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How a busy NFL Monday full of franchise tags shaped the 49ers’ market for pass rusher

John Lynch: Mock draft “exercises are invaluable”

General manager John Lynch held his pre-draft press conference in the John McVay Draft Room, which is where he'll be for the start of the draft.
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General manager John Lynch held his pre-draft press conference in the John McVay Draft Room, which is where he'll be for the start of the draft.

Kyle Shanahan would re-order the NFL offseason if he had his druthers.

The 49ers coach spent last week in Indianapolis at the annual scouting combine meeting and evaluating college draft prospects before returning to the Bay Area to prepare for the start of free agency next week.

Unsigned veteran free agents can begin negotiating with new teams during the legal tampering period March 11. Deals can officially be signed when the new league year begins March 13. The order — combine, free agency, draft preparation — forces teams to shift their focuses quickly.

“I always have said, I wish the draft was first so you could just do the draft very clear minded, take the best player that comes to you, look at your board and be like, ‘All right, now who do we want to overpay to go fill the holes?’ But it doesn’t work that way,” Shanahan said last week. “You don’t want to go overpay someone and then see someone you like better who you could have gotten in the third round (of the draft).”

Monday was pivotal throughout the league’s free-agent process. Several pass rushers were given the franchise tag ahead of Tuesday afternoon’s deadline, preventing the 49ers from addressing their most pressing need on defense with a top-flight veteran. The franchise tag prevents a pending free agent from hitting the open market while fully guaranteeing a salary near the top of that position for the upcoming season.

Pass rushers who were tagged were no surprise. Jadeveon Clowney (Texans), Demarcus Lawrence (Cowboys), Frank Clark (Seahawks), Grady Jarrett (Falcons) and Dee Ford (Chiefs) will be kept off the market as franchise players. They have until July 15 to agree on multi-year contracts with their teams before the negotiating window closes.

Those five players were the consensus top five pass rushers on the market and will command roughly $15.2 million (Jarrett) to more than $20 million (Lawrence, who was given the tag two seasons in a row).

Perhaps no position, aside from quarterback, is more difficult to upgrade via free agency than pass rusher because of the franchise tag. The 49ers learn this lesson season after season as they remain searching for a game-changing defensive end. San Francisco used the franchise tag for the first time since 2012 — on its kicker.

“As I’ve learned, typically those guys get what Robbie Gould got and they never reach the market, they get franchised, the good ones,” Lynch said last week. “Obviously, the one thing about free agency is that you’ve seen them at our level. So if you feel confident and you have (salary-cap) room and you don’t see exactly what you’re looking for or you have other needs in the draft, that’s the thing you weigh back and forth. That’s a constant conversation that’s ongoing.”

The 49ers will have some $67 million in salary-cap space — and could potentially find a productive pass rusher elsewhere in free agency. Unlike most years, there are decent options that likely won’t get the franchise tag.

Ezekiel Ansah of the Lions played on the tag last season, earning more than $17 million. But he dealt with injuries and logged just four sacks in seven games. Ansah, who turns 30 in May, could make sense, given the 49ers just added his former position coach, Kris Kocurek, to the staff.

Other possibilities could include Trey Flowers (Patriots), Anthony Barr (Vikings), Dante Fowler (Rams) and the Broncos’ Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett. The Chiefs on Monday reportedly released pass rusher Justin Houston, 30, who had 18.5 sacks over the past two seasons, including nine in just 12 contests in 2018. He forced two fumbles against the 49ers in Week 3.

Fortunately for San Francisco, there also appear to be several good options in the draft while Shanahan and Lynch have the No. 2 overall pick. They’ll be able to pick the defensive player of their choice if quarterback Kyler Murray goes No. 1.

That could mean Ohio State’s Nick Bosa falls into their laps — or other impressive prospects along the defensive line such as Quinnen Williams (Alabama), Josh Allen (Kentucky), Montez Sweat (Mississippi State) or Brian Burns (Florida State).

For Shanahan and Lynch, there’s more pressure to construct a winner this offseason after going 10-22 in their first two years. The moves made throughout the league Monday complicated the process.

“That’s what we (think about) for a while and all we do right now,” Shanahan said. “You can’t go get everybody.”

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