Friday, March 9, 2018

Addressing the 49ers' Needs

NFL free agency begins next week, and now that the draft combine and franchise tag deadline are in the rear view, it's the perfect time to look at the outlook for one of 2018's most interesting teams, the San Francisco 49ers. Depending on the sportsbook, Vegas has given them around 20-1 odds to win the Super Bowl next year after finishing last season on a five game winning streak with Jimmy Garoppolo as the starting quarterback, and the former Patriot has already been re-signed at the highest annual salary in the league (at least until Kirk Cousins, Matt Ryan, and Aaron Rodgers reset the market). A 6-10 team that started 0-9 being within the top ten favorites may seem ambitious, but this franchise has some precedent for quick turnarounds: the 49ers' first Super Bowl winner in 1981 went 13-3 after being 6-10 and 2-14 the previous two years. Their record before coach Kyle Shanahan arrived this past season? 2-14.

I'm not saying this team is ready to win it all this year, but they might not be as far away as the casual fan might think if they can make some key additions. Quarterback is often considered the most important position in sports for a reason, and the turnaround under Garoppolo is an example why, as the offense went from being ranked in the bottom half of the league in yards, yards per play, and points before he took over to being in the top five in each. Furthermore, the defense experienced a similar improvement to the top 10 in those same categories, and although that can partly be attributed to rookie defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and a lineup filled with young players getting more comfortable as the season progressed, the offense no longer put them in disadvantageous situations. With the fifth most salary cap space per and nine draft picks (selections 9, 59, 70, 74, 128, 143, 184, 227, and 240) at the disposal of John Lynch and the front office, here are their biggest needs and some options to fill them to at least make them playoff contenders.
This coach-QB pairing is cause for celebration.
Cornerback: 3rd round round pick Ahkello Witherspoon came on strong down the stretch, starting the final nine games and earning an 81.1 grade from Pro Football Focus, but even if he grows into more than a solid starter, there's still a massive hole across from him with Dontae Johnson often struggling and not expected back in free agency. K'Waun Williams made a strong enough first impression to earn the first extension under the new regime early in the season, but at just 5'9" he is limited to nickel duties, especially in Saleh's Cover 3 scheme from Seattle that prefers more length on the outside. That role still put him on the field for 56.18% of the team's defensive snaps despite missing two games, though, showing that you can never have enough corners in today's pass happy NFL. You can expect them to add at least one veteran capable of starting on the outside (as evidenced by their reported interest in Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, Vontae Davis, and David Amerson already) and draft another corner early, ideally with one of them able to also playing in the slot to provide competition and depth for Williams.

Free agent options
  • Being just under 5'10", Malcolm Butler may not be a perfect fit, but he has shown over the past three years that he is a high-level starter and only just turned 28. He's played a variety of roles in New England with their game plan specific schemes, so strange Super Bowl benching that arguably cost them this year's championship notwithstanding, I'm not concerned about his ability to play zone in the Cover 3 or shadow man-to-man. 
  • Trumaine Johnson is the other corner considered among the best free agents and often mentioned with the 49ers due to his hometown of Stockton, CA and great length at 6'2" with 33.25" arms, but I'm not convinced he'll be worth the huge contract he'll get based on his inconsistency over the years.
  • Kyle Fuller's combination of production, size, and youth might be the most intriguing of all the options, but Chicago placed the transition tag on him so that they can match any offer sheet he signs. With their other starting corner a free agent on this list, I don't think the Bears are going to let their former 1st round pick get away.
  • Given more of a mid-tier price range, Aaron Colvin is probably my favorite option based on him only being 26, his ability to play in the slot, and the connection to Saleh, who was on the Jacksonville coaching staff the previous three seasons and runs essentially the same scheme. With Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye starring on the outside, Colvin was limited to nickelback, but I think he's talented enough to excel in a larger role, somewhat in a similar way to how Casey Hayward has become a star as a Charger after an up-and-down tenure in Green Bay.
