John Lynch breaks down a key difference at this year's combine for the 49ers
Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch spent the scouting combine sheepishly accepting handshakes and back thwacks from passers-by.
"You'll be walking through and a lot of people are saying, 'Congratulations,' " Lynch, the 49ers general manager, said. "And I appreciate it, but we haven't done anything yet. In fact, we were 6-10."
The source of all that goodwill and acclaim in Indianapolis was the team's five-year deal with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and the five wins with which Garoppolo and the 49ers ended the season. No other team – not even the Philadelphia Eagles – closed with such a streak. The Eagles won the Super Bowl; the 49ers finished last in their division.
"I learned the way to get people to feel good about 6-10 is to just start 0-9," Shanahan quipped on Thursday.
Still, Lynch and Shanahan aren't about to let all the good vibrations surrounding them go to waste. And they were candid about using the Jimmy G-related momentum to their advantage heading into free agency.
Last year at this time, would-be free agents had to operate on faith. San Francisco had zero quarterbacks under contract when free agency began, and they had a loose plan to find their franchise quarterback – maybe Garoppolo, maybe Kirk Cousins, maybe a rookie – a year later.
This year is different. The team is ascendant, Garoppolo is locked in long term and San Francisco is the place to be.
“It will be nice in free agency when anybody we're (targeting) doesn’t ask me who our quarterback is going to be," Shanahan said. "They know. That’s nice. I don’t have to always say, ‘We’ll have one, I promise. Just can’t tell you. Just wait, we’ll see.’ That makes it easier. I think it makes it more attractive a little bit."
Shanahan said there were just two positions the 49ers wouldn't address this offseason: quarterback and fullback. Kyle Juszczyk is the league's highest-paid fullback and he made the Pro Bowl last season.
Lynch and Shanahan acknowledged hearing the buzz that San Francisco is a hot destination. Some of it is relayed from their own players who have done some impromptu recruiting at the Pro Bowl, the Super Bowl or even on social media. When the New England Patriots, for example, mysteriously benched cornerback Malcolm Butler, a pending free agent, in the Super Bowl, a trio of 49ers – Pierre Garcon, Joe Staley and Jaquiski Tartt – took to Twitter to reassure Butler he'd be welcome on their team.
"I have," Lynch said when asked if he's heard that in one year the 49ers have become an attractive spot for free agents. "And that excites me. Some of it is from our own (players). But those guys know people in the league. And they talk."
Lynch, and especially Shanahan, are wary of allowing expectations to run wild and to change what was a lean and hungry team in December into a puffed up one by September.
"We were a 6-10 team," Lynch said. "We were 1-5 in our division. Did we finish strong? Absolutely. (But) I can tell you that in Tampa when we were trying to turn it around, there were years we finished strong. That doesn’t guarantee success the next year. So it’s back to trying to improve our franchise every way we can. And it’s back to good old fashioned hard work to make sure we do carry the momentum forward into next year."
Lynch said he wouldn't use the team's abundant salary cap space or the excitement around the 49ers to build an all-star team through free agency. The 49ers will be aggressive but selective in whom they target.
But they're also not going to keep their ace card in their pockets. Will you use Garoppolo as a recruiting tool in free agency, Lynch was asked?
"Would you?" he said. "Yeah, I am. We are. Absolutely."