SANTA CLARA, Calif. — For the second consecutive offseason, the San Francisco 49ers figure to have continuity at the top of the organization. But coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch will be entering an important offseason, their third together in charge of the franchise.
After two seasons of dealing with injuries all over the roster, San Francisco will also need to start adding competition and depth at multiple spots. That’s especially true given that their belief in multiple players who performed well in a small sample in 2017 didn’t take the next step in 2018 as hoped.
“It’s a good problem to have when you have a bunch of choices and that’s what we’re trying to do here,” Shanahan said. “We’re trying to have more than one choice. &133; We had a lot of young guys play in the secondary last year who finished the year strong and I don’t think they had a ton of competition this offseason right away. But this year, we’re finishing this second year with some young guys who are playing strong also, some different young guys. That’s real exciting for our team, just to watch those young guys compete next year plus the guys we’re going to add in the draft and free agency. The more we can do that, the more guys can’t just look around the room and know, ‘All right, I’m going to be the starter.’ That’s when you know you’re building something the right way and you’ve got a chance to make people better.”
Beyond getting some key players healthy, the offseason checklist will undoubtedly be long but many of those tasks will be related to improving the defense and finding play makers who can swing close games in the Niners’ favor.
Find an edge rusher (or two)
It’s no secret the Niners have a huge need for an edge presence capable of elevating their defense to the next level. Shanahan has said that a dominant edge-rusher is to a defense what a top quarterback can be to an offense. In a perfect world, the Niners could dip into their copious cap space to sign a top edge-rusher in free agency but they’ve seen first-hand how rare it is for those types of players to even hit the market, which means the likes of DeMarcus Lawrence, Jadeveon Clowney and Dee Ford almost certainly won’t either.
The 49ers will probably have to use an early pick or two to address this need. The good news is that this draft appears to be flush with prospects at the position, and even though the Niners no longer look poised to pick first overall, they should still be able to find a sack artist to fill their need.
But San Francisco shouldn’t stop there. If the Niners can find a SAM linebacker with some edge-rushing ability in free agency or the draft, it would only help to bolster a rush that leans so heavily on defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. Put simply, adding to the pass-rush is the quickest way to bolster the 49ers defense and the more they add there, the better it should make the entire unit.
Sign Earl Thomas
Entering the 2018 offseason, the 49ers bet big on a number of young, unproven players to carry positive momentum from last season into this season. Among those were safeties Adrian Colbert (free safety) and Jaquiski Tartt (strong). Colbert and Tartt looked like a promising pair for the back end but neither was able to stay healthy and build on what they did at the end of 2017.
As the center fielder of the defense, Colbert struggled in his seven games before suffering a season-ending ankle sprain, though he showed some signs of coming on before the injury.
Free safety is a critical position in the Niners’ scheme, and adding a veteran who can run the alley, come up with some takeaways and provide leadership would help the defense take the next step. The most obvious choice to fill that role is Seattle’s Earl Thomas, as he’s headed toward free agency and unlikely to return to the Seahawks.
Thomas is coming off injury, so that would be a question mark but so long as the Niners are OK with that, he would be an obvious fit in the scheme and to re-join cornerback Richard Sherman in the secondary. There figures to be plenty of competition for Thomas on the open market, particularly from the Dallas Cowboys, but they also have a number of players coming due for big paydays.
Adding Thomas would also benefit Colbert, who still has plenty of potential and could bide his time as a backup learning from Thomas while providing impact on special teams.
Try to sign DeForest Buckner to a contract extension
This offseason will be the first in which the Niners can engage Buckner in discussions for a contract extension. Shanahan has already made it clear the 49ers would like to keep Buckner for a long time. That’s no surprise, considering he’s one of the team’s two best players.
While there’s no rush to sign Buckner, it would do the Niners well to at least begin working toward a deal. If the 49ers do the first thing on this list and add talent around Buckner, his production figures to go even beyond what he did in this, his breakout season. That would only drive his price up in ensuing years.
Buckner and his agent Joel Segal (who also represents Khalil Mack) might prefer to wait to cash in further but the 49ers will likely at least get a read on what it would take to get something done. Additionally, the timing would be good for the Niners financially considering they figure to have plenty of cap space and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo‘s cap number dips to $19.35 million from $37 million. A deal this offseason would allow them to pay Buckner a big guarantee upfront and keep Buckner’s salary in ensuing seasons at a reasonable rate as Garoppolo’s spikes back upward.
Create competition at cornerback, linebacker and wide receiver
As Shanahan has pointed out, the 49ers’ hopes of building competition across the roster should be buoyed by getting multiple draft classes in place over the course of a couple of years. Aside from edge-rusher, the team’s three biggest needs appear to be at cornerback, linebacker and wideout. Those needs aren’t as pressing as edge-rusher but, for example, finding another young corner with upside and strong ball skills capable of pushing Ahkello Witherspoon and Tarvarius Moore would only raise the level of talent and depth there.
At all three of these positions, the 49ers have some talent in place but other than Sherman at corner and Fred Warner at middle linebacker, there aren’t really any locks to win starting jobs here. Adding more talent here would and should make for some interesting battles in training camp.