Last week we looked at versatile draft prospects for Kyle Shanahan’s powerful offense — one where (ideally) any play could be a run or pass, a jet sweep, hitch or a deep crosser, on any down. To make that work best, you want wide receivers who can block and play all 3 positions, tight ends who can block and move, and running backs who can catch and pass protect.
Now that the franchise tag dust has settled, let’s do a similar scan of free agent options. And as exciting a prospect as Patriots DE Trey Flowers is, we’ll focus on the offense, since Robert Saleh’s Seattle-style defense is a completely different animal.
Frankly, the vast majority of good FA’s are on the defensive side this year; offensive prospects are scarce, and some of the biggest (such as quarterback Nick Foles) just don’t fill a need for the Niners. Others, like TE Jared Cook, don’t have the versatility we’re looking for here. He had a great year last year, but is not much of a blocker and struggles with drops.
Here are some scheme fits who would make a lot of sense.
RB Le’Veon Bell
This is a name so big it’s almost easy to forget him, and there are potential off-field and attitude reasons that may make GM John Lynch say “No thanks.”
Don’t let that distract you from the fact that he would be a huge asset in Shanahan’s system. He’s not only a great runner, but an excellent receiver (with 312 receptions on 398 targets in his five season, for 2,660 yards, 120 first downs and 7 touchdowns). AND, he’s great in pass protection, though that gets little attention.
One additional factor — with a year off due to his contract issues, he is rested and healed up in a way that very few 27-year-old All-Pro running backs ever are. Dude is set to EXPLODE this year.
The big problem is scheme fit. Pittsburgh did not run much of Shanahan’s beloved outside zone blocking. According to PFF, in 2017 the Steelers were 28th in the league for zone blocking (at 45%, compared to San Francisco’s 74%), and most of that was inside zone (55%). But even those numbers mean that he ran outside zone over 20% of the time. If that film looks good to RB coach Bobby Turner, then scheme fit shouldn’t be a problem.
The other issue is money. Sure, the Niners are flush with cap space, but per OverTheCap.com, they’re also paying Jerick McKinnon $5.75 million this year on his back-loaded contract. That number rises to $8.8M in 2020 and $9.2M in 2021. None of that money is guaranteed, either, which suggests that unless he has a great season this year, he’ll be cut or renegotiated lower after this next season.
Bell, on the other hand, turned down a 5-year, $70M deal from Pittsburgh so he’ll be very expensive. The Niners could afford one year to experiment with a “Twin Towers” RB based offense, or they could cut McKinnon now and go with Bell. But either option is a high price to pay.
RB Tevin Coleman
Coleman played for Kyle Shanahan for two years in Atlanta. He hasn’t been especially successful, though he had his best year catching passes out of the backfield with Shanahan in 2016 (31 receptions on 40 targets for 421 yards). That best year was still worse receiving than any of Duke Johnson’s four seasons, though, so unless they can get a bargain price, it’s doubtful that Coleman will make any sense for San Francisco.
WR/PR Adam Humphries
Humphries is primarily a shifty slot receiver, but he’s also an solid punt returner — and a great story. Undrafted and not invited to the combine, he made the Buccaneers after an invitation to a rookie tryout. He has steadily improved despite instability in coaching and QB play, finishing last season with 816 yards and 48 first downs on 105 targets.
G Rodger Saffold III
Saffold has been an excellent guard for the Rams, a position where the Niners need some serious help. Where’s the versatility? Arguably, Saffold could also play some defense — not at the DE position that he played in high school, but by subtraction. In other words, the Niners could get a leg up on their toughest division rival by carving a big hole in their offensive line, and maybe learn some things about Sean McVay’s scheme.
Cleveland Browns RB Duke Johnson Jr.
He’s not a free agent yet, but the Browns may be forced to release him for cap reasons — or trade him if someone can stomach (or renegotiate) his sizable contract. Johnson actually had more receptions last year (47 for 429 yards) than carries (40 for 201 yards), stuck behind rookie Nick Chubb in the rotation. Or, for a real bargain, the Niners could try to persuade Darren Sproles — both a punt returner and RB who is a solid receiver — to play another year. At 36, he’s at the end of his career but he might also be a good mentor to the Niners young backs.
Top level free agents are rarely a good deal. You almost always overpay, as Kyle Shanahan noted in a fascinating interview with his friend and former college QB Chris Simms. Often the best value is the third or fourth or fifth best player at a position, or what Shanahan calls “some small free agent stuff” and “lower-level free agents” in that podcast. (I also learned the term “slap-dick” from that discussion. Time well spent.)
It’s always interesting how the stature of players goes up and down what with franchise tags, combine scores, trades, rumors and bluffs. With the possible exception of Bell, none of these players will be good acquisitions unless the market for them softens and they become available at a lower price. The Niners’ bigger needs, and the free agent classes better options, are all on the defensive side.