With league-high cap room, an early look at the 49ers’ 2018 rebuild options

The 49ers front office remains on the gas, continuing its roster rebuild with the long view in mind.

In their first offseason under the new regime, the organization rid themselves of a lot of players and invested heavily in the defense, which appears nearly set. There are players with above-average ceilings at nearly every starting spot on defense. The general idea now is that in 2018 the front office will aggressively seek offensive options the way they did defense, which could include a new quarterback and/or alpha skill player or two.

At the team’s State of the Franchise, contract guru, Chief Strategy Officer and Executive VP of Football Ops Paraag Marathe underscored the 49ers’ 2018 spending money, saying they have $20 million more than the second-most team, and that there “will not be a dollar unspent.” That would be far different from the way the team ran previously under Trent Baalke, but it’s possible that Marathe is a spender with John Lynch.

With the Niners committed to being active in free agency, it seemed worth looking at who’s contracts are expiring on offense around the NFL in 2018.

The following is an aggregation of select unrestricted free agents—players that would net news-worthy deals and make an immediate impact. This list does not include 49ers free agents. It also does not include offensive line, looking strictly at offensive skill players (throwers, runners & receivers). Starred players are ones that have experience with 49ers new head coach Kyle Shanahan during his time as an offensive coordinator. That’s worth noting since Shanahan brought ex-players Pierre Garcon, Brian Hoyer and Tim Hightower to San Francisco. It comes down to familiarity and fit.

Here’s what’s out there in 2018, via Spotrac (player name, age):


Drew Brees, 38

Kirk Cousins, 28*

Sam Bradford, 29

Matthew Stafford, 29

Teddy Bridgewater, 25

Jimmy Garoppolo, 25

Running back

Le’Veon Bell, 25

Darren Sproles, 34

Eddie Lacy, 26

Shane Vereen, 28

Devonta Freeman, 25*

Ryan Mathews, 29

Alfred Morris, 28*

LeGarrette Blount, 30

Dion Lewis, 26

Isaiah Crowell, 24*

Jeremy Hill, 24

Tight end

Jimmy Graham, 30

Antonio Gates, 37

Ben Watson, 36

Tyler Eifert, 26

Gavin Escobar, 26

C.J. Fiedorowicz, 25

Crockett Gillmore, 25

Wide receiver

Larry Fitzgerald, 33

Alshon Jeffery, 27

Terrelle Pryor, 28

Sammy Watkins, 24

Taylor Gabriel, 26*

DeAndre Hopkins, 25

Davante Adams, 24

Paul Richardson, 25

Cody Latimer, 24

Jordan Matthews, 24

Allen Robinson, 23

Jarvis Landry, 24

Donte Moncrief, 23

John Brown, 27

Martavis Bryant, 25

There are a lot of sexy names that make up this list, with valuable players in all sorts of different situations. Granted, while most of these players will get tagged or re-sign on long-term deals, there are guys that will fall through the cracks based on an array of variables impacting their situation. And in that instance, the 49ers must pounce.

Here is a grouping of five worthwhile, non-Kirk Cousins players with interesting situations that could be attainable:

Jimmy Garoppolo

The Patriots played hardball with teams inquiring about Garoppolo, and as a result, they may see the backup quarterback walk for nothing. It all comes down to this year, his contract year. And the situation does not indicate a window opening for Garoppolo in New England. Tom Brady is fresh off his fifth Super Bowl title and is looking spry. He’s surrounded by weapons, and it could keep him in the game for another few seasons. If Garoppolo feels that’s the case, he’s leaving and looking for a starting role right away, as he turns 26 this year. And with Mitch Trubisky in Chicago, Deshaun Watson in Houston, and DeShone Kizer in Cleveland, there are less suitors and ultimately less competition for Garoppolo.

Devonta Freeman

Are the Falcons positively going to re-sign Freeman? It’s at least questionable. Perhaps the biggest reason for Atlanta’s march to the Super Bowl was due to the leap from the defense. GM Thomas Dimitroff invested heavily on that side of the ball, and will need to dish out a handful of extensions in addition to the $69M deal cornerback Desmond Trufant just signed. That could include making Leo pass rusher Vic Beasley the highest-paid defender in the league, extending Keanu Neal, and paying Deion Jones top-10 linebacker money. And what if Dontari Poe performs and they want to retain him? Also factor in that Atlanta has Tevin Coleman on offense, and predominantly features the duo of two other franchise players in Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, and it is possible Freeman gets away.

Tyler Eifert

Injury history can throw a wrench into any player’s negotiations with their team. While Eifert is elite, he has missed 27 games since being drafted 21st overall in 2013, including 11 the last two years. And entering his fifth season, the tight end isn’t even sure he’ll be ready for camp following back surgery. The Bengals would be foolish to not use that as leverage in contract talks. Depending on how that goes, a scenario could play out where Eifert is tagged, dangled as trade bait or allowed to see if another team will pay him top-3 tight end money. The 49ers have potential in rookie George Kittle and maybe even UDFA Cole Hikutini, but if Eifert hits the market, he'd be worth a look.

Sammy Watkins

Buffalo is clearly concerned with Watkins’ health and longevity, having declined his fifth-year option. That’s news given his talent level. He has however missed 11 games and 11 potential starts the last two years, so the Bills have every reason to be skeptical of his ability to stay on the field. Watkins, though, is a top-tier caliber receiver, along the likes of Julio Jones, and should never be allowed to see free agency. He wouldn't if he avoided his foot injury. But now, with the way things have unfolded for him, he’s playing for his future, and he may want to leave Buffalo if he performs in a contract year. If Watkins can put his injuries behind him, the 24-year-old could go off and have a stellar 10-year career with another franchise.

Martavis Bryant

The Steelers have a history of confidently moving on from pass-catching weapons they drafted, and have been able to replace them successfully. This could happen again with Bryant. In addition to All-World receiver Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh has a talent it likes in Eli Rogers, speedsters Sammie Coates and Darrius Heyward-Bey are in the building, they just drafted JuJu Smith-Schuster out of USC, and they have a 6-foot-7 tight end they want to feature in Jesse James. Le’Veon Bell will also be the focus of the Steelers offseason if he plays on the tag in 2017. So, while he’s booming with potential, with Bryant coming off a yearlong suspension, and the risk that comes with retaining him, it’s possible he’s allowed to walk.

Media courtesy Pittsburgh Post-Gazzette, The Buffalo News, UPI, NFL Spin Zone, NY Daily News

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