OFFSEASON REVIEW: San Francisco 49ers
By Scott Geelan
As one season ends and another one begins, 32 NFL franchises put 2020 firmly in the rear view mirror and gear up for another tilt at the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The hard work starts here, and for many has already begun; general managers and head coaches are finalising their staff and looking ahead to turning their rosters into potential challengers.
In this series we identify the key components that go into building a winning team, and what each franchise needs to do to be in the mix come the playoffs next January. We continue our team by team offseason review with a look at the San Francisco 49ers:
After being 8 minutes away from a Super Bowl victory in 2019, there were high hopes that the 49ers could continue their resurgence, although there were fears that their Super Bowl window would close after 2020. With the vast majority of their roster and staff returning, in addition to having dealt with numerous injuries in 2019, many felt that if the 49ers had some injury luck, they could make another run at a Super Bowl, before seeing more of their roster depart at the end of the campaign.
Unfortunately, the 49ers’ were struck with an even more severe injury caseload, losing several defensive and offensive lynchpins. Predictably, in the circumstances, the defense slipped from its elite 2019 levels and the offense also regressed. A 6-10 record and fourth place in the division perhaps did not reflect the team’s overall level of performance, rather highlighting the strength of the NFC West and poor execution in key moments. This strength within the division looks likely to remain in 2021 however, and the 49ers will need to manoeuvre decisively this offseason to give themselves a chance to return to the playoffs in 2021.
After managing to retain the bulk of their staff following their Super Bowl defeat, the 49ers had the rather unusual experience of seeing a number of their coaches poached after their 6-10 efforts in 2020. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, whose stock rose after leading the 49ers’ defense to an impressive season in the absence of several crucial players, was poached by the Jets to take their seemingly never-ending rebuild in a new direction. Saleh will be replaced by internal hire DeMeco Ryans, who is a first-time coordinator and is highly regarded on the team.
There have been numerous other changes. Saleh took five members of the 49ers’ 2020 staff with him to New York: Mike LaFleur, John Benton, Aaron Whitecotton, Mike Rutenberg and Tony Oden, which has necessitated various replacements and title tweaks.
Additionally, former Giants and Cardinals’ defensive co-ordinator James Bettcher has arrived to provide an experienced voice to assist Ryans, whilst also continuing the trend of the 49ers hiring experienced defensive coaches from different schematic trees to expand their defensive repertoire.
State Of The Roster
The 49ers have talent on both sides of the football. In George Kittle and Fred Warner, the team has arguably the best tight-end and off-the-ball linebacker in the NFL. Jimmie Ward is one of the league’s most underrated safeties and when healthy, Nick Bosa and Dee Ford are potentially the league’s best EDGE duo. Raheem Mostert is the league’s most explosive running back. The 49ers also have some gifted younger players in Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel, Javon Kinlaw, Dre Greenlaw and (Exclusive Rights Free Agent) Emmanuel Moseley.
However, it is noteworthy that the 49ers lack sure-fire quality (whether health-related or simply not having the right pieces) at several of the game’s most important positions: Quarterback, wide receiver, offensive tackle, EDGE and cornerback. Even center, a position Kyle Shanahan values highly, appears to be a gaping hole with Weston Richburg’s return from a series of injuries looking uncertain and ultimately undesirable from a long-term health standpoint. The 49ers’ roster is not close to its 2019 levels.
The team’s roster decline is enormously important in the context of the quarterback position. Jimmy Garoppolo has proven that he can facilitate the team reaching a Super Bowl when the team plays complementary football, led by an elite defense and an historically explosive rushing attack. The simple reality is the team is unlikely to have either an elite defense nor an historically explosive rushing attack in 2021, especially in light of the reduced salary cap in 2021 and the constraints upon it as a result of Garoppolo’s own contract. Garoppolo’s future as a 49er is therefore understandably murky, given his salary, contribution to the team’s success and the degree of difficulty of his responsibilities.
