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49ers offseason plan, Pt. I: Build around Trey; get a makeover in the secondary

Both should be at the top of the list for the Niners this offseason

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Leading up to the new league year last offseason, we came up with multiple plans that involved the 49ers signing specific free agents and drafting certain players.

The first plan was the most accurate, as it involved the Niners retaining Jimmy Garoppolo while also drafting a quarterback. We’ll do the same this year, albeit it’ll be different as the 49ers are without a first-round pick.

Here’s a preferable outcome this offseason for the 49ers that I feel would give them their best chance both in the immediate future as well as long-term. The goal isn’t to replicate 2019 or another year where San Francisco was “close” to winning a Super Bowl.

Oftentimes, “close” turns out to be the worst-case scenario. It provides false hope that clouds your judgment or gives you a false sense of reality.

The 49ers don’t have to tear down their roster as the core pieces remain in place to contend in the NFC for years to come.

However, the importance of this offseason cannot be understated, as now is an opportune time for the organization to take advantage of its quarterback on a rookie contract.

Who stays

  • LG Laken Tomlinson
  • CB Jason Verrett
  • RB Raheem Mostert
  • LB Marcell Harris
  • DB Dontae Johnson
  • EDGE Arden Key
  • RT Tom Compton

In this hypothetical, Tomlinson tests the free-agent waters before both sides realize how perfect of a fit this is as familiarity works in favor of each party.

The team will roll the dice on the health of Verrett and Mostert for another season, but at a veteran minimum cost that could come with a high reward if even one stays healthy next season.

Harris and Johnson return as key special teams units while Key, who worked all of last offseason with Arik Armstead and formed a bond with, bets on himself for the second year in a row on a one-year “prove it” deal that’s heavily incentivized with a signing bonus that rewards him for his 2021 season.

Losing D.J. Jones is bittersweet as the defensive tackle cashes out during free agency. The 49ers ultimately make the correct decision not to overpay Jones, but it comes at the risk of Javon Kinlaw staying healthy.

That means Jaquiski Tartt and K’Waun Williams walk in free agency, and the 49ers must find two new starters in their secondary.

Who signs from outside of the building

  • QB Tyrod Taylor
  • CB Charvarius Ward
  • CB Desmond King
  • WR Rashard Higgins
  • DT Austin Johnson

To create cap space, the team extended Jimmie Ward, restructured Arik Armstead, and strongly recommended that Samson Ebukam take a pay cut.

Retaining Tomlinson keeps the continuity intact upfront and gives your 21-year-old quarterback another veteran to protect him.

Bringing back Key and Ebukam gives the Niners much-needed depth on the edge. Let’s start with Johnson, who is the replacement for Jones.

The 49ers have had great success turning former top-100 picks who failed at their first stops career around. Johnson, who was a top-50 pick out of Penn State in 2016, had his best season as a pro in 2021. The Niners attempt to squeeze every ounce of talent out of Johnson and don’t miss a beat up the middle on defense.

Higgins had a career year in 2020 but saw a massive dropoff in his production this past season. Higgins fell to the Browns’ fourth or fifth receiver on the depth chart. To me, he’d be a better version of Jauan Jennings in the slot.

The Browns run the same type of routes as the 49ers, though Higgins is a superior athlete to Jennings. The best-case scenario is that Higgins revives his 2020 season, where he averaged 16.2 yards per reception, catching wide-open intermediate passes from Trey Lance.

In an ideal world, Verrett stays healthy. However, the team cannot count on that, which is why they went and signed their number one cornerback in free agency. Ward is a name the 49ers were recently linked to.

Ward is far from a sexy signing — especially considering the names available — but he’s a 26-year-old to be cornerback who has improved his coverage skills each year and just had a career season where he was tasked with guarding number one receivers and more than held his own.

You’ll recall Ward getting mossed by Ja’Marr Chase for a touchdown in the playoffs and ignore him allowing only a 44.8% completion percentage during the season with nine pass breakups, two interceptions — three dropped interceptions — and three tackles for loss with an aggressive average depth of tackle at 3.4 yards.

Ward has the size to match up with the bigger receivers in the division at 6’1”, 200 pounds, and the willingness to tackle in run support. He’s nowhere near his ceiling yet, and Ward has yet to play with a pass rush of the 49ers caliber.

King is your replacement for Williams. There are plenty of similarities between the two. King, who just turned 27, has lived in the slot throughout his career. He’s been a victim of the big play — long speed isn’t his forte, either. But King is a versatile defender with tremendous ball skills, is a good blitzer, and has experience as a returner.

Who gets drafted?

The draft is where things get murky for the 49ers as they enter this portion of the offseason with question marks remaining some of the most critical positions in today’s evolving game. In Kyle Shanahan’s offense, tackles are paramount while you can get away with average guard play.

Defensively, the responsibilities of a safety have led to the position turning into a must-have. The Bills have the best safety duo in the NFL. The Bills led the league in defensive EPA per play allowed and was second in defensive success rate. When you go down the list of team stats, the best defenses had the best safeties.

Talanoa Hufanga could turn into a do-it-all safety for the Niners, but a fifth-round pick shouldn’t prevent you from upgrading in the draft.

The dream of Georgia safety Lewis Cine falling to pick No. 61 died when he ran in the 4.3’s during the NFL Combine over the weekend. Baylor’s safety Jalen Pitre didn’t run the 40, so he won’t get the postseason boost as other prospects might.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a better fit for Pitre than San Francisco, who has a natural understanding of how to play the position. Pitre can play every role but is a playmaker around the line of scrimmage. I don’t believe he has the same issues in coverage as his scouting reports suggest, and I feel like Pitre is just scratching the surface of who he will become as a player.

If not Pitre, Kerby Joseph out of Illinois would be the perfect centerfielder who has the range and speed to be a turnover machine in this defense. He might be viewed as a one-year wonder, but Joseph went from a Lovie Smith defense to a better scheme fit. He’ll be even better as a pro.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the team packaged some of their later-round picks to move up in the third round if they feel like an offensive tackle falls. They could do the same in the second.

Betting on Mike McGlinchey to come back fully healthy off a season-ending injury doesn’t come without risk, but the immediate financial investment that comes with picking up McGlinchey’s fifth-year option ultimately gives the team no choice but to roll with McGlinchey in 2022 at right tackle.

As for the rest of the draft, expect the team to continue to swing on wide receivers and cornerbacks.