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49ers mailbag: Will the 49ers replace Richard Sherman through free agency or in the draft?

In today’s mailbag, we cover everything free agency related

Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

A week from Monday, NFL teams are allowed to start negotiations with players as free agency gets underway formally. We’d be naive to think that the San Francisco 49ers haven’t spoken to their current group of unrestricted free agents.

If you’re curious why there hasn’t been a deal made yet, the answer is simple: Why would a player agree to a deal before he sees how the market values him?

We asked you what is on your mind with a week to go before free agency. Let’s get into some of your questions.

There’s a lot of talks this off-season that the “middle class” of free agents will struggle to get good deals due to the small-cap. Who are the 49ers' middle-class FAs, and does this increase the likelihood they come back on team-friendly deals? - Simon

Talent-wise, Jaquiski Tartt is anything but middle-class. If “we” didn’t judge defensive backs solely on ball production, Tartt would be viewed as one of the better safeties in the league. Unfortunately, Tartt hasn’t played in 16 games since he entered the league. Because of that, Tartt is likely to get a one-year deal this offseason.

I’d add in Kendrick Bourne, K’Waun Williams, and Kerry Hyder as part of the Niners “middle class” free agents. Based on name recognition, Richard Sherman is in a tier above. Based on play, I’d throw Trent Williams, Jason Verrett, and Kyle Juszczyk in the same category since Juice is the best at his position.

As for your final question, money talks, for as much as we talk about guys like Bourne, who is a prime example of a culture fit to the team, the majority of free agents tend to land with teams who pay them the most. Opportunity matters, but money tends to override anything.

Seems like Sherman and Richburg are probably gone. Do you see the Niners replacing them in the draft or FA? - Rusty

Many of us act as if signing Alex Mack to replace Weston Richburg is a foregone conclusion. While the Falcons center has a history with Kyle Shanahan, you have to imagine San Francisco won’t be Mack’s only suitors.

Based on Kyle Shanahan’s history, he prefers a veteran center. There are plenty of options in free agency, and most of them would come at a fair price tag. A name that we haven’t mentioned that would be a sneaky good signing is Dolphins center, Ted Karras. Karras turns 28 next Monday and has allowed two sacks in the past two seasons with both the Patriots and the Dolphins. If the goal is to find a veteran who understands pass-protection, Karras could be precisely what Shanahan is looking for.

It’s strange to say this considering how he played during the 2019 season, but replacing Sherman all but happened already during the 2020 season. Sherman suited up for only five games this past year. In his absence, the 49ers received above-average play from Ahkello Witherspoon at cornerback and mostly competent play from Emmanuel Moseley when he wasn’t facing the best wideouts in the NFL.

The 49ers could find a starter at cornerback with one of their first two picks in the NFL Draft. If they choose to go cornerback at No. 12, Jaycee Horn or Caleb Farley are the top two cornerbacks in the draft. At pick No. 43, guys like Greg Newsome or Tyson Campbell could give you a similar value as a first-rounder.

If I were GM, I’d replace Richburg in free agency and Sherman via the draft.

How worried should we be about losing Trent Williams? - Kevin

There has to be a worry whenever one of the best players at his position is set to hit the market. This is rare for a player the caliber of Williams, who was outstanding during 2020 for the Niners. If anything, we could expect a better version of Trent as he was coming off a year where he didn’t play football.

Williams knows his worth. He’s going to get $20 million somewhere. Hopefully, that somewhere is in the Bay Area. I’m sure the team has offered Williams a contract, but, again, why would he agree?

Teams like the Jaguars, Colts, and the Panthers all are set to have new quarterbacks, all could use an upgrade at left tackle, and all have more cap space than the 49ers, could offer Williams whatever price-tag he asks.

The question now becomes whether the 49ers are willing to meet Williams’s demands if the two can find a middle ground and if the Niners' culture and familiarity, and team success are enough for Williams to come back. I’d rate losing Williams a three out of ten on the worry scale as of today.

If K’Waun goes elsewhere, are there any free agent nickel corners that could replace him at an affordable price? - Chris

Williams was a great player when he was on the field for the 49ers, but I feel like his skill set may be the easiest to replace, especially if we see DeMeco Ryans running more man-to-man coverages. Buster Skrine, Brian Poole, Mackensie Alexander, Mike Hilton, P.J. Williams, and Troy Hill could all fill in for Williams without breaking the bank.

Don’t rule out a draft pick to replace Williams, either. There are plenty of suitable options in this draft, both in the slot and on the perimeter at cornerback. One name I’d keep an eye on is Elijah Molden out of Washington. Molden has the athleticism, aggression, ball skills, and versatility to be everything and more than Williams was.

Biggest surprise prediction of a free agent the 49ers bring in (not currently on team)? - Nicholas

I would be surprised if the Niners spend big on a player outside of the building. I’d expect the team to build through the draft and sign a few mid to lower-level free agents. So, to answer your question, I’ll say an edge rusher like Von Miller.

The scab from the signing of Dee Ford is still fresh. Signing another big-name free agent who didn’t play because of injury in 2020 to replace a player who didn’t play in 2020 counts as a surprise. Miller has a $22.2 million cap hit in 2021. If Denver declines that option, Miller will become a free agent. The Broncos figure to reach an agreement with Von before he hits the market, so I wouldn’t get my hopes up if you wanted to see the star pass rusher in San Francisco.