’ll surprise us. I suspect we see the 49ers add either a free agent or a fairly significant draft pick.