Free agency or draft? Which routes 49ers should go to tackle top needs in 2018

The roadmap to the 49ers' 2018 offseason is among the toughest in the NFL to project, simply because they're under new management, there is not a position outside of quarterback they can't upgrade, they have a mountain of cash, nine draft picks, and endless options.

But in guesstimating which routes the 49ers could go to attack their needs, we can look at the team situation (depth, trajectory, age, health and contracts of players), the free-agent field and what's available in the draft. And in evaluating those, we can predict a by-position plan that would be optimal (and perhaps probable) for the 49ers and general manager John Lynch in year two of the rebuild.

Considering the state of the roster, here is a mock of how their 2018 offseason may go down. . .

Need: WR

Primary direction: Draft

With Pierre Garçon rejoining Marquise Goodwin and Trent Taylor—a receiving group that finished 2017 strong—it doesn’t seem as if the 49ers really need to make a sizable investment at WR this offseason. Between those three, they’re about set for 2018.

But with Garçon, the lead dog, approaching 32 years old and fresh off a season-ending neck injury, the 49ers need to begin grooming a talent with WR1 potential. With nobody in free agency really fitting that profile, the 49ers may be one of the teams to tap the early-to-middle rounds of the draft for a player like DaeSean Hamilton, Deon Cain, Equanimeous St. Brown, Auden Tate or Dante Pettis.

The plan would be for one of them develop in a low-pressure situation to be Jimmy Garoppolo's top target of the future.

Need: RB

Primary direction: Free agency

While they’re likely letting feature back Carlos Hyde walk in free agency—and all they have is three rookies from last year, the best of which was undrafted—this isn’t a position worth sweating over. The reason being Kyle Shanahan and Bobby Turner; how good Matt Breida is; the potential of hitting on one or both of Joe Williams and Jeremy McNichols; a diverse group of low-cost free agents; and an incredibly deep class of backs in 2018.

With three second-year backs already in house, the 49ers don’t need another rookie (or anybody at all), and could simply look to lock down a security blanket in free agency. Essentially a veteran back with a complementary skill set. The top two names fitting the criteria would have to be Isaiah Crowell and LeGarrette Blount. It also wouldn’t be a surprise if Dion Lewis is a player they show interest in.

That said, the 49ers still don’t want to miss out on this class of tailbacks, and may select one at some point, especially if they feel Williams and McNichols are question marks. It might not be unreasonable to expect two new names on the roster.

Need: TE

Primary direction: Free agency

The tight ends in the 2018 draft are very interesting but the 49ers just invested in George Kittle last year, who already looks promising as a featured guy. So it’s not a position deserving of a pick this year.

However, the 49ers could make a bold move and attempt to upgrade the position by taking on a flier like Cincinnati glass man Tyler Eifert — or by making a splash with Trey Burton or Jimmy Graham. A move like this would create a whole new dynamic on offense, and provide Shanahan with new ways to create matchup problems and scheme for easy touchdowns.

Need: OG

Primary direction: Draft

Since Joshua Garnett is an unknown coming off IR and changing his body for a new system, the team has to grab two guards. There's no proven player on the team that is average to above-average at left or right guard.

Now, free-agent lineman changing teams and schemes can often be rough. The 49ers missed on two interior offensive linemen last year in Jeremy Zuttah and Laken Tomlinson, and made a mistake by depending on holdover Zane Beadles. Offensive line, like cornerback, is one of those positions that can yield polar opposite results when acquiring a player from a different system and trying to fit him into yours.

There are, however, a lot of interior OL options in free agency, several of which are scheme compatible. Assuming the prize of free agency Andrew Norwell is retained by Carolina, signing an esteemed vet like Josh Sitton makes the most sense for the 49ers. A proven Pro Bowler nearing 32 years of age, Sitton would be an instant, short-term solution that wouldn’t affect the cap much.

The big investment in the offensive line needs to come in the draft, where the 49ers have an opportunity select a player like Quenton Nelson of Notre Dame or Isaiah Wynn of Georgia. Their best overall offensive lineman is soon-to-be 34-year-old tackle Joe Staley. And that brings on the harsh reality that they need a face for the future, someone to carry this offensive line into the next generation.

Need: C

Primary direction: Draft

The 49ers re-signed Daniel Kilgore to a three-year deal. He could easily wind up being the starter again in 2018, but it's likely he'll at least have some competition in camp this year.

The signing did more or less signal that San Francisco would be out of the Ryan Jensen and Weston Richburg sweepstakes, the perceived top two free-agent centers. But the short-term, low-paying nature of Kilgore's contract did indicate the 49ers would entertain another player taking over. The smart money is on them drafting someone to develop under Kilgore, perhaps someone like Mason Cole of Michigan or Frank Ragnow of Arkansas.

Need: EDGE

Primary direction: Draft

Call me a skeptic but none of the free-agent defensive ends come off as exciting or as surefire solutions that push this D-line to the next level. Ezekiel Ansah of the Lions and Demarcus Lawrence of the Cowboys both produced in contract years, but each have had up and down production over their careers. It seems the 49ers would be better off finding their own homegrown edge.

The draft offers far more options — more players with varying skill sets and body types that they could identify for their system. They’re more likely to unearth exactly what they’re looking for in their Leo (backside edge rusher).

NC State’s Bradley Chubb, Boston College's Harold Landry, Florida State’s Josh Sweat and Washington State’s Hercules Mata’afa all seem like far better options with less risk.

Need: LB

Primary direction: Free agency

Good linebacker play isn’t hard to find in free agency. It’s a translatable position and one guys can play well into their 30’s. And with LB being a need and having a high hit rate in free agency, the 49ers should address it there. Knock it out and allow for more flexibility in the draft.

Moreover, with Reuben Foster being an A1-level talent with an uncertain future, the team may want to hold off on investing another top-75 pick on a linebacker until matters play out.

In the meantime, Paul Posluszny of Jacksonville, Todd Davis of Denver and Zach Brown of Washington could be legitimate options to join Foster and a returning Malcolm Smith. They can hold it down if Foster is unavailable and be his running mate when he's in the lineup.

Need: CB

Primary direction: Free agency

Cornerback is arguably the 49ers’ top need this offseason. And since free agency comes before the NFL draft, they need to jump on it. It'd be risky to head into April with just second-year CB Ahkello Witherspoon and veteran nickel K'Waun Williams rostered.

This is also a position that can be settled entirely in free agency, as the team has plenty of options to choose from. Trumaine Johnson (Rams), Malcolm Butler (Patriots), Kyle Fuller (Bears) and Rashaan Melvin (Colts) all loom as potential targets. And with their stunning lack of depth, it wouldn’t be a surprise if San Francisco signed two, a boundary corner like Johnson and an agile slot like Butler.

This would give the 49ers infinitely more flexibility in the first few rounds, with many forecasters like ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay expecting them to take a top-ranked cornerback in the draft. Another reason to go with a free agent over, say, Denzel Ward or Isaiah Oliver, is because they're lacking experience in the secondary.

Media courtesy USA Today Sports Images,, Getty Images, FSU Athletics

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