Well, that’s a wrap on the 2021 NFL season! You know what that means; we are officially in offseason mode. The focus is now 100% shifted towards free agency and the draft, both of which will be vital for the 49ers if they are going to have a chance to make another deep playoff run in 2022.
I’m going to break down the areas of need that I think are of the utmost importance and in the coming weeks, do some more specific breakdowns of potential draft and free-agent fits to fill those spots.
For now, I’m going to stick to the bigger picture and give a quick synopsis of the positions I believe will need to be at the top of the priority list for the 49ers front office — which, of course are subject to change based on them potentially retaining and or letting players walk as this offseason develops.
5. Running back
This may come as a surprise to many, as Elijah Mitchell came off a rookie campaign that saw him post some impressive statistical figures during his debut season in the NFL. I want to preface this by noting that I think Mitchell performed admirably given the context of his draft position and the large workload thrust unto him so early in his career.
there is room to upgrade at the position, and I think Mitchell’s most effective role going forward would be as a change of pace back and not as a workhorse getting 18 carries per game as he did this season.
Raheem Mostert is also due to hit free agency, so the 49ers are currently slated to enter 2022 without the player I view as the best running back they’ve had during Shanahan’s tenure in San Francisco.
While I am not advocating for them to spend significant capital upgrading the position via the draft or free agency, there is a necessity for some changes in the running back room.
It felt like Mitchell was the only back Shanahan trusted towards the end of the season, and the reality of the situation is that Deebo Samuel can’t be run into the ground year in and year out. Spend a mid-round pick or sign a low-level free agency deal and insulate a position group with a decent foundation. That includes Trey Sermon, who could be an impact player in Year 2.
4. Defensive tackle
The 49ers are in a tough spot here because they found a tremendous amount of success with D.J. Jones and Arik Armstead on the interior, but Jones’ success has also potentially priced himself out of a future with the 49ers.
Jones finished the season as the number one ranked defensive lineman in ESPN’s Run Stop Win Rate metric and adds significant value as an exceptionally gifted pass rusher and athlete for someone who is his size.
So hypothetically, if Jones were to sign a more lucrative deal elsewhere, there is potentially an immediate need to fill a starting spot depending on what they decide to do with Armstead next year — he should remain inside given how well he performed down the stretch.
The health of 2020 first-round pick Javon Kinlaw who had a major procedure done to reconstruct his ACL, which cut his 2021 season short is also a major question.
I believe if all goes well with Kinlaw’s rehab, he will be first in line to take over for Jones should he depart. But given the way the 49ers have struggled with the injury bug in recent memory, I think it would be wise to spend the necessary capital to acquire a dependable veteran piece who can take some of the pressure off Kinlaw and Armstead while creating more depth within a defensive line rotation that was lacking a bit on the interior this past season.
3. Edge rusher
This one might also come as a surprise, but the importance of the position is why this is on the list for me. Most seasons I would put edge as a top-five positional need, regardless of who the incumbent players are at the position already.
Arden Key, Jordan Willis, and Kentavius Street are all scheduled to hit free agency, and the most former is another player who might have priced himself out of the 49ers future with a superb performance this past season.
Samson Ebukam is under contract for next season, and while the cap hit of 8.25 million isn’t outrageous given the way he closed out the season — Ebukam had a sack in seven of the last eight games to close out the season — there is only a dead cap hit of 1.75 million if the 49ers choose to move on and look elsewhere.
The 49ers' greatest success under this regime has come when the edge position is a dominant force. Frankly, they just can’t afford not to continue to pour serious resources into the position given the return on investment they’ve gotten employing that strategy.
The good news is they have strong anchors in Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead, who by default make life easier for any potential player sliding into a prominent role alongside them on the defensive line.
The ability to do what Key did this past season where he came in on a team-friendly deal, worked with the best defensive line coach in the business, and played in a scheme alongside great players that will help boost your own numbers effectively, leading to a bigger payday when the offseason comes, bodes well for the 49ers.
Finding some quality edge pieces to add to the rotation shouldn’t be difficult, and there are some very intriguing names potentially hitting the market.
