With the NFL Draft on the horizon, the San Francisco 49ers are focused on adding as much good young talent as they can later this week. However, as NFL reporters and pundits have zeroed in on the top prospects in this year’s draft, it has taken attention away from free agency.
Historically, almost every notable NFL free-agent signing happened well before the draft. In recent years, though, as teams have begun valuing compensatory picks more and veteran free agents have wanted to ensure they signed with a team that did not draft a player at their position, things have slowed down.
The majority of big-name free agents have already signed this offseason, but there is still a surprisingly impressive collection of veteran talent on the open market. While the 49ers currently lack any significant salary-cap space, that will change drastically the second they trade or release Jimmy Garoppolo.
Obviously, the 49ers will try to address all of their needs via the draft. However, as head coach Kyle Shanahan tries to build an immediate Super Bowl contender around Trey Lance, he probably has his eyes on some more proven talent.
Here’s a look at the best potential free-agent targets for the 49ers at their positions of need:
Elijah Mitchell was a fantastic rookie running back, but unless Shanahan is more confident in Trey Sermon, he probably still wants another option in the backfield. The Niners already retained Jeff Wilson Jr. to help the situation, but they usually enter training camp with five roster-able backs. Mitchell, Wilson, Sermon, and JaMycal Hasty are already under contract, leaving one more spot.
It’ll probably come through the draft, but the Niners could also wait out the veteran market of backs for a player that will take the veteran’s minimum. Former Shanahan backs Devonta Freeman, Jerick McKinnon, Wayne Gallman, and Carlos Hyde are all available, and other veterans like Le’Veon Bell, Sony Michel, and Tarik Cohen could easily slot into the 49ers' offense as well.
Even if the 49ers don’t trade Deebo Samuel, they probably need to bring in at least one viable depth piece to complement Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and Jauan Jennings. That could come through the draft, but there’s actually still a surprisingly talented group of veteran wideouts on the open market.
Julio Jones is easily the biggest name and could become a top target if the 49ers trade Samuel. Jones, of course, was arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL over the past decade and had the most productive seasons of his career when Shanahan was his offensive coordinator with the Falcons.
Former star receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry are also free agents. Beckham is set to miss the start of the regular season as he works his way back from the torn ACL he sustained in the postseason but still has the skillset of a Pro Bowl receiver. Landry has never been as impactful as either Beckham or Jones at their peaks, but he’s been healthier and more productive over the past two seasons.
Former 49er Emmanuel Sanders could be a safer, lower-upside fit. Sanders has always been highly complimentary of his time with the organization, and several Niners, including Deebo, credited Sanders for his locker-room presence. While he’s heading into his age-35 season, Sanders was a solid pass-catcher for the Bills last season, recording 42 receptions for 626 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
Among the veterans, though, Will Fuller could be the best fit for the 49ers. One of the best deep threats in the league, Fuller has always made his offenses better when he’s been healthy. As the 49ers look to take advantage of Trey Lance’s arm strength next season, Fuller could be their ideal third receiver. Fuller’s injury history, though, is why the talented 28-year-old is still available. He has not played more than 11 games in a season since his rookie year and missed most of last season with a broken finger. Still, the 49ers could be in a position to take that chance if he’s only slotted to be their third or fourth most important pass-catcher heading into camp.
The Mike McGlinchey question has been quietly hanging over the 49ers throughout the offseason. McGlinchey has been an above-average right tackle for San Francisco since they drafted him in 2018, but after tearing his right quadriceps last season, it’s hard to know how confident the Niners are that they can count on him in 2022.
McGlinchey is entering the final year of his rookie contract, so it probably makes more sense for the Niners to draft a tackle to potentially replace him in 2022 and beyond, but if they want a veteran, there are a bevy of options. Right tackles Bryan Bulaga, Daryl Williams, and Bobby Massie are the most notable names still available.
Williams probably makes the most sense if San Francisco tries to bring in a veteran tackle. While Williams has struggled on the inside, he has started at left guard, right guard, left tackle, and right tackle over the course of his career, splitting time at right guard and right tackle last season with the Bills.
The 49ers could slot Williams in at right tackle until McGlinchey is ready to return. Then, he could move inside to right guard and solidify their interior line when McGlinchey is back.
The 49ers are currently slotted to have Daniel Brunskill and Aaron Banks as their starting guards next season. Not exactly an intimidating duo for opponents. If the 49ers want to shy away from drafting another guard highly in the draft, there are several starting-caliber players available, although none are ideal scheme fits.
Quinton Spain and Ereck Flowers have both been average left guards over the past few seasons. On the right side, Trai Turner has been an above-average starter for most of his eight-year career. However, all three are bulkier blockers who are better fits in traditional gap-heavy schemes than in Shanahan’s zone-heavy approach. Oday Aboushi has a weaker track record than Spain, Flowers, or Turner but has flashed more scheme versatility and has been solid on both sides of the center. With that said, Aboushi tore his ACL last October, which creates some obvious uncertainty.
The San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch recently reported that 49ers center Alex Mack is mulling retirement. We saw the 49ers have a retiring offensive lineman hold off on making an announcement until after the draft before (Joe Staley), and if that’s happening again, the Niners need a center.
Mack’s retirement would create a little more than $4 million in salary-cap space for the 49ers, which could make it a bit easier to splurge on free-agent J.C. Tretter. Tretter is a perfect scheme fit for Shanahan, having thrived under Kevin Stefanski in Cleveland, and has been an above-average starter since 2016. Tretter may actually be an upgrade over Mack. Of course, that will come at a higher price.
If Tretter is out of San Francisco’s price range, it will make sense to target a cheaper veteran to compete with a young prospect they add in the draft: Matt Paradis or Trey Hopkins fit that bill. Paradis is a solid starter but tore his ACL last November. Hopkins has been the Bengals’ starting center for the past three years but is heavily responsible for Cincinnati’s offensive line struggles.
Tyrann Mathieu might be the highlight of the remaining free-agent defensive backs, but the odds of the Honey Badger landing in San Francisco are minuscule. With that said, starting-caliber players like Landon Collins, Damontae Kazee, Jason McCourty, and even longtime Niner Jaquiski Tartt remain available. Any one of them could compete with Talanoa Hufanga and Tarvarius Moore for the starting spot and give defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans a bit more insurance if Jimmie Ward goes down.