In Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch’s first year taking over the 49ers, there was a heavy emphasis on gutting out the roster. They parted with ~72% of the previous year’s team, trading starters like Vance McDonald and Rashard Robinson; they even released a franchise legend in NaVorro Bowman. The overhaul was so extreme, they set a record for roster turnover in a calendar year, according to NFL Network’s Peter Schrager.
Since their intent was to start at ground zero, the 49ers had to make an above-average amount signings, in both free agency and from the incoming rookie class.
[DESIMONE: 49ers 2018 Draft Guide: Impressions, questions, superlatives and grade]
With the nature of that kind of offseason, not all of their first-year acquisitions can be expected to be around for the long haul. In fact, a lot of the players they added, as well as some still left over from the previous regime, are on the team as band-aids or bridge players until better long-term solutions are found in the draft and settled in the NFL. This includes starters and just the depth in general.
Now that they’ve added another wave of talent in 2018, we can kind of identify some of the players the 49ers believe they can upgrade over long-term. And some of these battles can expect to start this season. While they’re not all created equally, look for the heat to turn up under the following veteran players.
Mitchell was a very solid first-year addition, starting 16 games for San Francisco after spending the previous seven seasons with the Dolphins and Texans. He had 33 tackles, a sack and four pass deflections in 2017, and was great at taking on blockers and allowing his teammates to get to the ball. Mitchell also lists as the team's only pure nose tackle.
He turns 31 years old in September, though, and will be in the second season of a four-year contract.
The 49ers in 2017 also drafted D.J. Jones to be Mitchell's protégé, selecting the Ole Miss nose guard in the sixth round of what turned out to be a very strong class. He only appeared in nine games as a rookie, starting none, but Jones has been taking this time to learn all he can.
“[Mitchell] is the perfect picture to look at," Jones said in August. "Everything he does, he tries to perfect it—because nobody is perfect, but he tries. For me to be behind him is great. A guy like that that wants to teach me his role, his ways and what he’s had to do to get to where he is. I’m trying to model my game after his.”
In addition to Jones, the 49ers drafted another gifted project this year in Jullian Taylor out of Temple; Sheldon Day is back this season; and there's the possibility Solomon Thomas starts to see more snaps on the interior in 2018. If these four players can form a balance and handle 100 percent of the interior snaps, then Mitchell could become expendable.
Aldrick Robinson could’ve easily been the receiver mentioned here. But while it goes unsaid, since the actual competition needs to play out, Robinson has likely been leapfrogged already by Dante Pettis, and even last year’s returning UDFA Kendrick Bourne.
Goodwin is the big name here, and this is an interesting one since he is coming off a breakout year (56-962-2 and 17.2 YPR), he earned an extension, he's very versatile, and he became a favorite among the fan base. But long-term, and even right now, he needs to start looking over his shoulder because rookies like Pettis and Richie James, and Bourne, are serious talents that could become staples in this offense for the next half decade plus.
Not to mention the volume Trent Taylor and George Kittle project to share in the passing game.
Now, the 49ers' goal isn’t to replace Goodwin as a starter in 2018, but keep an eye on his snap count and how he fares among his peers. If this young corps of receivers develops, the 49ers could find themselves in a position where they're comfortable saving money and going younger at WR before Goodwin's contract is up.
While he recently received an extension, it's worth noting that it came before the draft and was only worth $18.85 million over three years. The deal expires in 2022 when he’ll be 32 years old. So despite how well he played in 2017, Goodwin will have to build on last year’s strides to ensure he stays involved in this offense and sees the life of his contract.
This one comes down to a simple one on one battle at Will linebacker. It’ll be the savvy vet who knows the defense vs. a top-round draft pick, as Smith works to fend off rookie Fred Warner. Warner, the No. 70 overall pick, brings a rare blend of athletic traits to the defense—so much so, a position was created around his strengths at BYU.
Warner can run downfield with receivers, and a provide support in the box. He is comparable to Telvin Smith and Deion Jones that way. Given his draft slot and omnipresent nature, Warner could become a fixture on defense next to Reuben Foster.
So, unless Malcolm Smith recaptures his 2013-14 Seahawks form, the rookie could take the top job by the end of training camp. This should come down to consistency, and if Smith can be in more favorable positions due to his league experience and knowledge of the defense or if Warner can due to his youth and athleticism.
There's also something to be said about Smith's $26.5 million contract. While it is over five years, there are outs built in where it is more like a three-year deal, according to Jay Hurley of Niners Nation. If Warner works out sooner than later, this is another first-year contract they dished out that they can get out of before it is officially up.
Ward, a 2014 first-rounder, figures to be the first DB off the bench right now, according to Kyle Shanahan.
He can play the slot, but he’ll be competing for time with K’Waun Williams and D.J. Reed, who are more naturals at the position. Now, Ward is mentioned here as the player at risk and not Williams, because 1) This new 49ers regime hand-picked Williams while inheriting Ward and 2) This defense will need two able nickel defenders, which keeps Williams — last year's starter there — safe for the time being.
As a safety, Adrian Colbert and Jaquiski Tartt are primed to start at the single-high and underneath spots. Behind them is Marcell Harris, the hard-hitting rookie safety from the University of Florida. He's perfect for the box safety role, and could've wound up in the early-round conversation if he didn't miss his final season with an Achilles injury.
There's also Chanceller James, who spent 2017 on the 49ers' practice squad, and has a chance to earn a spot.
Now, due to the $8.5M guaranteed to Ward, he won't be an outright cut in camp. But he could see his time on the field limited, which could signal a parting of the ways in 2019. He could also be forcibly traded if the coaching staff realizes it wants to feature Harris and/or James, and Ward is also not a preferred option at corner.
While they improved as a group, the 49ers didn't quite overhaul the running back position this offseason. They signed a more explosive Jerick McKinnon to be their feature back, but he merely takes the touches vacated by Carlos Hyde (299 in 2017). Overall the RB rotation should have little bearing on Mostert, who was active for 11 games last year.
So why would he be at risk this year? Well, the biggest hit to Mostert's value to was the fact that the 49ers added so many returners.
Along with McKinnon, Dante Pettis, D.J. Reed and even Richie James could all compete for and share return duties. This will allow the 49ers to keep the best overall running back without having to factor in special teams ability. And they might want that to be Joe Williams.
Speaking of which, Williams, last year's fourth-round pick out of Utah, is back after spending his rookie year on IR (or as a "stash"). Boise State product Jeremy McNichols, a fifth-rounder in 2017, is also expected to compete after spurning the Buccaneers' practice squad last year. And of course there's Matt Breida, who is poised to take another step as the RB2.
Mostert has an uphill battle to make the roster this year.
Media courtesy San Francisco 49ers, USA Today Sports Images