When Kyle Shanahan arrived in Atlanta in 2015 as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator, he had both an elite quarterback and perhaps the best wide receiver in the NFL. In San Francisco, he’ll discover both positions awfully bare.
Shanahan and new 49ers general manager John Lynch are evaluating their current talent and figuring out which outside players they might want to acquire. The scouting combine begins in less than two weeks and free agency two weeks after that. Here’s a ranking of the 49ers’ needs and some of the additions they could make in coming months.
The 49ers already have three passers heading for unrestricted free agency, and many believe they’ll eventually have a fourth – Colin Kaepernick. That would be the likely scenario if the 49ers signal to Kaepernick that they plan to release him instead of pay him his 2017 contract, which calls for a nearly $15 million base salary. That would force Kaepernick to opt out of his deal beginning March 2 so he could enter free agency March 9. In any scenario, the team must bulk up at the position. Do they go all-in and fork over draft picks and a big, long-term contract for someone like Jimmy Garoppolo? Or do they take a cautious approach in 2017 and make a more dramatic move next year when the draft-eligible quarterbacks are better? Matt Schaub and Brian Hoyer have played for Shanahan in the past.
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Trade: Garoppolo, A.J. McCarron.
Free agency: Kirk Cousins (if he isn’t franchised), Kaepernick, Schaub, Hoyer, Mike Glennon.
Draft (projected round): Deshaun Watson (first round), Mitch Trubisky (first), DeShone Kizer (first or second round).
The 49ers can’t expect big gains out of the quarterback position unless they do something at wide receiver. Their most prolific player last year was Jeremy Kerley. His 667 receiving yards ranked 64th among NFL receivers and, more than that, Kerley isn’t even signed for 2017. Soon-to-be free agent Terrelle Pryor had 1,007 yards last year in a bad Cleveland Browns offense and is still learning that position after moving from quarterback. He’d be the closest thing on the market to Shanahan’s most recent top receiver, Julio Jones, but it seems the Browns will keep him either through a new deal or with the franchise tag. Ideally, the 49ers get a big-bodied, No. 1 receiver who meshes with Torrey Smith. Pierre Garcon, 30, is older than the ideal free agent, but he has been tough and productive and was signed by Washington in 2012 when Shanahan was the team’s offensive coordinator.
Free agency: Pryor, Alshon Jeffery, Garcon, Kenny Britt.
Draft (round): Mike Williams (first), Corey Davis (first), JuJu Smith-Schuster (second), Zay Jones (second).
Whether they stick to a 3-4 defense or go with a more Seattle Seahawks-like system, the 49ers must improve their pass rush. Ahmad Brooks and DeForest Buckner tied for the team lead with six sacks apiece. The good news is that free agency and the draft are loaded with pass rushers. Melvin Ingram of the Los Angeles Chargers might be the best of the bunch on the open market. He had 72 quarterback pressures last year, according to Pro Football Focus. By comparison, the 49ers’ champ for quarterback pressures was Buckner with 48, which reinforces the point: The 49ers need more heat from the edge.
Free agency: Ingram, Chandler Jones, Jason Pierre-Paul.
Draft: Myles Garrett (first), Derek Barnett (first), Tim Williams (first), Devonte Fields (second).
This is another position the 49ers must address regardless of their base scheme. They have just three inside linebackers signed for next season: NaVorro Bowman, Ray-Ray Armstrong and Shayne Skov. Bowman is coming off another major injury, Armstrong lasted only two games last season before he was injured, and Skov never has played extensive defensive snaps in the NFL. The 49ers could make a big splash with Patriots free agent Dont’a Hightower, but it’s hard to say how that would sit with Bowman, the defensive king of San Francisco’s locker room. Buffalo’s Zach Brown might be a cheaper, speedier alternative. He ran his 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds five years ago and last year finished second in the NFL with 149 tackles. In a Seahawks-like system, he projects as a Will linebacker. In a 3-4 system, he’d be an excellent fit next to Bowman.
Free agency: Hightower, Brown, Sean Spence, Kevin Minter.
Draft: Reuben Foster (first), Zach Cunningham (first), Haason Reddick (first or second).
The 49ers only began to plug their leaky run defense last year when Glenn Dorsey returned to the lineup. Dorsey, however, is a pending free agent, and the 49ers have not seemed eager to re-sign the 32-year-old lineman. The position is tricky because it has come off the field when the 49ers have switched to their nickel defense in the past. If that remains the case, it would be hard to see the 49ers either paying a huge free-agent salary or using a high draft pick on the position. What about someone like Alabama’s Jonathan Allen, considered one of the two best players in the draft and the natural choice at pick No. 2? His selection seems unlikely at this point because:
a. The 49ers have drafted a defensive linemen in the first round in each of the last two drafts.
b. Allen’s (and Stanford’s Solomon Thomas’) best position is defensive tackle in a traditional 4-3 defense.
The only thing known about the 49ers’ 2017 defense is that it won’t be a traditional 4-3. The 49ers need a run stuffer at this spot.
Free agency: Brandon Williams
Draft: Larry Ogunjobi (second or third), Eddie Vanderdoes (mid-round, Placer High School).