The 2018 season proved the 49ers still have a long way to go before returning to playoff contention. They have needs up and down the roster — and need their franchise quarterback to be healthy, of course.
Jimmy Garoppolo’s return aside, here’s a look at a road map for the 49ers’ offseason:
Address the most important position on defense — Garoppolo was the tide that raised all boats during his impressive 5-0 run to end 2017. And 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan thinks there’s a position on defense that could have a similar effect.
“I’d say a quarterback on offense and an edge rusher on defense. A quarterback can hide a lot of problems and so can a pass rush,” Shanahan said earlier this month. “You can do different things in coverage. You can be more aggressive. You can have some holes and some vulnerabilities that you can see as a coach.”
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The 49ers enter Week 17 ranked No. 10 in opponents’ yardage allowed at 344.6 per game. But they’re in danger of breaking the mark for fewest interceptions in a season with two and need to improve in the red zone. Adding a formidable edge rusher could lead to significant strides in those areas of weakness.
San Francisco will have a top-five pick in the draft regardless of Sunday’s outcome against the Rams. They could pick as high as first with a loss and an unexpected win by Arizona (3-12) at Seattle (9-6).
No matter where they select, the 49ers mostly likely will target one of the many edge rushers expected to go early in the first round. Ohio State’s Nick Bosa is the favorite to go first overall, leaving Josh Allen (Kentucky), Rashan Gary (Michigan), Clelin Ferrell (Clemson), Montez Sweat (Mississippi State), Jachai Polite (Florida), Brian Burns (Florida State), Zach Allen (Boston College) and Jaylon Ferguson (Louisiana Tech).
There’s also free agency, though that appears like a less likely option even with San Francisco’s expected $64 million in cap space, according to Overthecap.com. Teams with enough cap space almost always give their talented free-agent pass rushers the franchise tag, which is what happened last offseason when the 49ers were interested in Ezekiel Ansah (Lions) and DeMarcus Lawrence (Cowboys), who stayed with their clubs.
Others like Dee Ford (Chiefs), Frank Clark (Seahawks) and Trey Flowers (Patriots) appear likely to get the franchise tag this spring. A few who could spring loose could include Brandon Graham (Eagles), Dante Fowler (Rams) and Bruce Irvin (Falcons).
The 49ers would be wise to bring in multiple edge defenders if they want the defense to make a significant leap.
Identify which players with questionable futures should stay — Perhaps the biggest name on the 49ers’ list of pending free agents is kicker Robbie Gould, who has been one of the best in the league since coming to San Francisco in 2017.
Otherwise, oft-injured defensive back Jimmie Ward tops the list. Right guard Mike Person is a free agent but could be brought back at a reasonable cost.
The 49ers have to decide if they want to bring back pricey veterans from their 2017 free-agent class, including receiver Pierre Garçon, linebacker Malcolm Smith and nose tackle Earl Mitchell. San Francisco could save roughly $13.75 million in 2019 cap dollars by releasing all three, which could go toward adding other impact starters.
Garçon has ended both seasons with San Francisco on injured reserve. Smith rarely saw the field after signing a five-year, $26.5 million contract. Mitchell has played well, but second-year player D.J. Jones might be the more cost-effective option.
The 49ers also need to figure out if Arik Armstead, a first-round draft pick in 2015, is worth a guaranteed $9 million on his fifth-year option. Armstead is having his best season, particularly as a run stopper. And DeForest Buckner would argue his career-high 12 sacks coincide with Armstead being healthy for a full season.
Armstead might be worth a multi-year contract extension — something like Jaquiski Tartt’s two-year, $13 million deal last spring — that includes per-game roster bonuses the offer insurance should Armstead miss time due to injury. But Armstead might balk at that idea, preferring the $9 million or the chance to hit the open market this spring or the next.
The 49ers have second-year player Jullian Taylor and fourth-round pick Kentavius Street as options to replace Armstead, but Taylor missed most of his college career with a series of leg injuries, and Street used 2018 as a redshirt season after tearing an ACL last spring.
Add talent and depth across the board — Adding a player like former All-Pro safety Earl Thomas would make a ton of sense. He fits the scheme, would add another veteran leader to the defense and is one of the best players in the NFL when healthy.
The thinking behind doling out a lucrative free-agent deal to Thomas falls in line with how general manager John Lynch and his staff should approach the rest of the roster: Be open to adding good players at any position, regardless of who’s already there.
Marquise Goodwin, who was largely unproductive, shouldn’t stop the front office from adding another receiver to pair with Dante Pettis for the long haul. The running game ranking in the top 10 for most of the season shouldn’t keep the team from adding another back, perhaps a bigger body for short-yardage and goal-line situations, even with Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida in tow. San Francisco enters Sunday with six rushing touchdowns, the fewest in the NFL.
The 49ers have been ravaged by injuries over the past two seasons, proving the value of depth. Being open to adding good players at every position is the best way to fight against injuries derailing a season.
Excluding injuries to the franchise quarterback, of course.