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Why the 49ers remain among the NFC’s elite despite the free agency losses

It’s tough to identify a non-Eagles team that can trouble the Niners.

There’s always a significant amount of turnover during the opening days of free agency, which offers a reminder of the sobering reality in the NFL that no team ever stays the same from year to year.

The 49ers have bid farewell to several members of what was truly a special 2022 vintage but, with the first week of free agency nearly in the books, it’s difficult not to be satisfied with what San Francisco has managed to do on the open market.

Yes, the 49ers have lost a lot of defensive line depth, but their starting group in the trenches looks substantially stronger following the blockbuster addition of Javon Hargrave at defensive tackle.

San Francisco also saw its cornerback options diminished with the departures of Emmanuel Moseley and Jimmie Ward. However, the acquisition of Isaiah Oliver at nickel is an intriguing one that could pay significant dividends, and the 49ers also shored up their starting safety pairing by bringing back Tashaun Gipson on a one-year deal.

With center Jake Brendel re-signed to a four-year deal, the sole question on the offensive line surrounds the level of faith the 49ers have in Colton McKivitz to take over from Mike McGlinchey at right tackle.

A similar query can be made about Drake Jackson and the second starting edge spot across from Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa.

But a study of the 49ers’ depth chart still reveals a star-laden roster with remarkably few holes that appears ready to once again compete to go to the Super Bowl in the 2023 season.

Of course, the one position where there is absolutely no certainty is the quarterback position, to which the 49ers added Sam Darnold to provide insurance against any further injuries to Trey Lance and Brock Purdy.

Still, when examining the rest of the NFC, it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that the 49ers’ apparent faith in their roster’s ability to elevate whoever is playing quarterback to a level that will keep them competing to go all the way is well-placed.

The 49ers aren’t sure of the identity of their starting quarterback in 2023 and, for as impressive as Purdy was in his remarkable rookie year, the fact is they will still be relying on a quarterback whose number of regular-season starts is in single figures regardless of which of their top two wins the job.

Yet, such is the Niners’ level of talent – and quality of coaching on the offensive side – that they can absorb having an inexperienced quarterback.

And, with Aaron Rodgers seemingly poised to leave the NFC for the Jets, the list of teams in the conference who can claim to have a significant edge over the Niners at quarterback is a short one.

The team that ended the Niners’ season one game shy of the Super Bowl – the Eagles – are on that list, with Jalen Hurts showing impressive development as a passer and growing into a devastatingly effective runner in his second year in the NFL.

Who else? Dak Prescott and the Cowboys, yes, but their edge at quarterback was not enough in the postseason and there’s nothing that has happened so far this offseason to suggest it would be in 2023.

Two quarterbacks who reside in the NFC West can claim to be substantially better than what the Niners have at the position. However, the Rams and Matthew Stafford don’t appear ready to compete in 2023 and, though the Seahawks will hope to with Geno Smith, the gap between the 49ers and Seattle was illustrated by San Francisco’s blowout win in the Wild Card round.

Who else? The Vikings and Kirk Cousins? Probably. Derek Carr is certainly good enough for the Saints to have a strong claim, but after that, you’re scraping the barrel.

The Giants paying Daniel Jones $40 million a year doesn’t in any way mean he has proven himself as a top-tier quarterback and, though the Lions appear to have the roster to threaten a postseason appearance, realistically the 49ers are unlikely to fear Jared Goff, a quarterback whom they have continually troubled during his career.

In short, the 49ers’ losses in free agency have not been enough to alter where they stand in the NFC. Until either Lance or Purdy remove such concerns, they do still have unanswered questions at quarterback but, save for the Eagles and a Cowboys team that has lost back-to-back playoff games to San Francisco, the answers their rivals have at the game’s most important position are not compelling enough to make a convincing case for them overhauling the Niners.

The 49ers may not be as deep as they were last year, but the addition of Hargrave has unquestionably improved the first string. Others, namely the Giants and the Lions, have clearly made improvements but, along with the Eagles, the Niners still have one of the top two rosters in the conference and, at this point, it is difficult to envisage them being displaced from the NFC’s elite even with their unknowns under center.