With 10 losses entering December and their 2016 season washed out weeks ago, the 49ers are focused on building for next season. Or as left tackle Joe Staley put it, get some “positive mojo” going into 2017.
Part of that is figuring out who will be on next year’s squad. The 49ers have 17 players who will become unrestricted free agents in March. Here are the top candidates to bring back:
DL Glenn Dorsey – You can’t say the 49ers’ defense has been rolling since Dorsey, coming back from an ACL injury, returned to the starting lineup Nov. 13 against Arizona. But you can say it’s improved.
Dorsey, 31, is the team’s most veteran defensive lineman and – with Ian Williams’ future in doubt because of multiple lower-leg injuries – its only true nose tackle. That raises a question about whether the 49ers should use a 3-4 or 4-3 alignment next season. After all, they are thin in the two elements – nose tackle and dynamic outside linebackers – that make a 3-4 tick.
Dorsey, however, may be better suited to be a 4-3 defensive tackle, the position he was drafted to play by Kansas City in 2008. Either way, the team needs a multiyear veteran like Dorsey to balance out and stabilize an otherwise young defensive line.
TE Vance McDonald – Jim Harbaugh likes to dabble in psychology. When the 49ers drafted McDonald in the second round in 2013, the former 49ers coach suggested the tight end wear No. 89 because McDonald reminded him of former Chicago Bears great Mike Ditka.
Really? Ditka, the ultimate tough guy, was known for running over tacklers with the black-and-blue Bears. McDonald, meanwhile, mostly was used as a slot receiver coming out of Rice.
Harbaugh may have been trying to nudge him toward a more bruiser-like persona, which McDonald has been slow to adopt. His first few seasons in San Francisco were marked by dropped passes, especially with oncoming defenders in the vicinity.
But the reason he’s No. 2 on this list is that McDonald makes big plays. And the 49ers are in no position to quibble over playmakers. Owners of the league’s 30th-ranked passing offense, they must make pass catchers a top priority this offseason. McDonald is one of the fastest tight ends in the league, is averaging more than 17 yards per catch and, assuming coach Chip Kelly returns next season, is a nice fit for his offense.
LB Ray-Ray Armstrong – Fans only saw a glimpse of Armstrong before a torn pectoral muscle in Week 2 ended his season. But Armstrong showed enough – he’s tall, he’s good in coverage and he always was around the ball – to warrant his return.
No matter what defensive scheme the 49ers run next season, they need linebackers. The only player of note at the position is NaVorro Bowman, and he’s coming off his second major injury in 2 1/2 years.
Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil’s return in 2017 is by no means assured. But if he is back, he’ll make a push for Armstrong. “He’s one of my favorite guys on defense,” O’Neil said this week. “So if my opinion gets asked, I’m two thumbs up on Ray-Ray Armstrong.”
WR Jeremy Kerley – Bruce Ellington is the younger, bigger, stronger and, frankly, the better option at slot receiver. But Ellington has had a hard time avoiding injuries, and the 49ers would be wise to have an insurance policy at the position.
Kerley picked up Kelly’s offense quickly after he was acquired in late August and he’s stayed healthy all season, despite his additional role as the team’s punt returner. He also happens to be the 49ers’ leading receiver in both catches (48) and yards (448).
QB Thaddeus Lewis/Christian Ponder – The 49ers won’t have much competition for either player and perhaps they should re-sign both. The team is likely to bring in at least one additional quarterback, maybe a rookie, who would benefit from having fellow passers who are well-versed in the offense. Again, this is assuming Kelly returns. And we may not know that for sure until the finale on New Year’s Day.