The 49ers aren’t pushing all their chips to the middle of the table in 2018 to sacrifice their long-term vision of becoming a perennial contender. If they were, perhaps they would have increased their offer to the Raiders for star pass rusher Khalil Mack, who was traded to the Bears last week for a package including two first-round draft picks.
The pass rush remains one of San Francisco’s most pressing question marks heading into Sunday’s season opener against the Vikings. General manager John Lynch, who admitted to being aggressive in the Mack sweepstakes, said the team is taking a measured approach toward finding a top-tier edge defender — much as it did at quarterback in acquiring Jimmy Garoppolo for a modest price last season.
“They’re hard to get. We’ve found that out,” Lynch told the Bee about elite pass rushers. “But we also talked about, ‘Don’t try to solve every issue this year.’ It’s on my desk right here: ‘Sustainable Success.’”
Lynch keeps that edict on a piece of paper underneath the glass on his desk. It serves as his daily reminder to be patient. The plan when he and Kyle Shanahan took over was to be aggressive in trying to improve the team, but to avoid making mistakes that could negatively affect the long-term future. The club is entering the season with nearly $43 million in cap space, the third most in the NFL, because of that restraint.
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And because San Francisco already has its franchise quarterback entering the prime of his career, Lynch feels the team is ahead of his initial forecast when he took over in February 2017.
Before trading a second-round pick to New England for Garoppolo, the 49ers considered drafting a signal caller in the first round who would need multiple seasons to develop. Instead, the team is a trendy playoff pick with Garoppolo under center after winning the final five games of last season following an 0-9 start.
“I think we’re ahead of the curve on where we’d thought we’d be and we do very much believe in this group of guys,” Lynch said. “But we’re going to keep looking (for pass rushers). It’s kind of like your quarterback. Until you have that, you’re going to keep looking for it. But these are the guys we have and we think collectively we’ll be better.”
No 49ers defender had more than three sacks last season, including potential breakout candidate DeForest Buckner and 2017 third-overall pick Solomon Thomas. The team is hoping to get improved production from 2015 first-round pick Arik Armstead, who missed 18 games combined over the past two seasons. Armstead is healthy ahead of Sunday’s game after dealing with a hamstring strain early in training camp.
San Francisco trimmed the roster to 53 players over the weekend and released edge defender Jeremiah Attaochu, a former second-round pick of the Chargers, who was brought in to help last season’s anemic pass rush. It was the most surprising move of final cuts, but Attaochu dealt with undisclosed injuries throughout training camp that aided the team’s decision.
“With Attaochu, he did flash,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “It always comes back down to dependability and whether or not you can be available for game day.”
Attaochu signed with the New York Jets, while the 49ers kept Ronald Blair and seventh-round pick Jullian Taylor, two bigger-bodied linemen who are better suited at defensive tackle.
Said Saleh: “That defensive line is filled with NFL talent all the way, whether you’re an edge rusher or an inside guy, it doesn’t matter. We feel like we’ve got the best group of D-line that we could’ve possibly had with the men that were in our training camp.”