The San Francisco 49ers have just under $70 million in cap space, seventh-most in the league, plus the second overall pick in April’s draft and four other selections. They’re looking not just to improve on a disappointing 4-12 season, but to make a jump from ugly mediocrity to legitimate contention.
They believe they have some key pieces in place — a QB they love, a star tight end and a couple of young defenders with considerable potential — but the preponderance of roster holes makes this spring the key to success in 2019.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch both spoke at this week’s NFL Draft Combine, giving us some tea leaves to read as far as how they’ll allocate their considerable resources. Here are four noteworthy takeaways from San Francisco’s gridiron gang.
Pass Rush Priority
Outside pass rush is by far the thinnest spot on the 49ers defense. The team tied for eighth-worst in the league with 37 sacks. Behind DeForest Buckner’s 12, the high mark was 5.5 — from veterans Ronald Blair III and Cassius Marsh, neither of whom are sure bets to remain on the roster. Nobody else beat Arik Armstead’s three sacks or six tackles for loss.
Lynch acknowledged that 2019 is “a great year to be looking for D-linemen … this is as strong of a class as the last eight years.” Top prospects Nick Bosa and Josh Allen are edge rush specialists, and the Niners should select one of the two.
“There’s some on the free agent [market, too],” Lynch added. “Obviously the one thing about free agency is that you’ve seen them at our level. So if you feel confident and you have room … that’s a constant conversation that’s ongoing.”
The free agent market includes some studs — DeMarcus Lawrence, Dee Ford, Jadeveon Clowney, Frank Clark — who may never make it to market (because “they get franchised, the good ones.”) Expect the 49ers to spend a big chunk of their cash on one or two guys from a group that would still include Trey Flowers, Ziggy Ansah and Preston Smith.
This is a pretty substantial inference, but I believe John Lynch subtly solicited bids for QBs Nick Mullens and (especially) CJ Beathard in his first answer during Thursday’s availability.
The case for this is, as Lynch himself said, “Traditionally, we’ve been of the belief that you keep two because it allows you to do things with your roster.” If they believe they have two capable backups, one might be worth more as a trade asset than as a third-stringer.
Lynch engaged in classic GM-speak, starting his comments by saying he wouldn’t “close the door on anything.” He was also free with praise — “We like each and every one of those guys for what they bring to the table, both in their talent and who they are as people. We’re big believers in all of them.”
This could be a reason to keep everybody, but it rang a lot like a value-boosting gambit. In other words, the general manager is saying, “I think I’ve got two legitimate NFL backup quarterbacks on my roster. I probably only need one. Make me an offer, but you better WOW me because I’m happy to sit tight.”
Relaxed on Receivers
Fans are hot for a big-name wide receiver, but it sounds like the team will attempt to address a debilitating lack of production at that position (not to mention their red zone struggles) via avenues other than free agency.
There is no obvious star receiver in this draft, but there are a collection of big-bodied guys who could help and should be available. Kelvin Harmon, N’Keal Harry, JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Riley Ridley should all be available when the 49ers make their second pick.
Moreover, the 49ers believe they have a number-one pass catcher in George Kittle. Lynch called the breakout tight end “a professional in every aspect … diligent and tireless.” Shanahan concluded that “You have to” put him in the conversation with Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz: “He had the most yards in NFL history as a receiver. He’s as good of a blocking tight end as I’ve ever been around.”
Shanahan expects the offensive line to be better — he called Weston Richburg “one of the best centers in the league,” despite his 2018 struggles, adding that he “battled through a very tough injury.” The tackle positions are secured for now by Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey (Shanahan called the rookie’s season “impressive”) and Laken Tomlinson is the left guard.
Right guard will require some resources — Shanahan mentioned how much he liked Mike Person, but Person is a free agent. He made less than a million dollars last year, but the top 30 NFL guards all make at least $4 million per year on average and the top 12 are all at $9 million a season or more.
Shanahan and Lynch see plenty of other offensive improvements coming: the return of Jimmy Garropolo and Jerick McKinnnon (the GM is “really encouraged with their prospects and where they’re going to be”); the ascendance of Dante Pettis (“I have big expectations,” Shanahan said. “Finished the year up probably as our best guy”); even the addition of coaches Wes Welker and Miles Austin (both of whom Shanahan called “serious about becoming a coach and ready to put in the work”), which theoretically helps passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur by “[taking] a little off his plate which should help him help us more in game-planning.”
Neither said anything to suggest they’ll commit assets to a superstar receiver like Odell Beckham or Antonio Brown. Lynch specifically said he had no contact with the Steelers, and wouldn’t even dignify the question with some GM-speak about exploring options or looking to improve.
“I’ll just leave it at he’s a great player.”
No Kicking Concern
The 49ers know exactly what they have in Robbie Gould, and they won’t let him sneak out the door. They used the franchise tag to make sure there wasn’t even a dalliance with another team, but it also gives them all summer to negotiate a longer contract.
‘“He’s a great kicker and we don’t want to lose him,” Shanahan said. “I really hope it’s longer … I’ve been calling plays long enough to know that it’s very tough when you get to that 30-yard-line [and] you don’t believe the kicker is going to make it … I never think we’re going to miss it.”
When asked simply “What is it about Robbie Gould?” Lynch said what we all know: “He’s solid as a rock … as consistent as they come … We’re very hopeful that we continue talking and try to come to an agreement to keep him around for a while.”
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist — or even an NFL GM of average intelligence — to recognize that there are not enough good kickers to go around. A consistent kicking game is one thing, at least, the 49ers don’t have to worry about.
Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear him on the Bay Area sports radio station 95.7 the Game, 5a-6a every weekday morning. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.