There was a social media uproar Tuesday afternoon when news broke of the New York Giants sending star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to the Cleveland Browns.
Fans of the 49ers were not happy. General manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan, in fans’ eyes, failed again to land top-end talent despite vowing to be aggressive. Shanahan has a clear need at receiver, and San Francisco was rumored to be interested in Beckham. The scene was set for a splash to appease a hungry fan base that hasn’t watched 49ers a postseason game since after the 2013 season.
But Beckham isn’t coming to the Bay Area, he’s going to Cleveland for a trade package that could have been beaten. The Browns sent New York the 17th overall pick in next month’s draft, a third-round choice and safety Jabrill Peppers. The 49ers have the No. 2 overall pick and could have offered more with a little creativity, but they didn’t. The deal was an indication the Giants were more eager to get rid of Beckham than they were letting on.
And roughly an hour later Tuesday night, Lynch and Shanahan pieced together a different trade addressing another area of need. They acquired pass rusher Dee Ford from the Kansas City Chiefs, who could solve their need for an explosive player off the edge.
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San Francisco gave up a second-round pick in 2020 and will give Ford a five-year, $87.5 million contract, according to multiple reports.
Ford could be the edge presence the team has lacked since releasing Aldon Smith during training camp in 2015. Pairing his speed with DeForest Buckner’s ability to push the pocket from defensive tackle could prove lethal. Ford’s seven forced fumbles last season were the most in the NFL. He was seventh with 13 sacks. And, according to Pro Football Focus, his 78 pressures off the edge topped the league.
The 49ers added Ford a day after agreeing to a four-year, $54 million contract for free-agent linebacker Kwon Alexander, who has six interceptions and six forced fumbles throughout his four-year career. Like Ford, Alexander is known for his speed, giving the 49ers the makings of a promising defensive front that should be significantly upgraded, particularly if the draft’s No. 2 pick is used on Ohio State’s Nick Bosa, Kentucky’s Josh Allen or Alabama’s Quinnen Williams.
It’s clear Lynch and Shanahan hope improved play up front can lead to more takeaways after the 49ers set a record for the fewest in a season with seven and the fewest interceptions with two. Adding Beckham wouldn’t have helped in those areas, though he would have been a welcome addition to San Francisco’s offense.
But the focus should be on defense.
Yes, the NFL is an offensive league. Quarterbacks are putting up historic numbers, and violence is being legislated out of the game. But good defenses are still needed to win Super Bowls. Recent history has shown us that much.
Seven of the last 10 Super Bowl winners ranked in the top 10 in opponents’ scoring. Five ranked in the top 10 in opponents’ yardage.
The 49ers allowed 27.2 points per game last season, 28th in the league.
The only champions during the past decade outside that defensive tier were the 2009 Saints (who had quarterback Drew Brees), 2011 Giants (who beat Tom Brady’s Patriots with a ferocious pass rush) and 2012 Ravens (who had Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed while beating the 49ers).
New England in the most recent Super Bowl flummoxed the Rams and allowed just three points. The year prior, the Eagles beat the Patriots with depth and athleticism on the defensive front, culminating in a game-sealing strip sack from Brandon Graham. New England beat the Falcons in 2016 by shutting them out in the second half during the epic 25-point comeback. The Broncos’ dominated the Panthers in 2015 at Levi’s Stadium behind an MVP performance from edge rusher Von Miller.
Point being: It’s nearly impossible to win championships without being good on defense, which is why the 49ers shouldn’t feel bad about missing Beckham. They’re right to focus on the other side of the ball.
Giving up premium draft capital to acquire Beckham, who went for far more than the Raiders gave up in the trade for Antonio Brown, would have hurt San Francisco’s chance to build the rest of the roster. The team’s needs on defense wouldn’t have gone away, and addressing them would have been far more difficult after trading important draft picks and paying Beckham $60 million over the remaining four years of his contract.
The 49ers are going to have to replace stalwart left tackle Joe Staley as early as next season, which would have been difficult without a 2020 first-round draft pick it might have required to add Beckham. The Browns make more sense in the short term for Beckham because they’re paying quarterback Baker Mayfield an average of $8.9 million over the next three seasons. Jimmy Garoppolo over the same span is averaging $24.3 million for the 49ers.
So what about the offense? Yes, Beckham would have provided a significant upgrade. The 49ers had the NFL’s least-efficient red-zone offense last season (albeit without Garoppolo for 13 games and a banged-up receiving corps). Former undrafted rookie Kendrick Bourne was San Francisco’s top wideout, Dante Pettis is unproven and Marquise Goodwin has had one strong season in his six in the NFL.
However, San Francisco has averaged more than 27 points per game in Garoppolo’s eight starts even without elite receiver play. With running back Jerick McKinnon’s return, possible additions remaining in free agency and the draft, and Garoppolo healthy, the 49ers should have more than enough offense in Year 3 of Shanahan’s system to contend without Beckham. Maximizing the offense is why Shanahan is here.
We’ve seen what Beckham’s presence does to a roster needing improvements. The Giants were over .500 just once in his five years. That’s not a knock on him. It’s impossible for a receiver to carry a team by himself. But his salary and what it would have taken in trade would have hampered the reconstruction project significantly — which is one reason New York traded him.
Beckham is a great player. But the 49ers can get by without him. The focus should be on defense. Adding Ford was a good step.