If you want to sustain success in the NFL, you need the best players. The 49ers have mastered that, as the team had multiple All-Pro and Pro Bowl caliber players on the roster this past season.
There are still enough question marks that have prevented Kyle Shanahan from hoisting the sixth Lombardi trophy for this franchise. We won’t discuss injuries or anything out of their control, so let’s elaborate on the three ways the 49ers can get over the hump.
Be right about Trey Lance
The 49ers require a healthy quarterback to make it to the Super Bowl. That’s the first and most obvious factor. Brock Purdy was unbelievable as the starter, considering the circumstances.
The best players on the team believe it’s Purdy’s job to lose. But Purdy may not be ready by the time training camp starts. It’s Trey Lance’s time to prove that Shanahan made the correct decision to move multiple first-rounders for the former North Dakota State product.
From a talent perspective, I’m in the opinion that Lance gives the 49ers the best chance to win in the long term. He makes throws, whether it’s 60 yards down the field off a bootleg or 15 yards over the middle in a tight window, that few NFL quarterbacks can make.
Patrick Mahomes is an extreme comparison for any quarterback, but Lance can do everything Jalen Hurts did in the Super Bowl. We’ve seen it during practice, the preseason, and glimpses during the regular season. But it hasn’t happened for a prolonged period, which is why there is skepticism.
Lance is under contract for two more seasons and won’t become an unrestricted free agent until 2025. While it’s been disappointing that he hasn’t had a chance to develop with live game reps, he doesn’t turn 23 until June. Lance is still a kid.
Having Lance on a rookie contract allows the 49ers to continue to bring in talent, which will only make Lance’s life easier as a quarterback. But if the 49ers are going to continue to be Super Bowl contenders, they have to be right about Lance.
That means he has to stay healthy, show progress on the field, and that he possesses the necessary leadership qualities that Purdy proved to have. Fair or not, the clock on Lance continues to tick, despite him starting in minimal games.
Having the support of your head coach and team will go a long way for Lance. I’m in the belief he can be a top-10 quarterback, and having Christian McCaffrey for an offseason will only aid his confidence.
Continue to build continuity through the trenches
When John Lynch and Shanahan took over, the 49ers lacked difference makers in the trenches on both sides of the ball. I don’t think we have to sugar coat it. The roster was not good in 2017. Now, San Francisco has two of the best linemen in the NFL in Trent Williams and Nick Bosa on the roster.
They’ve done an excellent job of finding value, and Charles Omenihu and Samson Ebukam are the latest examples. Letting Mike McGlinchey walk in free agency could prove to backfire. That’s not a move I would co-sign.
Let’s act as if the team comes to an agreement with McGlinchey. Aaron Banks and Spencer Burford are the guards of the future, but there’s a hole at center if Jake Brendel doesn’t return.
On the other side of the ball, Arik Armstead is one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL. Acting as if Bosa doesn’t have any help is flat out wrong. Omenihu and Ebukam are free agents, which puts pressure on Drake Jackson in Year 2 if those two aren’t retained.
I’d have a difficult time letting those two walk, but realize the market may not leave the 49ers with much of a choice. Thinking in terms of continuity, it’d be nice for Bosa to have a bookend edge rusher that he could play side-by-side with for more than one season.
Keeping McGlinchey, Omenihu, and Ebukam will be a challenge. The talent on this roster is undeniable, but they’ve lacked cohesion year over year, and it’s time to change that this offseason.
Remain flexible with your salary cap
The front office managed to make it through paying Dee Ford, Kwon Alexander, and other contracts many would consider “bad.” They’re not out of the woods yet, as the 49ers are paying $10.6 million in 2023 in dead money to Ford, Alex Mack, and Trey Sermon. This will be the final year dead money hinders the team.
The highest-paid players on the 49ers are their best players, as it should be. According to Over the Cap, San Francisco has roughly $8.8 million in cap space for ‘23.
The 49ers are projected to have over $52 million in cap space in’ 24, and that’s with the contracts of Williams, Armstead, Warner, and McCaffrey. So paying Bosa this summer won’t hold them back moving forward, and neither will extending Brandon Aiyuk.
Finding value in free agency will remain a priority if the Niners are going to continue to make a run at the Super Bowl. It’s tough to find a better example than Charvarius Ward, who is just entering his prime, yet on an affordable deal.
Lynch and company must continue to walk the fine line of filling a need without dishing out a contract that jeopardizes the team’s salary cap flexibility. Having Lance and Purdy under rookie deals helps. But the front office must resist the urge to overpay during free agency. So far, so good.
There are difference makers on the roster. The coaching is superb. They’ve also developed the talent from within. The plan is in place, and these are three reasons why the 49ers will remain contenders in the foreseeable future.