The 49ers have $115 million to play with in the 2018 free-agent period, which means they can afford to get creative and be gluttonous. With Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch pitching and signing players, they can vastly improve this roster in several areas, deepening position groups and even adding star talent to otherwise bare spots.
[DESIMONE: Complete 49ers guide to 2018 free agency]
If they were to come up with a handful of aggressive plans to maximize their spending, they could really make life easier on themselves in the draft and also unroll brand new dynamics on both offense and defense.
Here's what's on the table...
Secure a special two-TE set
Situation: Bill Belichick once leaned on a spread attack that featured two tight ends. And when it peaked in 2010 and 2012, New England was scoring over 500 points a season and ranked first in the league in points scored twice. The 49ers have the money to get creative and make a bid for another upper-echelon TE to pair with George Kittle, and ultimately create a new wrinkle for their offense. And they also have the right coach to see to it that this position group reaches its potential by regularly finding and exploiting mismatches.
Options: The 49ers could take a flier on a fragile Tyler Eifert, who, due to his seemingly constant unavailability, could be allowed to walk in free agency. Jimmy Graham, one of the most prolific basketball converts of all-time, is expected to leave Seattle and could still bring value to an ailing red zone offense. 2016 Pro Bowler Jordan Reed may wind up a cap casualty in Washington, and could be a very interesting one-year prove-it type of signing. And a very athletic Trey Burton came on strong for the Eagles toward the end of the season, and is trending up, unlike this other three name candidates.
Build a running back committee
Situation: Running back Carlos Hyde seems unlikely to return to San Francisco, leaving Matt Breida and a cast of unknowns. This doesn’t make the 49ers desperate for a feature back, but it does make them address the position this offseason. One of the routes that Lynch can go as a GM with Shanahan as coach is bargain shop and build a multi-pronged committee that keeps defenses off balance.
Options: Patriots’ Dion Lewis is back and better than ever, and should be the apple of Shanahan’s eye in free agency given his caliber and proven ability in a similar role that would be asked of him in San Francisco. Isaiah Crowell appears to want out of Cleveland with Hue Jackson staying on as coach. He is underrated, has workhorse capability and a history with Shanahan. Vikings speedster Jerrick McKinnon is looking for an increased role. Then there’s two-time All-Pro Le’Veon Bell of the Steelers, who may become attainable once the clock starts ticking on free agency. The 49ers have the money to add one or two of these guys, and settle the position before the draft.
Get deep at linebacker
Situation: Few things are more crippling than losing good interior defenders. The 49ers have seen this over the last few years. While Reuben Foster is in place, and veteran Malcolm Smith is signed for another four seasons, the team could stand to add another starting-caliber linebacker, one that will ensure there isn’t much of a drop in the total defense if either Foster or Smith were to go down. This is a legitimate concern, and one the 49ers should act on, because Foster plays so hard and gets banged up weekly, and because Smith, who will be 29 years old next season, spent this past year on injured reserve.
Options: Zach Brown was a Pro Bowler in 2016 and had 127 tackles and 2.5 sacks this past season for Washington. Todd Davis, a native of California, rose up from UDFA to full-time starter for the Broncos, finishing second on the team in tackles this past season, with 82 on 520 snaps. Fifth-year journeyman Korey Toomer is a solid all-around linebacker for the Chargers that might not be prioritized.
Find one difference maker on defense
Situation: The 49ers have a defense that's getting better, but it's still missing the takeaway and sack elements. DeForest Buckner and Reuben Foster are the team's best defenders, but they're play stoppers, they're not really known for sack totals or interceptions. It's time for the 49ers to pay up for splash plays that equate to increased opportunities for Jimmy Garoppolo.
Options: Of the QB maulers out there, Ezekiel Ansah of the Lions looks like an obvious target. The 28-year-old pass rusher had 12.0 sacks this year, which was the second-best mark of his career, and Detroit might not retain him. If he gets free from Dallas, the 49ers would have to look at DeMarcus Lawrence, who finished second in the NFL in sacks this year with 14.5 en route to his first Pro Bowl. Or could Rams corner Trumaine Johnson be the answer? He has 18 career interceptions, with a career-best 7 coming in 2015, and three pick-sixes to go with.
Eye more value at cornerback
Situation: The 49ers can pretty much scrap the cornerback group around Ahkello Witherspoon and K’Waun Williams. It wouldn’t be a surprise if this position saw the most turnover this offseason. And with Witherspoon (22) and Williams (26) on the young side, this is a group that could use a little more veteran savvy.
Options: There are some enticing (and pricier) options like Rashaan Melvin and Johnson of the Rams, but it seems like corner is a position to be wary of in free agency. It's a short-lived position like running back, and there can be a decline from team to team due to situation and scheme. After hitting on Williams an offseason ago, the 49ers should again seek more value, adding someone like Brandin Boykin, who is looking to make a comeback. Or Kyle Fuller, who's image was dinged by the Bears declining to pick up his option, but responded with really good football in 2017.
Bulk up the front five
Situation: The offensive line is probably the top need heading into free agency, and maybe the position they can best address by throwing money at veterans. Right now, you could say everyone but left tackle Joe Staley is replaceable. Center Daniel Kilgore is a free agent, and plays a position the 49ers could look to upgrade. Right tackle Trent Brown was hot and cold, and didn't finish the season due to injuries. And both guard spots are basically empty, with Joshua Garnett being a wild card and Brandon Fusco's best usage being as a top-end backup guard and swing tackle.
Options: Panthers left guard Andrew Norwell, an undrafted player that finally became an All-Pro, is going to garner interest from a lot of teams and should be a priority for Carolina. Colts right guard Jack Mewhort stands out as a possible player of interest. In his 30's, coming off another Super Bowl, Patriots' Nate Solder could be an interesting add if the 49ers can get him as a right tackle. Centers Weston Richburg (Giants) and Ryan Jensen (Ravens) would also be upgrades over Kilgore. It's also possible Mike Pouncey of the Dolphins is released. With this market, the 49ers can sign multiple O-linemen and totally overhaul their front five.
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