  • Prince Amukamara also overlapped with Saleh in Jacksonville, and although he never became the star expected when picked 19th overall in 2011, he has been a reliable starter on the outside. His 81.2 PFF grade in Chicago this season actually wasn't far behind his teammate Fuller, but with his 29th birthday months away, I don't expect a price tag nearly as high.
  • I hadn't put a lot of thought to Rashaan Melvin after he finished his breakout season on injured reserve, but after the Better Rivals podcast made the case for him as a late bloomer with standout athleticism, I realized that he could be this year's A.J. Bouye without as expensive of a salary commitment. According to's pro day numbers, he put together a 4.42 40 yard dash, 10'6" broad jump, and 38" vertical at just under 6'2" and 192 pounds, so together with the success he found this season, he might be the best lottery ticket of the bunch since the new regime seems to place an emphasis on athleticism. Like Amukamara, Melvin will be 29 this year, so I could see him getting a nice payday that's only a short term deal while a prospect is drafted in the first three rounds to develop.
Draft options
  • If you continue the 1981 parallel, a large part of the defensive turnaround was drafting Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott, who made First-Team All Pro as a rookie cornerback, at the back end of the top 10. You can't predict that Minkah Fitzpatrick will make it to Canton, but if this corner/safety hybrid somehow falls to the 9th pick, he has to be the selection. Many list him as a safety, but like in the Jalen Ramsey debate two years ago, I think you can try him at corner after he spent the vast majority of his college career defending the slot. He was a five star cornerback recruit who went to Alabama to play on the outside but started 10 games as a true freshman in their "Star" position as a nickelback due to the more experienced Cyrus Jones (an eventual 2nd round pick) and Marlon Humphrey (1st) playing on the outside. He spent some time on the outside as a sophomore, particularly the SEC Championship that Humphrey missed, but had to start six games at safety after Eddie Jackson broke his leg. After those discussions about moving more outside this past season, he ended up mostly at Star, likely due to the responsibilities in calls and the value he has in the middle. His combine numbers were a bit disappointing because I expected something closer to a 4.4 flat instead of the 4.46 he ran, along with average jumps compared to the freakish traits Ramsey showed, but his athleticism and instincts are evident enough on the field that he can start on the outside and then move into the slot when the team is in nickel, which Williams' snap count showed is basically the new base defense. With his strengths against the run and offenses sometimes moving star receivers inside in an attempt to create mismatches, it can be argued that his college role in the slot does make more of an impact on games like when Charles Woodson won DPOY in that role for Dom Capers. Depending on personnel around him during his career, he could be used like a bigger version of Tyrann Mathieu, who starts at free safety in base but moves to the slot in nickel, or Malcolm Jenkins, who was drafted as a corner but became more valuable as a strong safety who covers slot receivers, tight ends, and running backs depending on the opponent.
  • One of the big winners of the combine was Denzel Ward, who blazed a 4.32 and put up 11'4" and 39" jumps to quell any doubts about his athleticism. That he measured in at a hair under 5'11" was the surprising part since Ohio State's roster had him at 5'10" and most players end up being shorter than what they're listed at, like Fitzpatrick being just over 6'0" instead of the expected 6'1". Although Ward only has one year of full-time starting experience on the outside, he played well in the slot as a sophomore between Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley, and he could be taken even higher in the 1st than them, Eli Apple, or Bradley Roby in this strong run of Buckeye corners.
  • Josh Jackson, Isaiah Oliver, and Carlton Davis could all be strong fits, but they aren't likely to be in consideration for the 49ers' 1st unless they trade down in the round. If a team like Buffalo (picks 21 and 22) or Arizona (15) is willing to trade their 2nd round pick to move up for a quarterback prospect ahead of Miami at 11, then that might be the best strategy since they gave up their own 2nd for Garoppolo and the Saints' pick they acquired in last year's draft isn't until #59. As it stands, the optimal path could be signing a placeholder free agent above like Amukamara and targeting lanky, potential-laden prospects that won't need to contribute right away like Tarvarus McFadden, Quenton Meeks, Kevin Toliver, Holton Hill, Levi Wallace,  Tony Brown in rounds three and four.
