Quietly, the 49ers have been under media fire this season for a plethora of reasons, from their drafting to their offensive scheme to their player development. Some of that is well-deserved, while other aspects of the criticism levied toward John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan is utterly ridiculous.
Almost any NFL team will falter if they lose their starting quarterback, and the 49ers injuries extend well beyond Jimmy Garoppolo’s torn ACL. Are there things Shanahan and Lynch can do better? Absolutely, especially the latter, but last year’s draft class looks excellent, and they’ll have loads of cap space to work with this offseason. Here’s where they need to start in their 2019 offseason plan.
Identify the cornerstones
Offensively, Garoppolo is your quarterback of the future, and Marquise Goodwin, Dante Pettis and George Kittle are terrific pieces to build around in the passing game. Joe Staley is probably nearing the end, but he’s still playing at a very high level and you don’t move on from any tackle playing at a high level.
Right tackle Mike McGlinchey has been terrific as a rookie, so you’ve got your bookends and three important weapons to go with your franchise quarterback. Center Weston Richburg has been pretty average, but the 49ers gave him a lot of money to sign this past offseason. He’ll be here at least the next two seasons. Same with Laken Tomlinson. Matt Breida is cheap and highly productive. Combine he and Jerick McKinnon in the backfield, and the offense is almost set.
On defense, DeForest Buckner is a star and Fred Warner is a stud. I’m not sure I’d consider anyone else a cornerstone defensively, although guys like Arik Armstead, Richard Sherman and Jaquisiki Tartt are obviously starting for the 49ers again next year. Solomon Thomas needs another year as well, but his performance as a pass rusher has to improve in 2019.
Don’t sign Le’Veon Bell. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t even look at him.
The 49ers already signed Jerick McKinnon to a massive contract that he wasn’t worth, and have Matt Breida playing well for them this season. Obviously neither of those guys are Le’Veon Bell, but they don’t need Bell to get this offense where it needs to be.
Basically every running back that has played for Kyle Shanahan has been productive, and the position in general is largely dependent upon the offensive line. Finding a right guard and a playmaking wide receiver is SO much more important for this offense than tying up money in another running back, even one as dynamic as Bell.
I think Shanahan knows that, and I don’t think there is any way the 49ers shell out money for Bell given their defensive needs. But I know that storyline will be out there, and it needs to be nipped in the bud.
Target these free agents
1. Earl Thomas, S, Seattle Seahawks
I’m sorry, I know this one will be super trendy and I try to stay away from those, but this just makes too much sense. He knows the defense, he’s a game-changing presence playing at a high level and he’s an elite communicator for a defense that desperately needs one. Thomas makes sense with Jaquiski Tartt in a pairing, and Sherman would almost certainly vouch for him.
Deionte Thompson is your only shot at a high-end free safety in the 2019 draft. That’s a fine pick, but when you need a pass rusher in the first round like the 49ers do, you’re better off addressing safety in free agency and paying up for Thomas.
2. K.J. Wright, LB, Seattle Seahawks
I don’t want to beat this Seahawks horse to death, but could this be a better fit? Another high-effort, high-character player who knows Robert Saleh’s defense and would be a welcome running mate for young stud Fred Warner. Releasing Reuben Foster has left a void that the 49ers can’t fill with their current roster. At 30, Wright should be as affordable as he is reliable.
3. Sheldon Richardson, Minnesota Vikings
Richardson is 28, but had to settle for a one-year deal this past offseason. The Vikings will probably try to re-sign him, but San Francisco could win a bidding war easily, and may not even have to overpay for him. Richardson’s ability to play multiple techniques will fit perfectly in Saleh’s defense, as he could rotate with Arik Armstead to give the 49ers a steady diet of pressure up front from players not named DeForest Buckner.
P.S. If by some act of God Demarcus Lawrence hits the market, obviously the 49ers should hurl money at him. But I doubt that happens.
The 49ers currently own the number one overall pick, and they’ve lost to the Cardinals twice and the Giants once. Even factoring in strength of schedule tiebreaker, they can’t mess this thing up. Adding Nick Bosa with the first overall pick would be absolutely monumental for this franchise, giving them a much-needed pass rush threat off the edge who could easily hit double-digit sacks in his rookie season.
Seattle (2x), Denver, Chicago and the Los Angeles Rams stand between the 49ers and the no. 1 overall pick. They should have no problem losing all of those handily. It’s imperative that they do.
Hit 3 Big Draft Needs
First and foremost, you have to come away with a top pass rusher. If the 49ers own the no. 1 pick, it would take the trade offer of the century to get me to move. When healthy, San Francisco doesn’t have a ton of needs like Arizona or Oakland, so trading down isn’t as attractive for them, especially if they fill the aforementioned needs in free agency.
Imagine Bosa with Buckner, Armstead, Thomas (who will be at least somewhat better as a pass rusher next year, I’ll guarantee it), Richardson and another edge guy later in a deep class? That’s a difference-making front in a league that covets those positions.
The 49ers early second round pick is where things get interesting. It will largely depend on where the run on cornerbacks and wide receivers occurs, but this pick should address one of those two positions.
San Francisco currently has their speed threat in Goodwin and their slot/versatile weapon in Dante Pettis. What they really need is a big outside receiver who can handle press coverage, make contested catches, be a presence in the red zone and also offer enough athleticism and strength to win after the catch. Simple, right?
Actually, in this class there should be plenty of fits. Ole Miss’ D.K. Metcalf, Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry and Georgia’s Riley Ridley are the top options that come to mind, but this draft is flush with receivers who could be ideal for San Francisco in the second or third rounds.
The same can be said of cornerback. On day two, players like Vanderbilt’s Joejuan Williams, Virginia’s Bryce Hall, LSU’s Kristian Fulton and Penn State’s Amani Oruwariye could all be great fits in Saleh’s defense. Click any of those players’ names for thorough breakdowns and scouting reports.
1. Build around the cornerstones. The offense is almost set. The defense needs major work.
2. Bring Earl Thomas into the fold. Sure up the back end, get a playmaker and a leader in that secondary.
3. K.J. Wright and Sheldon Richardson would be nice. Concentrate all firepower on fortifying the defense with some veterans playing at a high level to balance the young cornerstone defenders.
4. Lose out
5. Nick Bosa, a top X-receiver and a big, long corner in the top 100 picks of the draft. The options are going to be there for San Francisco if some of these underclassmen declare.
San Francisco 49ers fans, you are welcome.