The Athletic’s Matt Barrows and David Lombardi created a “build your own roster” project where you can piece together a 53-man roster that fits under the projected salary cap for 2023. It’s a fun exercise that everyone can do. So let’s take a stab at what the best version of the Niners roster might look like.
Not much change in the backfield
I’m rolling into the season with Trey Lance as the starter, hoping Brock Purdy’s surgery goes well, and he’s healthy enough to return at some point during the regular season.
We will go down the Day 3 route and add a rookie quarterback such as Jake Haener or Aidan O’Connell, while signing a lower-level quarterback on the market such as Mason Rudolph, Mike White, or the great Nick Mullens.
We’ll restructure Christian McCaffrey’s contract and save roughly $4 million in cap space. Rolling into the year with CMC, Elijah Mitchell, Kyle Juszczyk, Jordan Mason, and Ty Davis-Price feels like a Kyle Shanahan backfield. Plus, we’ll add a runner after the draft.
Upgrading the pass catchers
The 49ers are set at wide receiver. Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Jauan Jennings, Ray-Ray McCloud, and Danny Gray should do the trick. We’ll draft a deep threat in the fifth round, sign an undrafted free agent while bringing in a veteran on a minimum deal. Let’s call it Cam Sims from the Commanders to throw a name out there.
In a deep tight end class, would it make sense to spend money on a tight end during free agency? Let’s do both to protect ourselves from a potential Kyle Juszczyk injury.
Robert Tonyan should come at a discount, and is the type of receiver that could help the 49ers in the red zone and down the middle of the field. Tonyan comes with an injury history, but we’ll protect ourselves from injury by drafting a tight end.
Pinching pennies up front
In a dream world, the 49ers sign Rodney Hudson to play center. Since he’s not an option, we’ll use one of the third round picks on a snapper. Don’t forget about last year’s draft pick, Nick Zakelj, either. When in doubt, there’s always Daniel Brunskill.
We can’t afford Mike McGlinchey, and will have to rely on coaching and scheme with Colton McKivitz at right tackle. But the plan is to invest at tackle with multiple picks in the draft. Ideally, our third-rounder can beat out McKivitz.
Aaron Banks and Spencer Burford taking the next step as starters in their second season of playing time would go a long way for the 49ers offense. It’d also take pressure off whoever plays right tackle. Shanahan has found ways to win games with no-names upfront, so we’re going to bite the bullet and try that.
In this exercise, we’ll start a rookie center. For name’s sake, let’s say it’s Olusegun Oluwatimi out of Michigan. So, Williams - Banks - Oluwatimi - Burford - McKivitz. That’s your starting line.
Bosa gets an extension, which helps us save nearly two million. It’s time to move on. Brandon Graham was brought in as this year’s part-time pass rusher. I’d love to find a way to bring back Arden Key, Charles Omenihu, or Samson Ebukam, but we’re pushing our chips in on Graham and last year’s second round draft pick.
Bringing in Graham takes some work off Drake Jackson’s plate. He’s a second round pick with plenty of talent, but this allows us to put multiple edge rushers on the field at once when it comes to obvious passing downs.
We’re also adding a fifth-round edge prospect in Habakkuk Baldonado. His 3-cone impressed at the combine, and a 35” vertical lets us know he has some explosion. We’ll let Kris Kocurek coach up this Day 3 athlete in hopes he develops into a role player.
We worked the phones, but were unable to come to an agreement on a trade for Javon Kinlaw. So, without finding an upgrade in free agency, Kinlaw starts at defensive tackle heading into 2023 in the final year of his rookie contract. We also have Kalia Davis and Kevin Givens at defensive tackle.
Plus, we drafted an athletic tackle in Dante Stills on Day 3. He has the bloodlines, as his father played ten seasons in the NFL. Stills might remind some of Kevin Givens, with his above-average agility and change of direction.
Losing a linebacker
Losing Azeez Al-Shaair hurts because you can see him blossoming into a star elsewhere. But the 49ers have two incredibly talented backers, and paying three makes little sense.
Fred Warner restructured his deal, which saved us over $8 million in cap space. But we won’t spend that money at linebacker. Behind the scenes, the 49ers have developed Marcelino McCrary-Ball and Curtis Robinson. Those will be the other linebackers that make the roster.
Making it work with Mooney
Mooney Ward was impressive enough during his first season as a 49er that we feel confident in restructuring his deal. That’ll save roughly $8-ish million and allow us to add talent on the defensive side of the ball. It’ll also help bring back Emmanuel Moseley.
Samuel Womack will take over at nickel, while we add a veteran with experience who can play multiple positions. That’s someone in the mold of Dontae Johnson. We’ll need that, as we cut Ambry Thomas.
We’re relying on a rookie safety on the backend. As terrifying as that sounds, you couldn’t ask for a better situation for the rookie to play in front of. He has a vaunted pass rush, experienced cornerbacks on the perimeter, and Talanoa Hufanga, an All-Pro.
This safety will come with starting experience at the college level — we’re thinking someone who has started multiple seasons.
I went back and forth between Notre Dame’s Brandon Joseph and Penn State’s Ji’Ayir Brown. I love Brown’s demeanor and believe he fits like a glove with the 49ers defense.
A Goulden replacement
With our final pick, we selected Harrison Mevis, a junior out of Missouri. He takes Robbie Gould’s place. Mevis is a 5’11, 254-pound kicker. If that doesn’t sell you, I don’t know what else will. He had a down year in 2022 where he made 78 percent of his kicks, but he made 92 percent the season prior. Mevis has a boot. He hit a 56-yard field goal in back to back seasons. Presumably, this would solve any kickoff issues for the 49ers.
Here’s a look at the final roster.
As you can see, we have plenty of cap space to spare.