It appears the biggest moves for the 49ers are in the rear-view mirror following the first week of the new league year.
Coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch are likely to remain active when it comes to adding around the margins of the roster in the coming weeks while the next big offseason event is the NFL draft, which starts April 25.
Taking inventory of the team’s moves so far, it’s clear improving the league’s 28th-ranked scoring defense was the priority. After all, a healthy campaign from franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo could go a long way toward getting the offense back on track.
It’s the other side of the ball that needs to take strides if San Francisco is going to return to the postseason mix in 2019.
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Let’s take a look at how the 49ers addressed their biggest needs this week and how the roster is set up for the draft that’s less than six weeks away:
Additions: Dee Ford
Subtraction: Cassius Marsh
It’s easy to follow the logic in adding Ford. He led the league in quarterback pressures off the edge last season with the Kansas City Chiefs, according to Pro Football Focus, and had seven forced fumbles. Replicating that production could go a long way toward improving the 49ers defensively after setting NFL records in 2018 for the fewest takeaways (seven) and interceptions (two). Moving on from Marsh allows him to test the open market now rather than try his luck after final cuts if he failed to make the 53-man roster.
San Francisco is hoping Ford, along with another possible edge rusher coming early in the draft, can drastically improve the pass rush while complementing the glut of interior players including recent first-round picks DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas. Takeaway numbers can change drastically from year to year. San Francisco is hoping the roster is in position for the pendulum to swing back in the right direction. That starts with Ford.
Offensive skill positions
Additions: RB Tevin Coleman, WR Jordan Matthews
Subtraction: WR Pierre Garçon
Brought back: Raheem Mostert (RFA)
Pending: RB Alfred Morris (free agent)
The 49ers in 2018 were led by former undrafted rookies at receiver (Kendrick Bourne) and running back (Matt Breida). Shanahan squeezed about all the production he could from the offense while using a reserve quarterbacks for 13 of the 16 regular-season games (having tight end George Kittle end set a record in yards didn’t hurt, either). Getting Garoppolo back with an improved group of skill players could elevate the offense into the top 10, which would be paramount if San Francisco is going to hang in the playoff race with other high-scoring NFC teams.
Coleman creates a surplus at running back along with Breida, Mostert and Jerick McKinnon, who’s returning from an ACL tear. Shanahan should be inclined to keep four running backs on the 53-man roster to have flexibility and depth in case of injuries. Breida dealt with ankle issues on a seemingly weekly basis last season and McKinnon’s full return is hardly a guarantee. Coleman brings familiarity with Shanahan’s offense after spending his first two seasons with the Atlanta Falcons while Shanahan was the offensive coordinator. Coleman scored nine touchdowns last season. His four rushing touchdowns were more than any 49er and his five receiving scores would have tied receiver Dante Pettis and Kittle for the team high.
Additions: Kwon Alexander, David Mayo
Subtraction: Brock Coyle (retired)
Brought back: Elijah Lee (ERFA)
The Reuben Foster debacle is going to loom over the team for the foreseeable future. Having to release him because of his pattern of arrests led to making a $14.25 million investment in former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Kwon Alexander for 2019, despite his ACL tear last October. The time frame on his return is uncertain. San Francisco might have to start Elijah Lee, Mayo or a draftee early in the regular season while Alexander works to recover.
Mayo joins the 49ers after four seasons in reserve and special teams roles with the Carolina Panthers. He’ll take over for Coyle, who announced the spinal injury he suffered Week 1 last September cost him his playing career. Fred Warner, Alexander, Lee and Mayo could end up as the group of inside linebackers once the roster is finalized. A draftee could also get thrown into the mix.
Additions: CB Jason Verrett
Subtraction: DB Tyvis Powell
Brought back: DB Jimmie Ward, S Antone Exum Jr., CB Greg Mabin
The 49ers decided the four-year, $55 million contract the Baltimore Ravens gave Earl Thomas was too rich for the 30-year-old free safety. The decision not to match or beat that offer could be one of the biggest this offseason if the secondary doesn’t show noticeable improvement in 2019. San Francisco fielded one of the least productive safety groups in the NFL last season while dealing with injuries. The team started eight different combinations at the position.
So far, the team decided to stay out of the free-agent safety market despite the depth of the class. Thomas aside, Tyrann Mathieu joined the Chiefs, Lamarcus Joyner went to the Raiders, HaHa Clinton Dix landed with the Chicago Bears and Adrian Amos was signed by the Green Bay Packers.
Verrett, a cornerback drafted by the Chargers in the first round in 2014, has only played in five games over the past three seasons and is coming an Achilles tear last summer. He’s been brought in to compete for a job with recent third-round draft picks Ahkello Witherspoon and Tarvarius Moore, though Verrett’s lengthy injury history makes that far from a guarantee.
The 49ers brought back Ward, the oft-injured 2014 first-round pick, on a prove-it, $4.5 million deal rather than make a push for an outside veteran. He played well in 2018 at free safety despite spending the offseason working at cornerback. But a fractured forearm sent Ward to season-ending injury reserve for the second consecutive season, and fourth time in five years.
Exum was brought back to provide depth and versatility, though the 49ers would prefer he stays in that role and doesn’t have to start seven games like he did last fall.
It wouldn’t be surprising if the 49ers used an early draft pick on a free safety to compete for a starting job with Ward and Adrian Colbert. Perhaps the best fits in Rounds 2 or 3 are Nasir Adderley (Delaware), Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (Florida), Deionte Thompson (Alabama) and Juan Thornhill (Virginia).