Interior Offensive Line: Brandon Fusco was a pleasant surprise as a solid right guard, but he was only signed to a one year deal and could still be improved upon. Arriving in a trade right at the beginning of the season, left guard Laken Tomlinson started from Week 2 on but was often the biggest hole on the line, and despite his play improved along with everyone else's once Garoppolo's quick trigger entered the equation, this is a spot that can stand an upgrade. Although there's still hope for 2016 1st round pick Joshua Garnett after he missed all of last season to get his knee healthy and remake his body to be more agile in the zone blocking scheme, he obviously can't be counted on after that. Lastly, Daniel Kilgore was recently re-signed to provide continuity in making the calls up front with Garoppolo, but with the ability to get out of the deal without any dead money after this season, it wasn't a large financial commitment for the 30 year old who stands to replaced in the near future.

Free agent options
Sitton should be the #1 target.
  • Not turning 26 until October, Andrew Norwell has gone from an undrafted free agent to an All-Pro who could reset the guard market. However, it seems like a lock that he'll reunite with the GM that gave him a chance, Dave Gettleman, in New York.
  • Josh Sitton is the top realistic guard on the market after Chicago surprisingly declined their team option. He'll be 32 in a few months and missed three games in each of the last two seasons, but his play on the field is still at a Pro Bowl level. Having him on a deal that's high in salary but short on years while they see what they have in their younger players would be ideal.
  • Josh Kline has become a decent starter in Tennessee the last couple of seasons, but if one of the actual difference maker isn't available, I think the 49ers are more likely to keep the status quo with Fusco coming back to compete with Garnett and a high draft pick. 
Draft options
  • Even though the consensus is that Quenton Nelson is among the five best talents in this draft, he could still fall to the 9th pick due to guard not being a premium position. Shanahan's offense does make use of lineman with strong movement skills, so while it's unconventional to take a guard so high, there shouldn't be any hesitation with a player expected to be a perennial All-Pro.
  • Billy Price and James Daniels would be excellent choices since they both are capable of playing either center or guard at a high level, providing an option either next to or in place of Kilgore down the line. Unfortunately, unless Price's partially torn pec causes him to fall further than expected, both players are likely to be picked somewhere in between the 49ers picks at 9 and 59.
  • Will Hernandez is someone Lynch and co have met with, and the fact that he went from weighing 340 pounds at the Senior Bowl to 327 pounds at the combine just a month later could be an indicator that he's trying to show off more mobility as a guard. Based on his strong showings, he will also most likely be gone by pick 59, though.
  • Austin Corbett is a former left tackle expected to move inside, and along with center Frank Ragnow, there could be value to be had with one of their third round picks. Otherwise, Mason Cole, Sean Welsh, Wyatt Teller, or Bradley Bozeman could be targets as the draft goes on, with the latter two having already met with the 49ers at the Senior Bowl.
Edge Rusher: the defensive linemen taken in the 1st round of the last three drafts, Solomon Thomas, DeForest Buckner, and Arik Armstead, are all best on the interior as 3 or 5 techniques, so an explosive threat off the edge would take this unit to the next level. Currently, Thomas' athleticism can allow him to start as the LEO rusher when in base defense and rotate inside along with Armstead next to Buckner at defensive tackle in nickel situations with the recently re-signed Cassius Marsh, who was a much better fit as a Niner than Patriot, getting opportunities on the outside. Lynch has also spoken of giving more pass rushing opportunities to Eli Harold since he was the starting strongside linebacker (SAM) but only played 40.18% of the defensive snaps because that's the position that often came off the field in nickel situations. He hasn't consistently shown the ability to generate pressure that made him a coveted 3rd round pick, though, and after surprisingly parting ways with veteran Elvis Dumervil, who led the team in sacks with 6.5, acquiring another edge presence is definitely a need with 2017 6th rounder Pita Taumoepenu the only other edge option. An ideal situation would have Thomas starting as the "big end" with his strength against the run before moving inside on 3rd downs, and Armstead would be the primary backup for both him and Buckner with a heavy rotation on the line like Philadelphia effectively employed on their way to the title.

