With the legal tampering period kicking off today, expect a flurry of moves being made across the league. The 49ers will always place an emphasis on diverting resources to their defensive line, and this current crop of free agents is loaded with quality pass rushers.
The 49ers likely have several moves lined up to create some cap flexibility, making a move for one of these premier free agents a bit more feasible. I'm going to break it down into three tiers, players who almost assuredly will come with a hefty price tag, players who likely could be signed on a short team-friendly deal, and then the players who likely land somewhere in the middle.
These are players the 49ers are going to have to get creative to fit on the roster, given their current financial situation. The players in this tier are more of a best-case, hitting a home run scenario.
The former first overall pick has gotten to a point where his production per snap rate has actually gotten fairly underrated. Clowney is coming off a season with the Cleveland Browns that saw him record 11 sacks and over 50 pressures. The main issue with Clowney will always be dependability, as he has only played a full season's worth of games once, which happened in 2017.
However, the 49ers might be the perfect team to be able to absorb Clowney's absence should his pattern of missing a handful of games each season continue. Given the depth on the 49ers' defensive line, it won't cripple their pass rush should they have to be without Clowney's services at any point during the regular season.
With that being said, the talent when he is available is undeniable. He is one of the most talented all-around edge players in the league. It's very reasonable to expect his production to skyrocket playing on the same line as Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead. Clowney is also one of the best run defending edge players in the league, creating a scenario where the 49ers' already stout defensive line becomes extremely difficult to run against on base downs.
49ers fans saw firsthand the kind of impact that Von Miller can have after watching him help blow up the 49ers' super bowl hopes with a couple of key pressures in the 4th quarter of the NFC championship game.
Even as he enters his mid 30's, Miller is still arguably the most talented speed rusher in the league, as evidenced by the 22 pressures and 4 sacks he registered during his playoff run with the Rams.
The price would be high, but the 49ers would be getting a clear upgrade from what they had with Dee Ford opposite Bosa in 2019 when they were moments away from being propelled to a Lombardi trophy by that dynamic pass-rushing duo.
This one is pretty simple, any team in the league would love to have a player like Miller on their team. It's going to cost to get a first-ballot Hall of Fame talent on your team, but the reward is too great to ignore exploring the possibility of adding the former super bowl MVP.
Another case where the 49ers probably don't need to dive too deep to get an understanding of how dominant Jones has been, as they've watched him terrorize their quarterbacks twice a year for the last six seasons.
Like Miller, Jones likely comes with a large-cap hit, something he has more than earned after the string of success he has had. The two-time all-pro is very familiar with the NFC West and had an interesting take on how he would evaluate landing spots in free agency.
Jones mentioned that money wasn't the ultimate priority when evaluating his potential suitors and referenced that scheme fit and getting to choose what system he was going to play in meant more to him at this stage of his career.
Here's what Jones had to say:
“To be completely honest, it’s not about money at all. Where I am in my career, I’ve gotten contracts, I’ve gotten the Super Bowl, but I think scheme is huge, or for me, winning championships. I’ll say it again, It’s not about money. I will say I want to go to a place that maximizes my talents. There have been times in my career where I’d say I caught myself out of position. I do take the blame, but at the same time it’s like ‘Hey should I have been doing that?’ I have enough comfort where I am in my career and this age to say that.”
"But again, going into free agency, What team maximizes Chandler Jones' talents?"
First off, it's very commendable for Jones to take that stance. And at this point, we've seen the 49ers get tremendous results in their own system from edge players who come from a 3-4 base defense like Jones does.
The 49ers offer Jones the chance to compete for a title, as well as the ability to truly maximize his ability as a pass rusher, which appears to be his utmost priority as he navigates through free agency.
Middle of the pack
Smith was recently cut by the Packers as a cap casualty, coming off by far his most disappointing season in Green Bay. Injury caused Smith to miss most of the season, although he did have a sack and a pair of pressures in the Packers' lone postseason game.
Smith logged back-to-back double-digit sack seasons from 2018-to-2020 and proved to be one of the more talented edge rushers in football over that span. Entering his age 30 season, Smith is a player worth kicking the tires on as he likely still has a couple of seasons of good football left in the tank.
The 49ers have gotten good results when converting stand-up outside linebackers into their scheme, and Smith is a player who could carve out a nice role as a pass-rushing specialist with the 49ers. The 49ers get a chance to be the beneficiary of the production that comes from an all-pro players career rejuvenation. Smith gets a chance to rebuild his value on a defensive line that has a great track record of maximizing production.
Dante Fowler Jr.
