This offseason, the top priority for the 49ers will be ensuring Trey Lance has weapons around him and is protected. The second priority — you could argue this is 1B to Lance — is to find a cornerback.
Every fan wants their team to swing for the fences in free agency. When you see a name that you’re familiar with, it’s easy to gravitate toward that player. More often than not, these big deals turn into fools’ gold, and the team dishing out wads of cash comes out on the short end a couple of years down the line.
It’s also important to remember that just because a move didn’t work doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth it. So again, I point to the decision to trade for and extend Dee Ford — a player the 49ers are still paying despite getting minimal production during the past two seasons.
Ford was coming off one of the most productive seasons for an edge rusher in recent memory. He also came with an injury history. The 49ers went into the 2019 offseason with the thought that they’d create a fearsome pass rush up front. In theory, the plan worked. When Ford was on the field, the 49ers’ defense was otherworldly.
Swinging for Stephon
The Patriots traded Stephon Gilmore ahead of the NFL trade deadline last season to the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers weren’t a team going anywhere, but that’s where Gilmore is from.
Last week, ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler listed the Pittsburgh Steelers as the best fit for Gilmore this upcoming free agency but also said, “the 49ers desperately need corner help and will probably poke around here.”
Gilmore, who will be 32 once the season starts, allowed 43% of his targets to be completed for a stingy 4.1 yards per target with Carolina. He only allowed one touchdown and had two interceptions. Gilmore looked healthy, and like a player the 49ers could have desperately used down the stretch.
Gilmore didn’t play for the Patriots in 2021 as he recovered from a torn quad during the offseason. He began the season on the PUP list, so he wasn’t eligible to return until six weeks.
Gilmore remains one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL. He missed the final five games in 2020 but didn’t miss a start in either 2018 or 2019. The hope would be that now that he’s further away from his quad injury and how he didn’t suffer any setbacks during the second half of the season, Gilmore would be fully recovered from his torn quad and stay healthy all of 2022.
The young cornerbacks the 49ers have in their locker room don’t have a veteran to lean on. Josh Norman and Dontae Johnson are unrestricted free agents. Gilmore would allow Ambry Thomas and Deommodore Lenoir to develop behind the scenes. If Gilmore does miss a game or two, then you could plug in Thomas for spot duty.
But if the Niners are going to slow down opposing offenses, are you trusting Gilmore or Thomas? That’s why you bring in Gilmore. DeAndre Hopkins isn’t catching 10+ passes on Gilmore.
Is Gilmore worth the money?
First, you have to ask yourself if what Gilmore brings on and off the field to your organization is worth opening the checkbook for. And while he’s on the wrong side of 30, Gilmore is two years removed from being the Defensive Player of the Year.
Gilmore only played in eight games, so he’s not going to qualify among other cornerbacks statistically. Only A.J. Terrell, an All-Pro, from the Falcons, allowed a lower completion percentage with fewer yards per target. That’s it. That’s the list.
Gilmore’s tackling alone should be enough to entice the 49ers. DeMeco Ryans relies on his cornerbacks to make a tackle. That’s how this defense operates. Gilmore finished with five tackles for loss in limited action and did not miss a tackle in eight games.
How much is too much?
We are talking about a superstar still. Gilmore’s price range would take a bump if anything, since he’s on the open market. Bill Belichick traded Gilmore for next to nothing instead of giving him a contract. So we are all guessing when it comes to understanding Gilmore’s value.
His valuation is different for each team, depending on their situation. Gilmore wanted a multi-year contract that paid him north of $15 million during the season. Spotrac’s valuation of Gilmore is at two years for $28.3 million.
Right now, the 49ers are $4.4 million over the cap. A Garoppolo departure and a Jimmie Ward or Arik Armstead restructure would create whatever moves are necessary to make this offseason, including a slight overpay for Gilmore.
Darius Slay and Byron Jones, two cornerbacks 30 and older, average over $16.5 million a year. They are the fifth and sixth highest-paid cornerbacks in the NFL. On the open market, that’s the ballpark I’d expect Gilmore to land in.
You can manipulate the salary cap by front or backloading contracts, adding ghost years at the end to void deals, etc. If the 49ers want to sign Gilmore, they have the means.