Free agent options
  • Speaking of the Eagles, it appears that Vinny Curry will be a cap casualty and immediately become one of the top pass rushers available after DeMarcus Lawrence was franchise tagged. The former 2nd round pick hasn't put up huge sack numbers outside of the 9 in 2014, but he generates a lot of pressures that can still affect offenses. On the precipice of turning 30, he would be a nice addition on a short term deal like some of the past free agents mentioned.
  • Also about to turn 30, Junior Galette could be a cheaper placeholder option after he bounced back reasonably well from tearing each Achilles in successive seasons to post 3 sacks out of 37 pressures in just 410 snaps as a situational rusher for Washington, per PFF. His off the field and injury history are of course huge red flags, however.
  • Shaquil Barrett's name hasn't been thrown around a ton since he's only a restricted free agent, but since Denver is trying to clear as much cap room as possible to make a run at Cousins, Barrett could be available with a front loaded offer sheet from a team with as much room as the 49ers. Per PFF, Barrett racked up 4 sacks out of 47 pressures in just 306 snaps this season, and looking at his measurements from, the 6.9 3-cone time at his weight indicates some potential for the 25 year old at either the LEO or SAM positions.
  • Like Colvin and Amukamara in Jacksonville, Cliff Avril briefly crossed paths with Saleh in Seattle, where this defensive scheme became en vogue. He has long since been the model LEO to me as an undersized but athletic defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid who totaled 33.5 sacks in the four seasons before this injury-shortened campaigned. That neck surgery that will likely lead to his release obviously comes with risk, but the soon to be 32 year old could be another stopgap option.
Draft options
  • I'll skip over Bradley Chubb since there's no realistic way he falls out of the top five, so Harold Landry, whose first official interview at the combine was with the 49ers, is the top LEO option in my eyes. Coming into the season, 9th overall would seem quite reasonable for a player that had 16.5 sacks and 22 tackles for loss in 12 games as a junior, but returning for another year of college led to a nagging ankle issue that limited him to just 8 games, 5 sacks, and 8.5 TFL. Now healthy, he looked like a top prospect again with his athletic testing numbers all receiving high marks, especially his 3-cone and 60 yard shuttle times as shown by once more, and he is built a lot like Avril. This could be another situation where trading down slightly in the 1st presents the perfect landing spot to create an exciting match and add another Day 2 pick for some of these other draft targets at other positions.
  • Listing a linebacker like Tremaine Edmunds here is cheating a bit, but his athletic profile at 6'4.5" and 253 pounds combined with 10 sacks over the last two seasons suggests that he could be a pass rushing threat at SAM. His versatility to play some middle linebacker adds extra value due to questions around the availability of Reuben Foster this season after his run-ins with the law. Brock Coyle is expected to be re-signed, but he is best served as a special teamer and backup to both Foster and Malcolm Smith, the projected starter on the weakside after missing all of last year with a torn pec. Thus, picking the potential-laden Edmunds at #9 could provide both an upgrade on the edge and insurance inside.
  • Considering that Jacksonville's breakout star Yannick Ngakoue was also a 3rd round pick like Avril, I can't help but think that targeting players in the middle rounds who are undervalued by other teams due to their size might be the way to go. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo isn't likely too late, but guys like Duke Ejiofor, Josh Sweat, Dorance Armstrong, Trevon Young, Jeff Holland, Peter Kalambayi, Marquis Haynes, Kylie Fitts, Garret Dooley, and Leon Jacobs could provide good value for where they're selected.
Red Zone Target: if there was a complaint during the offensive surge under Garoppolo, it was that they still had to settle for field goals too often, as evidenced by Robbie Gould's 18 field goal attempts over those last five games. Having Pierre Garçon, who didn't record a drop and had 40 catches for 500 yards in just 7.5 games before a freak neck injury ended his season the same week Jimmy G was acquired, working the intermediate area as the X receiver; Marquise Goodwin, who was just rewarded with a three year extension after having 962 yards despite leaving two games in the first half with concussions and showing a great rapport with Garoppolo to the tune of 29 catches for 384 yards and a touchdown in their 4.5 games together (roughly a 93-1,229-3 pace), as a speedy Z; and Trent Taylor, who caught 12 of 13 third down targets from Garoppolo, in the slot provides an underrated receiver trio, but none of them stand above 6 feet. Tight end George Kittle was a steal of a 5th round pick last year who had 15 catches, 224 yards, and a score over those last five games (48-717-3 pace), but he's probably not ready to be the main red zone threat.