Salary Cap & Cut Candidates
The Garoppolo discussion is particularly pertinent as a result of the 2021 salary cap and the 49ers’ free agents. Based on a $185m salary cap, the 49ers currently have around $27m in cap space, which is twelfth in the NFL and about $10m above league average. However the 49ers have several notable free agents (more on that below…), some of whom would be candidates to return if the team had more wriggle room. Their cap space will be particularly restricted if they re-sign superstar left tackle Trent Williams.
In light of the extent to which Garoppolo’s success is reliant on his supporting cast, it seems bizarre that the quarterback’s contract could be what ultimately comes between the 49ers and strengthening the very roster the quarterback relies on. Parting with Garoppolo would save the team almost $24m. The 49ers can look for trade partners but ultimately should be willing to cut their quarterback. This is the decisiveness needed to give them the best chance of success.
In addition, parting with center Weston Richburg as a post-June 1st cut would save the team close to $8m, whilst there are several cheaper veterans such as Mark Nzeocha, Travis Benjamin and Shon Coleman who could all be released to clear cap space. If the 49ers parted with all of the above players, they could hit free agency with over $60m in cap space (again based on a $185m cap), which would give them the fourth most cap space (on current projections) in the NFL and substantial ammunition to reload a talented roster.
The 49ers are scheduled to have a staggering 41 players hitting free agency in 2021. Of those players, the most prominent is Trent Williams, who they will undoubtedly be looking to re-sign. This will probably require an annual outlay of somewhere between $23m and $25m with little scope for heavy backloading in light of Williams’ age. On a two year deal the team could be reasonably creative, safe in the knowledge Williams would almost certainly see out his contract. Even so, a substantial majority of their currently available cap space would likely be used in that deal, making it very difficult to re-sign other departing players or sign other free agents, unless the team parted ways with their quarterback and center.
The 49ers are also scheduled to lose five important members of their secondary – cornerbacks Jason Verrett, Richard Sherman, Ahkello Witherspoon and K’waun Williams, along with safety Jaquiski Tartt. Although Sherman and Witherspoon appear to be unlikely candidates to return, the other trio would all be sensible players to re-sign, given their quality and importance to the 49ers’ defensive success in the past two seasons. When considering the injury histories of Verrett and Tartt, along with Williams being a nickel corner, none of them should require a substantial outlay, nor particularly long-term ones.
Other notable free agents on both sides of the ball include defensive tackles D.J. Jones and Solomon Thomas, defensive ends Ronald Blair, Kerry Hyder, Dion Jordan, Ezekiel Ansah and Jordan Willis, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, tight-end Jordan Reed and wide receivers Kendrick Bourne and Trent Taylor. You can’t help but look at that list and wonder just how many could return if the 49ers were to create over $32m of additional cap space.
Currently the 49ers’ starkest need is at cornerback, with the interior of the offensive line and particularly center following closely behind. 3 of the 2020 roster’s top outside cornerbacks are scheduled to depart and Richburg may well never play football again. In Richburg’s absence, the 49ers were forced to experiment at center and right guard, generally producing sub-standard play.
If Williams were to depart, offensive tackle would become a substantial need, with Mike McGlinchey having failed to fully convince since coming into the league and a gaping hole opposite. However, retaining Williams would go some way towards shoring up the offensive line for at least another season, given he developed a strong relationship with left guard Laken Tomlinson.
The team also needs reinforcements at wide receiver and EDGE. Additions at the latter would free up Arik Armstead to get more snaps as a defensive tackle too, which would mitigate the impact of losing the impressive D.J. Jones. At wide receiver, the 49ers have the aforementioned Samuel and Aiyuk to lead the unit, but clearly need additional options to complement and relieve them.
Should Garoppolo depart, quarterback (whilst arguably already a need) would become a substantial need too. Fortunately for the 49ers, there are several free agent quarterbacks who could replace Garoppolo or even offer more (Cam Newton, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Andy Dalton & Jameis Winston seem obvious candidates) as well as trade candidates such as Marcus Mariota and a host of talented options in the draft.
Ultimately, if the 49ers are decisive, they can address most, if not all, of their needs and force their Super Bowl window back open.