Here’s our 49ers mailbag following the recent loss to the Arizona Cardinals, dropping San Francisco’s record to 1-4, which is tied with four other teams for the NFL’s worst.
Adam Wright asks: How well do you think John (Lynch) and Kyle (Shanahan) are doing evaluating talent? Other than Joe Williams and Solomon Thomas, seems like they are hitting on guys more than missing.
I tend to agree with you. Overall, the new regime has done a far better job identifying players in the draft to help replenish the roster and earn meaningful roles. That was Trent Baalke’s downfall. He failed to re-stock the team with young talent to replace many (all?) of the team’s star veterans nearing the end of their careers.
But there are some team-building questions for Lynch and Shanahan that are worth asking. Namely, why did they feel comfortable with the situation at edge pass rusher?
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Eli Harold was traded away to the Detroit Lions for a conditional seventh-round draft pick in August. He has three sacks in five games while DeForest Buckner is the only 49er with more than one. Solomon Thomas, Ronald Blair and Cassius Marsh have 1 1/2 combined. And Malcolm Smith has done little to distinguish himself at “Sam” linebacker in Harold’s place.
There was also the decision to draft Mike McGlinchey in the first round last April. Yes, McGlinchey has played well and looks like the next franchise left tackle once Joe Staley retires. But the 49ers didn’t have to address the position this offseason and had more glaring needs elsewhere, particularly on defense.
Trent Brown had another year remaining on his contract, which could have allowed San Francisco to draft an instant game-changer like Derwin James, who had an enormous impact on the loss to the Los Angeles Chargers two weeks ago (defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick and defensive end Marcus Davenport would have been justifiable picks, as well).
That’s not to say McGlinchey was a bad choice. But the 49ers’ lack of playmakers on the defensive side has been arguably their biggest problem this season, injuries to quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and running back Jerick McKinnon aside.
Finding players that can sack the quarterback and help force turnovers should be the top priority this offseason. That’s been the area where Lynch and Shanahan have struggled early on. Not getting help from Thomas in those areas has hurt in a significant way.
Grady Duggan asks: If the 49ers choose to go the FA route to address their pass rushing issue, what direction do you see them going in the first round?
Lynch and Shanahan have found out the hard way how difficult it can be to find a top-shelf edge defender in free agency. The good ones rarely hit the market because of the franchise tag — and they command quarterback-type money if they do. The 49ers have to keep that in mind knowing DeForest Buckner is due for a massive raise at some point over the next few seasons.
The early pending free agents to keep an eye on are Demarcus Lawrence (Dallas Cowboys) and Dee Ford (Kansas City Chiefs), who have 5 1/2 and 4 sacks through five games, respectively. Jacksonville’s Dante Fowler, whom coordinator Robert Saleh should know well, is also an option, though his one sack this season came Week 1. The Denver Broncos have two players that could hit the open market in Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett, who are expendable with Von Miller and Bradley Chubb around.
But I wouldn’t tie the draft decision to what the team does in free agency. Even if they sign a top-flight veteran, that shouldn’t prevent them from taking an edge defender like Nick Bosa, who’s a potential star.
Because the current salary structure in the NFL makes good players on rookie contracts the league’s most valuable commodities. The 49ers could change their most glaring weakness into a strength by adding two good players off the edge, either to rotate or play opposite one another. You can never have too many good pass rushers.
Otherwise, San Francisco in the draft could use help at receiver, running back, cornerback and safety, along with depth across the board.
Joao Soares asks: How many more wins should we expect this season? Do you think the 49ers will end up with a top 5 pick?
I made the mistake of writing Friday that the 49ers had a realistic chance at being 5-5 by Thanksgiving, assuming they handled business twice against the Cardinals while beating the Raiders and New York Giants at home, who are 2-8 combined.
Then San Francisco lost to winless Arizona despite out-gaining them by 227 yards and dominating just about every meaningful statistic, sans turnovers and the final score, of course. Now it’s hard to pencil in any victories going forward.
But rarely does one game tell a story for an entire season. The 49ers could be a different team in a few weeks. The defense could improve, C.J. Beathard could stop giving the ball away and the team could string together a few good weeks of health (looking at you, Matt Breida). Most teams don’t self-actualize until November anyway.
But it’s hard to imagine things changing drastically like they did last season when they acquired Garoppolo midway through the year leading to the explosive 5-0 finish. There’s no magic addition the team could make that would change the trajectory of this season. They will continue rolling with Beathard as long as he’s healthy, giving him valuable reps while hoping he develops into a tradable asset.
I think this is a four- or five-win team. They’ll have some discouraging losses, but they’ll also punch above their weight and win some games that perhaps they shouldn’t. The schedule gets easier later in the year, particularly during the stretch starting in November through December, when five of seven games are at home, not including their next game against the Cardinals in three weeks. They should still be among the worst teams in the league by then. And the Los Angeles Rams might be resting their starters in Week 17.
I’ll say the 49ers win one of the Giants and Raiders games, split with the Seattle Seahawks and beat Denver on Dec. 9. That puts them at 4-12 and in the running for a top-five draft pick.