ESPN Insider released their top 50 free agents for this upcoming free agency period, and two San Francisco 49ers made the list. Trent Williams was always going to be closer to the top, but seeing the Niners star left tackle ranked at No. 2 is even more of a reason for the team to retain their star tackle:
2. Trent Williams, OT
2020 team: San Francisco 49ers | Age entering 2021 season: 33
Williams revived his career in 2020 after finally engineering a trade away from Washington. He started 14 games for the 49ers and reminded most observers why he has been considered one of the game’s top left tackles. His age and injury history will be a factor, and in the end, the 49ers might decide he is too valuable to let hit the market.
The 49ers may have a new center and right guard. The last thing you want is to head into 2021 with three new starters along your offensive line — a position that thrives on continuity.
Some have said that promoting and bringing back Chris Foerster as offensive line coach would help re-sign Williams. I’m sure they are close dating back to their days at Washington, but Williams isn’t forgoing multiple millions because he’s buddies with a coach or two. If Williams returns to the Bay Area, it’s because he knows this is his best chance to win a Super Bowl.
It was a bit surprising to see Richard Sherman, who was on the injured reserve for 11 games, made the list over other unrestricted free agents on the Niners, including Jason Verrett. I think it’s safe to say that the Niners would bring back Verrett before Sherman, and probably K’Waun Williams, too.
I’m more interested in who San Francisco might look at that’s outside of the building. Here are four players from ESPN’s top 50 list who the 49ers should look at. I’m not advocating for the team to spend all of their money in free agency. This list gives us an idea about a few players that fit what the Niners want to do.
4) WR Curtis Samuel
27. Curtis Samuel, WR
2020 team: Carolina Panthers | Age entering 2021 season: 25
Samuel set career highs for receptions (77) and yards (851) in 2020, while also emerging as an intriguing multi-positional player who got 41 carries out of various formations. He rushed for 200 yards and two touchdowns, while converting 10 first downs, and would be closely scrutinized by teams with open-minded schemes. Among players classified as wide receivers, only the Bears’ Cordarrelle Patterson finished with more rushing yards than Samuel.
I know you’re rolling your eyes over the thought of investing in another wide receiver. Still, Samuel is a better fit than Kendrick Bourne in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, and Over the Cap has both players with the same valuation, at $6 million per season.
Shanahan’s offense is predicated on speed once the ball is snapped. The Panthers used Samuel as a running back, slot receiver, deep receiver, you name it. Samuel could play the same role in which Deebo Samuel did in the first Rams matchup. That way, you can use Samuel as an actual receiver.
This gives you three speedy, versatile wideouts to go along with George Kittle, and you have each player under contract for three more seasons. That gives Jimmy Garoppolo a strong nucleus where he can play point guard.
3) Edge rusher Melvin Ingram
44. Melvin Ingram III, Edge
2020 team: Los Angeles Chargers | Age entering 2021 season: 32
Ingram’s foray into free agency will be tricky. His age and a mostly lost season in 2020 are real downsides. On the other hand, flawless pass-rushers never get to the market. There are always reasons, and they don’t necessarily hold them back moving forward. Someone will bet that Ingram still has some good years left in him.
Ingram started seven games in 2020 and did not have a sack. He had 15 QB hits, but it was a disappointment. The 49ers are expected to part ways with Dee Ford, opening a hole at edge rusher.
At 32, Ingram may be forced to sign a “prove it” deal to show that he could stay for a season. San Francisco should take advantage of this. John Lynch and company have taken risks on a player in every free agency class over the past couple of seasons. Ingram fits that mold in this year's class.
Signing Ingram to a one-year deal worth $10-12 million, with the majority of that being incentivized, should get Ingram in the door. We know Nick Bosa is coming back, but it’s not fair to expect the 2019 defense to return as well. If that’s the 49ers' goal, they’ll need to sign another edge rusher who can come in and help right away.
2) C Corey Linsley
17. Corey Linsley, C
2020 team: Green Bay Packers | Age entering 2021 season: 30
Linsley earned first-team All-Pro honors in his seventh season and would be a worthy target for any team hoping to elevate its offensive line. With Linsley on the roster in 2017, the Packers allowed JC Tretter to leave as a free agent. But there is no obvious replacement on the roster this go around.
You shouldn’t need any convincing when it comes to adding All-Pro players. Linsley did miss three games this past season with a knee injury, but he started all 16 games in each of the previous three seasons.
As a player, he’s everything the 49ers want. Linsley has a blown block percentage of 0.6% this season. He hasn’t committed a penalty in the past three seasons, which is insane, and he didn’t allow a sack all year. Sports Info Solutions tracks “opponent stuffs,” which is the percent of run plays where the ball carrier was stopped behind the line of scrimmage running a player's way, and Linsley had zero in 2020.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better option than Linsley, who instantly solidifies the line and makes whoever starts at right guard better because he’s Linsley. Cut Weston Richburg and use that money to invest in a center.
1) Edge rusher Haason Reddick
24. Haason Reddick, Edge
2020 team: Arizona Cardinals | Age entering 2021 season: 26
What a career turnaround Reddick managed in 2020. A first-round pick in 2016 as an inside linebacker, Reddick had his fifth-year option declined for 2020. In a contract year, he moved to outside linebacker and then burst into the national consciousness with five sacks in a Week 14 win over the Giants. In total, he racked up 7.5 sacks in the Cardinals’ final four regular-season games. There is plenty of evaluation still needed, but at the very least, Reddick is rolling off a big contract season.
More than anything, the 49ers missed athleticism on the edge this past season. That’s why I listed Ingram above, and that’s why Reddick gets the nod at No. 1. It took Arizona a rash of injuries to let Reddick play on the edge, where he played in college, and what do you know, he looked like a competent pass rusher.
Reddick would be an ideal fit in the 49ers defense as he’s comfortable rushing the passer, has the speed to make quarterbacks uncomfortable but also gives you an option to be more multiple on defense.
This past season, Robert Saleh used more “mint fronts,” where Arik Armstead or Kerry Hyder would drop back into coverage while a linebacker or defensive back would insert as a blitzer. It creates confusion for the quarterback. If anyone would be comfortable in space, it’d be Reddick, who played linebacker during his first three seasons.
Reddick will break the bank after finishing the season with 12.5 sacks, but at 26, he’s worth it. I’m not going to call him a one-year wonder since it was his first season playing the position. You gave Dee Ford a big contract knowing his injury history. Reddick’s appeared in 16 games in each of the past four seasons.
A sub-package of Bosa-Armstead-Kinlaw-Reddick, with Fred Warner as a potential blitzer, may not be 2019 good, but it won’t be far off. Shanahan and Lynch said you have to take chances in this business, and Reddick is a gamble that would pay off.