The 49ers spent a fortune to lock up Jimmy Garoppolo. Now come the next steps in building a winning team around a franchise quarterback through free agency and the 2018 NFL Draft.
Somehow, even after making Garoppolo the highest-paid NFL player in history with a five-year deal worth $137.5 million, the 49ers have close to $75 million in salary cap space for 2018. While some of that money will go to San Francisco’s draft picks, there will be plenty of calculated funds with which general manager John Lynch can be aggressive.
The Rams, Jaguars and Eagles in 2017 were able turn sub-.500 teams into strong playoff contenders with smart spending (and sometimes splurging) at positions of need. In a copycat league, the 49ers will follow that blueprint with Garoppolo in hand.
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Here’s looking at some team needs the 49ers should consider addressing on the free-agent market, plus some specific veterans to target at each position.
Carlos Hyde is unlikely to be re-signed after a hot-and-cold first season with coach Kyle Shanahan. Undrafted rookie Matt Breida had a few flashes and is a good bet to remain in the mix. Fourth-rounder Joe Williams had his entire rookie season wiped out by an ankle injury.
The biggest name of intrigue for San Francisco here is New England’s Dion Lewis, who could give Shanahan elements of what he had in both Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in Atlanta. Lewis and Garoppolo would mesh well given their Patriots familiarity. Minnesota’s Jerick McKinnon also offers a dangerous open-field receiver in the Coleman vein.
The 49ers could get a steal for Shanahan in the draft, or they could feel good about Breida and Williams working together in the system in Year 2. It comes down to whether Lewis or McKinnon can be a relative bargain. It would probably better serve San Francisco to spend little-to-no money at running back and instead work on upgrading the run-blocking. The draft class is deep in backs with variety of skill sets.
Marquise Goodwin, known as a pure deep threat before he was put in a bigger role as a top starter, had a strong finish to the 2017 season with Garoppolo. The 49ers’ other key WR addition from last year, go-to guy Pierre Garcon, was having a exceptional year with worse QB play before he went down with a neck injury at midseason. Goodwin, Garcon and second-year slot man Trent Taylor are in well-defined roles, but will the Niners go for more pop in a true No. 1?
The Jaguars’ Allen Robinson and the Dolphins’ Jarvis Landry are two best wide receivers who could become available in free agency. Only Robinson, soon to be healthy after tearing an ACL, make sense because he can be a true No. 1 with his size, speed and big-play ability. At 24, he would be a good long-term investment to pair with Garoppolo.
Landry, who’s more of a short-catch possession man, doesn’t offer the same style. The Rams’ Sammy Watkins also would be redundant, and he would not be an upgrade over Goodwin, his former Bills teammate.
Going for Alshon Jeffery worked out for the Eagles, and Robinson could have the same punch for the 49ers. Should Jacksonville let Robinson hit the market, expect San Francisco to consider him. The 49ers will find their wideout help either by going big with Robinson or by dipping into a deep draft.
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Venerable Joe Staley, 33, continued to be much-needed rock at left tackle in 2017. Trent Brown was solid when healthy at right tackle. The interior, however, was an absolute mess. Daniel Kilgore was overwhelmed at center, and the 49ers desperately tried to plug holes at guard.
There will be turnover at two positions, with Kilgore and right guard Brandon Fusco both set to become free agents. The best possible upgrades would be a combination of Ravens center Ryan Jensen and Panthers guard Andrew Norwell, but it’s more realistic for the 49ers to land one of those guys and go for value at the other position.
Giants center Weston Richburg is coming off two down, injury-riddled seasons, but he proved in 2015 he can be elite. Titans guard Josh Kline would be a perfect fit for Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme. Chiefs guard Zach Fulton is a versatile option who could thrive at center after finishing the 2017 season in that position.
The market is too good and the positions too important for Lynch not to make two sound upgrades along the offensive line.
First-round stud Solomon Thomas was a little overwhelmed as a rookie, but he showed late in the season he can live up to his freakish athletic potential. Elvis Dumervil plugged away as an effective situational rusher at times, but he’s 34. Cassius Marsh got a two-year deal as a key backup after playing well post-Patriots discard.
But after finishing tied for 27th in the NFL with only 30 sacks last season, the 49ers could use a big-time, veteran pass-rusher in his prime, a la the Jaguars’ Calais Campbell addition last year.
Nobody as good as Campbell will be available in 2018 since the Cowboys won’t let go of DeMarcus Lawrence. That leaves the Lions’ Ezekiel Ansah as the answer for the highest market price. On the cheaper side will be Adrian Clayborn, whom Shanahan saw do some good situational work in Atlanta but could hold down a more regular role in San Francisco.
Appealing pass-rush options in 2018 free agency dry up quick, and the draft is rather deep with impact players who can get to the quarterback. This position and running back could be put on the 49ers’ backburner in free agency, as guard and center look like much weaker positions in the 2018 draft.
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Middle linebacker Reuben Foster’s latest arrest on charges of domestic violence complicates things, because on the field, he was a vital part of the 49ers’ run defense. They need help in the second level on both the strong and weak sides, too.
A signing that would make a ton of sense is the Jaguars’ Paul Posluszny. A long-time middle man for the Jaguars, he thrived on the strong side of their defense last season. The 34-year-old is only one season removed from having 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh as his position coach.
Posluszny’s versatility and leadership would be welcome for Lynch, and the veteran would help San Francisco hedge bets should Foster, who also was hurt a lot as a rookie, need to be disciplined and miss time.
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The 49ers are happy about what big second-year cornerback Akhello Witherspoon (6-2, 195 pounds) could become as a cover man holding down one side, but they need help otherwise at the position. They should look to add one outside starter in free agency and draft a couple more defensive backs, as well, given safety Eric Reid is unlikely to be re-signed.
The Patriots’ Malcolm Butler, the Bears’ Kyle Fuller and the Bills’ E.J. Gaines all are good veteran candidates to start opposite Witherspoon. The Rams’ Trumaine Johnson is a boom-or-bust playmaker who has faded of late, and Witherspoon has a chance to be a better version of him.
With Witherspoon, Adrian Colbert, Jacquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward, the 49ers have some good young pieces in the secondary. One more big addition, via free agency or the first round of the draft, would give their back-end defense a lot of promise in Year 2 under Saleh.