I wrote a while back about how Fowler Jr. would be a great fit for the 49ers, and I think he projects right into this sweet spot as an affordable option that won't be cheap but also won't break the bank.
Here are some excerpts from that piece:
"His athletic profile and pattern of past production make him an ideal candidate for the 9-tech position that is a staple of the Wide-9 defensive front that is regularly employed by the 49ers. It's very feasible to see a path to Fowler Jr. regularly being put able to exploit the one-on-one opportunities that would likely be put in as a result of the attention opposing offensive lines would have to pay to Bosa and Armstead.
Fowler Jr. is coming off of back-to-back relatively average seasons with the Falcons, which likely lessens the demand for teams looking to pay top dollar for his services. He might be in a position where he looks to join a good situation for a season and rebuild some of his value before cashing in next offseason when the cap is projected to spike, and teams will probably spend more.
What better situation is out there than coming to the 49ers? Not only would Fowler Jr. have the benefit of playing alongside a group of studs on the defensive line, but he also would have the chance to work with the best defensive line coach in the league in Kris Kocurek.
The 49ers get the benefit of having a very talented player on the roster, and Fowler Jr. gets a chance to rebuild his value in arguably the best place in the league for a defensive lineman to do so. The question shouldn't be why they should do this. The real question is, why not?"
Low cost/high reward guys
Here I'm going to highlight some options for the 49ers to land an impact player on a budget. They won't come with the high floor that the aforementioned names will, but the recent success of getting plus production from players like Jordan Willis and Charles Omenihu creates optimism that the system will squeeze the most out of any player that signs between the margins.
The Texans' edge rusher was a key piece going back to Houston in the Jadeveon Clowney trade back in 2019. Martin fits the bill as a player who has the physical gifts but has just been lacking the talent and coaching around him to maximize his ability truly.
At 6'2, 242 pounds, Martin projects nicely into a speed rushing role as a 9 tech on passing downs. While he has never had more than 5 sacks in a season, Martin would be someone worth taking a gamble on based on potential alone. At only 26 years old, it's reasonable to expect that Martin's best football is ahead of him, and it's hard to envision a more ideal environment to bring it out in him than the 49ers present. Maybe his former teammate Omenihu puts in a good word.
Barnett is a former first-round pick who never really reached his perceived ceiling during his time in Philadelphia. Barnett's best season came in 2019 when he recorded 47 pressures and 7 sacks, but his production has been relatively consistent throughout his career. In all but one of Barnett's five seasons, he has eclipsed a double-digit pressure percentage.
Listed at 6'3, 259 pounds, Barnett could be the perfect candidate to fill the next vacancy in the Kris Kocurek school of defensive line career revival.
BONUS: In-house options
The 49ers also have a couple of players of their own slated to hit free agency that fit the mold of an impact pass rusher. Here are a couple of guys who already have a level of proven success within the 49ers scheme, on top of a sense of familiarity with the organization.
This one was tough because Key could very easily slot into that "middle of the pack" tier. Coming off of a few unremarkable seasons with the Raiders, Key burst onto the scene during his first year with the 49ers.
Key's ability to kick inside and rush the passer from the interior sparked a dominant run for the 49ers' defensive line and arguably kick-started their late-season surge that manifested into a deep playoff run.
Key provides the 49ers not only great production, but the versatility to play inside and outside is beyond valuable. The only question that remains is how much Key will fetch on the open market a year after signing an extremely team-friendly deal. For the right price, it would be wise for the 49ers' front office to keep Key in their defensive line rotation for the foreseeable future.
Who can forget that punt block on the frozen tundra in Green Bay? While that play will always have a place in 49ers lore, Willis brought so much more to the table than a clutch special teams play. He was a bonafide member of a stout pass-rushing rotation and is likely a player who can be had on a reasonable salary should he opt to return to San Francisco.
Willis recorded pressure in five of six games to close out the season, and the three he had against Dallas in the wild card round were pivotal to a road win in the playoffs. At 6'4, 275 pounds, Willis has the ideal size to blend with his 4.53 speed to create the prototypical speed rusher for the 5 and 9-tech in this 49ers defensive front.
Regardless of where the 49ers go to address this position, the defensive line should be in a good spot. It's been noted that teams aren't as willing to shell out big bucks to the edge players in free agency due to how deep the position group is projected to be in the upcoming draft.
If that's the case, it is a win/win for the 49ers. They either grab a veteran via free agency on a discounted price tag, or they invest some of their draft capital into pursuing one of the prospects in the upcoming draft.
Ultimately it's hard not to feel optimistic about their chances to add an impact player or two on the defensive line for 2023.