Now that we’ve reached the end of the first waves of free agency, we can draw a few conclusions from what did, or didn’t, happen. On today’s Gold Standard podcast, Levin Black and I took a stab at a few of them.
Trey Lance will be the starter in 2022
No single action said more about the starting quarterback next year than the hiring of Brian Griese as QB coach. You don’t hire a position coach with no experience in the job directly out of the broadcast booth to coach a soon-to-be 31-year-old quarterback going into his ninth year in the league.
You hire that guy because you’ve seen how he studies and prepares for a game, and you want to instill those habits in your not-yet 22-year-old quarterback with one year of professional experience.
Combine that with Kyle Shanahan’s latest comments about Griese, and the truth is thrown into sharp relief: this is Lance’s team in 2022.
The team has a ton of faith in their drafting and development
The current situations in the secondary and along the offensive line tell you how confident the front office is in itself. The 49ers could have easily freed up enough cap room to keep Laken Tomlinson if they really wanted to do so. While it would have been a lot of money to pay a guard, they have the luxury of a QB on a rookie deal, so they could have done so without wrecking their salary cap situation.
Instead, they let him leave and pass on free agents at the position like Brandon Scherff in favor of a second-round pick that barely played his rookie year. That’s not the kind of strategy a team in a Super Bowl window employs unless they’re pretty damn sure they have a capable replacement waiting in the wings. Meanwhile, at right guard, the answer is either more starts from Daniel Brunskill, a player they plucked from the now-defunct Alliance of American Football League, or possibly fifth-round pick Jaylon Moore.
The faith in development is also apparent in the secondary. While the team did sign Charvarius Ward from Kansas City, they also let slot corner K’Waun Williams go to the Broncos. This leaves second-year players Ambry Thomas and Deommodore Lenoir in a position to see significant playing time in 2022, especially if Ward and/or Emmanuel Moseley get injured.
At safety, it looks like last year’s starter Jaquiski Tartt likely won’t be back. His spot in the starting lineup looks to be up for grabs between fifth-round draft pick Talanoa Hufanga, 2018 third-round pick Tarvarius Moore coming off a torn Achilles, or free agent signing George Odum.
Even if the 49ers add to those positions at this month’s draft, that still speaks to the faith they have in Kyle Shanahan, Adam Peters, Ran Carthon, and John Lynch to identify and develop young, cheap players out of college.
Last year’s special teams’ play was a major problem
You watched the games last year, and by now, you’ve read the numbers - the 2021 special teams in San Francisco did more harm than good. Kyle Shanahan admitted his frustration with that phase of the team when he told FOX before the Divisional playoff game against the Packers that that was the only game all season where he thought they had an advantage on special teams.
Fast forward to this offseason, and the team signed multiple free agents to help in that area. George Odum was an All-Pro special-teamer in 2020. Ray-Ray McCloud led the NFL in punt return yardage and was among the league leaders in kick return yards last season. Linebacker Oren Burks has over 1,100 snaps on special teams in his career. The 49ers need more out of their return game and less out of other teams’ return games this season.
Every team goes into the offseason with multiple questions it has to answer. The answers to those questions can tell us a lot about both the team the previous year and the expectations the team has for the year to come. In the case of the 49ers, the further along in the offseason we go, the more those answers become clear.