Free agent options
  • With those targets already on the roster, there may not be a need for a "true #1 receiver," but when a talent like Allen Robinson becomes available still shy of his 25th birthday, that warrants consideration. A 2nd round pick in 2014, he quietly showed star potential as a rookie before exploding for 1,400 yards and a league-leading 14 touchdowns as a 22 year old. Misuse from a coaching staff that changed coordinators midseason and regression from Blake Bortles combined for a disappointing 2016 before a torn ACL limited his 2017 to just three snaps, so I wonder if he could be had on a one year deal to rehab his stock like Alshon Jeffery going to Philly on a one year, $14 million deal before earning an extension in December. He's likely targeting a deal similar to what fellow 2014 2nd rounder Davante Adams got, though: 4 years, $58 million with a $32 million cash flow in the first two seasons. While an addition this big would move Garçon to a more versatile role across different formations like how Mohamed Sanu was used in Atlanta, that's not a problem with Robinson's size, leaping ability, and route running making him a threat in all areas of the field. I've been dreaming for months of him being used as the X receiver in Shanahan's offense and was happy to confirm that he actually does have similar characteristics to past stars in this scheme, Julio Jones and Andre Johnson.
Height6'2 ⅝"6'2 ¾"6'2
40 yard dash4.47*4.424.41*
Vertical jump42*38.541*
Broad jump10'11*11'311
20 yard shuttle44.254.1*
3-cone drill6.54*6.66N/A
 *results from pro days, via NFL Draft Scout
  • The biggest risk/reward gamble on an incentive-laden deal could be tight end Tyler Eifert, who boasts impressive athleticism at 6'5", 250 pounds, has 20 career touchdowns in 39 games, and will only be turning 28 right as the season begins. The 39 is the problem number because he's been in the league for five seasons, but he is apparently healthy now following back surgery after just two games last year. The 6'6", 260 pound Jimmy Graham could theoretically be a more reliable threat, but always a poor blocker, he now doesn't bring anything to the table besides end zone jump balls at this point in his career after averaging just 9.1 yards on 57 catches during his age 31 season.
  • Terrelle Pryor and Donte Moncrief are both big receivers who could win contested catches downfield and in the end zone that will likely come cheap after down years. Pryor, 6'5", 240 pounds, will turn 29 this summer but only became a wide receiver a couple of years ago and posted a 77-1007-4 line in Cleveland before flaming out as a free agent in Washington last season. The 6'2", 221 pound Moncrief, on the other hand, will only be turning 25 and had 16 touchdowns in his first 41 games before falling to two in 12 games with Jacoby Brissett at the helm last year. While neither can be counted on with a large contract, they both have shown enough flashes to be a nice complimentary piece.
Draft options
  • While Calvin Ridley is the WR1 in this draft class, he is only 6'0½", 189 pounds and had very disappointing jumps at the combine. Conversely, Courtland Sutton has the most upside of any receiver at a little over 6'3" and 218 pounds with impressive movement skills, but he lacks some refinement and was actually outproduced by teammate Trey Quinn this season. With receiver not as much of a priority among the 49ers' needs, I'd be surprised if either of them was the pick at 9.
  • After seeing how effective the 6'3", 199 pound D.J. Chark is with the ball in his hands during the season, I thought he could be a nice mid-round sleeper since his production was limited by LSU's underwhelming passing attack. That started to go out the window after he had a strong Senior Bowl week, and now his stock is soaring after clocking a 4.34 in the 40 to go with 40" and 10'9" jumps at the combine. You'd think someone with that length and explosiveness would just be a deep threat (he did average 20.5 yards on 66 career catches with 6 touchdown), but he also handled punt returns (10.6 average with 2 scores out of 18 attempts) and some jet sweeps (264 career rushing yards). He could stand to improve his focus with a few drops, but now it looks like he could be a candidate to be taken at pick 59 rather than 70 or 74 if they want him.