2. Defensive back
Okay, I’ll be honest, I cheated here because I am going to include safety and cornerback with this section. The 49ers secondary wasn’t as bad as popular opinion has reflected, there is a considerable amount of room to improve in certain areas while also likely needing to fill needs out of necessity in other areas.
It’s absolutely within the realm of possibilities that Jaquiski Tartt and the 49ers part ways this offseason, and if that happens, the 49ers will have a major hole to fill in their secondary. I understand the sting of one play that people synonymously associate with Tartt.
But the fact remains he was one of the most important players on this over the last few seasons and someone who had nearly a decade of experience within the 49ers organization.
There are some great alternatives to the position available on the free-agent market, and I will do a deep dive piece on some potential candidates for that specific position very soon — Tracy Walker and Ronnie Harrison Jr. are my top two as of now.
The need for a safety will be more pressing due to the lack of an apparent heir on the current roster, but there is also a need at cornerback that needs to be addressed appropriately as well.
Emmanuel Moseley is a severely underrated player in this league, and I believe his spot should be solidified as a starter going into next season.
The 2021 3rd round pick, Ambry Thomas, showed a remarkable improvement to close out the season but is still very young and raw, which leads me not to be completely comfortable going all-in on him as the corner to start opposite of Moseley next season.
Regardless of how the 49ers project Thomas’ role going into next season, they also have to deal with the potential loss of K’Waun Williams, which would leave a void at their nickel corner spot.
Maybe 2021 5th round pick Deommodore Lenoir fills that spot, but having potentially two-fifths of your starting secondary needing to be replaced is certainly something that cannot be overlooked.
I think there are some very appealing options scheduled to be on the free-agent market, and I expect the 49ers to be much more aggressive when addressing the cornerback position compared to recent years, even if only to insulate the room with an adequate level of quality veteran depth, something that felt like it was lacking in 2021.
1. Interior offensive line
This is by far the most crucial area of focus heading into this offseason, as the 49ers are scheduled to have both of their starting guards enter free agency, along with a question mark at center as Alex Mack’s potential retirement creates an uncertain future at center.
Realistically, I don’t see all three returning next season, meaning the 49ers are going to be starting a different combination on the interior for the third consecutive season.
Now, I must point out that after a couple of years of the interior being an objective weakness, in 2021, the 49ers finally found a way to address this issue successfully.
They not only found a much-needed level of continuity but also an objective amount of above-average results this past season after signing Mack to anchor the center position.
This past season, he and Laken Tomlinson were both Pro Bowlers, providing a level of reliability and above-average play that will not be easy to replicate.
Unfortunately, Mack is in his late 30’s, and Tomlinson has been so reliable that there is a very plausible scenario where Mack decides to retire, and Tomlinson secures a hefty — and well deserved — payday out of the 49ers comfort range given the uncertainty currently surrounding their cap situation.
Daniel Brunskill isn’t irreplaceable, but he has been a solid starter on a cost-controlled deal, something that doesn’t grow on trees in the NFL.
Having a dependable interior offensive line is important for any team, but that importance will be magnified for a 49ers team that appears ready to hand the keys over to a 21-year-old quarterback entering their second season in the NFL.
The 49ers have to make sure they do whatever it takes to deliver a line that is at least comparable to what we saw in 2021, even if it comes at the cost of diverting fewer resources to the other areas of need that they will be faced with.
All in all, this team having a strong foundation of difference-makers under contract does make the prospect of attacking particular holes/areas of weakness easier.
The 49ers don’t need to approach this with the wide view lens that comes with building a roster from scratch rather they can focus on attacking these specific areas with a respectable amount of resources.
It also makes them a much more appealing destination for any potential free agent, especially those whose services might need to come at a more team-friendly rate. So buckle up!
It’s only Day 1 of the offseason. As I mentioned, I plan on doing a more expansive walkthrough in the coming weeks for each of these specific positions and who I think would be a good fit to fill those spots on this 49ers team, and help them finally get over the hump and hoist that sixth Lombardi when February 2023 rolls around.