Five key learnings from 49ers' 2018 free-agent signings

March 22, 2018

Despite not yet knowing what the actual return on their investment will be, it appears the new-era 49ers made headway as a team with their 2018 additions — as well as subtractions. They added three impact starters at positions of need, and also cut some dead weight, but the moves themselves told us even more about the team.

 

We learned traits and positions they value, and where they believe they can find talent to settle needs. Their actions also said a lot about how they operate as a front office. 

 

Here are five key takeaways from the 49ers' 2018 free-agent period . . .

 

Value by position on the O-line:

One key learning for those who didn't know this already is that Shanahan values centers highly in his offense. We saw this as they went after the top available player at the position in Weston Richburg, a 2014 second-round pick by the New York Giants. General manager John Lynch said he was one of two top priorities. The signing was also a throwback to Alex Mack, a top NFL center Shanahan brought from Cleveland to Atlanta.

 

The position is clearly important to him.

 

“It allows you to do a bunch of different stuff,” Shanahan said at Richburg's intro press conference.

 

“It puts more pressure on the center. It puts versatility in everything you can do, not just with the center but what your guards and tackles can do. It helps solidify the entire O-line. That’s usually where it starts. There are a lot of good players, but when you have a difference-maker at that position, I’ve found in my career that it’s been a lot easier to run an offense.”

 

Albert Breer of the MMQB on Thursday brought up a quote from two-time Shanahan employee Brian Hoyer, who said of the coach and his system: "He wants a smart, athletic center, who can take the mental burden off the quarterback." This is a deal that in many ways further invests in key asset Jimmy Garoppolo.

 

The RB profile and plan:

Explosiveness, pass-catching ability and home-run speed will certainly win over Shanahan and running backs coach Bobby Turner. That’s the profile of big-ticket signing Jerick McKinnon, whose skills fit on a spectrum of backs they've worked with ranging from Terrell Davis to Devonta Freeman.

 

One trait in particular that continues to show up in the running backs Shanahan and Turner have brought to the Niners is speed. As podcast host Brian Peacock of Locked On 49ers noted, all of the team’s backs run somewhere in the 4.3-4.4s:

Another thing we learned, and while we expected it upon Shanahan’s arrival, is that the 49ers now look poised to field a committee. It’s likely to be more than a 1-2 punch of McKinnon and Matt Breida. It’s also possible Joe Williams and/or Jeremy McNichols comes on in camp, or they draft and/or sign an undrafted free-agent running back.

 

Either way, it seems only 2/3 of the 2018 featured backfield has been revealed.

 

Wide receiver value and offensive vision:

The 49ers didn’t spend big on a receiver, despite rare free-agent opportunities in Allen Robinson and Sammy Watkins. Shanahan clearly didn’t see the need. And in looking at what he has, and how he’s operated in his career, we can see the 49ers' play-caller not only trusts what he has, but actually prefers to flank teams from all over.

 

In the same MMQB article from Breer, Hoyer also said of the offense, “You need a big-time, play-making ‘X.’ Kyle always wanted (someone) who was really, really fast. .. He wants two pass-catching backs. … He wants a move-the-chains possession receiver." 

 

That sounds a lot like what's already in place in Marquise Goodwin ("really, really fast 'X'"), McKinnon and Breida, and Trent Taylor and Pierre Garçon as the chain movers. 

 

Shanahan has continued to build his offense in that vision, and appears to be quite comfortable with the 500 to 600 targets from Garoppolo being divvied up between Goodwin, Taylor, Garçon, tight end George Kittle and the tailbacks, who are all heavily involved in the passing game. Not to mention anyone they take in the NFL draft.

 

Shanahan's strategy is to overwhelm defenses with a deep corps of specifically-skilled weapons. He wants a stable of sure-handed guys that are versatile, have speed, and can cut and get open. It’s not about one alpha pass-catcher to force feed. It's about a deep unit of separators creating safe throws for the QB, while spreading the ball around and keep defenses guessing.

 

Andre Johnson and Julio Jones were two outliers in Shanahan’s career as an OC, but they were both inherited players and future Hall of Famers. For the most part, Shanahan challenges defenses with scheme and ball distribution. Wideout Andrew Hawkins, another former player of Shanahan's on the Browns, went into a deeper dive on this topic with Joe Fann of 49ers.com.

 

Calculated, not desperate approach:

They had a few hard targets—and made sure to sign them—but for the most part the 49ers let the market come to them. Even with the code red level activity by the Rams, they didn't flinch, or make any sudden impulse moves. They could've easily responded by in the heat of the moment throwing money at Robinson or Watkins, but they stayed the course.

 

It reflected a front office that was calm and in control. 

 

The 49ers were also rumored to be interested in several players, but knew when to call it and move on.

 

Despite needing a cornerback, they viewed the price for Marcus Peters as too high, and didn't make an offer; Aqib Talib didn’t want to play for anyone else but Wade Phillips or Bill Belichick, so San Francisco quickly moved and locked onto Richard Sherman; and again, they didn’t commit long-term money to A-Rob or Watkins simply because they were in a financial position to.

 

The front office waited for the right opportunities to materialize, and when they did, they knew it and pounced. This exemplified the “prudent” and “aggressive” mentality Lynch said the 49ers would operate with. Their seeming omnipresence in free agency combined with their patience paid off.

 

Primary EDGE to be drafted:

With the taggings of Demarcus Lawrence and Ezekiel Ansah, the edge market dried up pretty quick. This left the 49ers to sign Jeremiah Attaochu, who is a gifted player, but hasn’t yet put it all together in the NFL (10.0 sacks in four seasons). This is a strong depth/upside signing, and an intriguing player to continue developing, but it seems San Francisco still needs to add another edge that’s more of a sure thing.

 

With four picks in the top 75, the 49ers should be favored to grab one of the more talented pass rushers in the 2018 draft. Bradley Chubb, Harold Landry, Marcus Davenport, Arden Key, Hercules Mata'afa, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Josh Sweat and others should all be in play.

 

 

 

Media courtesy 49ers.com, USA Today Sports Images, Star Tribune, MMQB, DiMoro Sports 

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