  • I've seen just about every game Equanimeous St. Brown played at Notre Dame, so I can say pretty confidently that his disappointing junior season (33-515-4 after a 58-981-9 line as a sophomore) can be attributed to a more run-heavy offense and inaccurate quarterback play. He only ran the 40 at the combine, but a 4.48 at 6'5", 214 pounds showed how smooth he is for a player of his size. Taking him in the 3rd to be brought along slowly as a future starter could pay dividends down the line.
  • Other receiver options in the 3rd round or later that are intriguing include Deon Cain, Michael Gallup, Cedrick Wilson, Allen Lazard, J'Mon Moore, Korey Robertson, and Jaleel Scott. Not all of them are quite as big as the names above, but that can be made up for with explosiveness and ball skills. This is also a strong tight end class with similar skillsets as more receiver than blockers, so it's not out of the question that reinforcements like a Dallas Goedert, Troy Fumagali, or Dalton Schultz could be brought in somewhat early to play with Kittle if someone like Eifert isn't signed. 
St. Brown would add athleticism in the red zone.
With all of this in mind, it would appear that plans must start with what kind of free agent corner the 49ers can acquire because that is the biggest position of need and affects draft strategy. If a top talent like Butler commits, then you can add a project corner more in the middle rounds, or if a stopgap solution is signed like Melvin, then a player like Fitzpatrick or Ward, who can play either in place of Melvin or alongside him in the slot, would be the target in the 1st. The amount of money spent there could affect how much to pay a free agent guard, but an interior lineman will likely be drafted relatively early to develop at either guard and center regardless. Same goes for edge rusher, but I could see them falling in love with Landry and taking him at 9 even if that seems a touch high at the moment. And while Robinson could be the wild card as a high-end talent in this free agent class, it's probably more likely that they just supplant their trio with a pick like St. Brown. The draft board should become more clear as teams across the league fill holes with signings, which makes mock drafts at this point a bit silly, but for now, I can see a path or two for either Nelson or one of the corners to be there at #9 to address the biggest needs:
  1. Cleveland takes Saquon Barkley as the best player on the board, especially since they just traded for Tyrod Taylor to be the bridge quarterback in the short term.
  2. Nelson isn't likely with Norwell in tow and with Barkley gone, the Giants could either do the smart thing and take the successor to Eli Manning like Sam Darnold here, or they could trade the pick to a team like Buffalo who is desperate for a quarterback. 
  3. Chubb to Indianapolis is almost the default pick in all mocks for good reason as he fills a huge role on defense.
  4. It may be counterintuitive to let other teams determine what franchise signal caller is available here when you could take him at #1, but if Cleveland feels good about the top three guys, they're guaranteed to have one available here to groom slowly behind Taylor. Possibly the most raw project in Josh Allen.
  5. Denver is where things could go in a number of directions. My guess is that Cousins goes to Minnesota, so they will likely be needing one of the QBs here. Now that Aqib Talib is being traded, Fitzpatrick could be added to the secondary, and the offensive line still needs help that Nelson could provide. Josh Rosen appears to be the passer most ready to play right away, so that would likely take precedent.
  6. If this quarterback run does happen, the Jets would be left with the choice of Baker Mayfield, whose comparisons to Johnny Manziel could become a scary proposition in a place like New York, or Lamar Jackson, who is an incredible talent but has some rawness that may scare them off after the Christian Hackenberg project was a bust. Nelson warrants discussion to improve the line, but they need to fix the quarterback position, with Mayfield the likely choice.
  7. Again, Nelson makes sense to fix a woeful offensive line, but with help need across the secondary, I'd bet on Fitzpatrick here.
  8. Chicago might be Nelson's floor with their need at guard after letting Sitton go. A linebacker like Edmunds is intriguing in their 3-4, but I think they want to surround Mitchell Trubisky with as much talent as possible.
  9. This scenario would leave either Ward or Edmunds, and as of now, the corner would be the priority.

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