The biggest names on the move this NFL offseason
Members of the 49ers brass are making the rounds at pro days this week, including general manager John Lynch attending Alabama’s session Tuesday. Ohio State holds its pro day Wednesday, though top prospect Nick Bosa reportedly won’t be working out after impressing at the scouting combine. San Francisco will assuredly get some face time after meeting with Bosa in Indianapolis.
With that, it’s time for another edition of our weekly mailbag following the team’s busy first week of free agency that saw some notable additions, including trading for pass rusher Dee Ford and signing linebacker Kwon Alexander.
Matt asks: You think it would be worth the Niners trading for someone like AJ Green, or are they staying with this WR core for now?
All signs are pointing to the 49ers trying to find a receiver in the draft, perhaps no later than the third round, and perhaps trading up into the first round (Mississippi’s A.J. Brown would make sense there). Remember, the 49ers traded for an additional first-round pick in 2016 and 2017. Hopping up from 36 shouldn’t be all that difficult – though the team doesn’t have its 2020 second-round pick after sending it to Kansas City in the Ford trade.
However, trading for a veteran wideout wouldn’t be a bad idea, either. We know the team was interested in acquiring Odell Beckham Jr. from the Giants, though the price didn’t match what San Francisco could offer. Green turns 31 at the start of training camp and is entering the final year of his contract. The Bengals might not be willing to sign him to a lucrative deal beyond 2019 and might prefer to get a 2020 draft pick rather than wait for a compensatory selection in 2021 if he were to leave in free agency.
Another name to watch is a big one: Julio Jones. Remember, Jones held out last offseason until his contract was revised. He’s only under contract with Atlanta through 2020 and he’s slated to be the NFL’s 13th-highest paid receiver in 2019 (he led the league with 1,677 receiving yards last season).
Since Jones’ contract was revised, Beckham signed his five-year, $90 million deal and Antonio Brown just re-worked his contract with the Raiders to earn $50.125 million over the next three seasons. Jones could (and should) try to get a contract that makes him one of the league’s three highest-paid receivers, rather than 13th.
But it’s unclear if Atlanta is interested in giving him that money. He turned 30 in February. If the Falcons did think about trading him, San Francisco would make as much sense as anywhere. Two of Jones’ most productive seasons came with Kyle Shanahan as his offensive coordinator.
Sean Patrick Scott asks: What position do you think they target with their 2nd and 3rd round picks?
You never know with these things. Teams’ draft boards don’t always line up with their direct needs in a given offseason. However, it does feel like the 49ers are going to target a receiver early. Prospects that met with the 49ers said as much at the combine.
Pick No. 36 early in the second round seems like a good spot for a wideout. Keep on eye on Brown, Riley Ridley (Georgia), Deebo Samuel (South Carolina), Andy Isabella (Massachusetts), Hakeem Butler (Iowa) and N’Keal Harry (Arizona State). All could fit the bill in Shanahan’s offense that has an opening in the starting lineup with the team letting go of Pierre Garçon.
The other position that would make sense is free safety, particularly after deciding to bring back Jimmie Ward and not make a play for one of the talented veteran free agents available, such as Earl Thomas, Tyrann Mathieu or Lamarcus Joyner. Shanahan made it clear he prioritizes building the defense from the front to back, which is why the team targeted front seven players Ford and Alexander and gave them salaries at the top of their respective positions.
Perhaps getting a free safety the team could develop for the long haul in the second or third round would make sense. Players to watch include Nasir Adderley (Delaware), Juan Thornhill (Virginia), Deionte Thompson (Alabama), Darnell Savage (Maryland) and Taylor Rapp (Washington).
Ryan Paris asks: What do you think about Josh Allen being a better all-around fit for our defense then Nick Bosa? He can rush the passer but is also good at covering tight ends and running backs. Is that something to consider?
Allen would be a perfect “Sam” linebacker for San Francisco’s defense. There’s little doubt about that. But it doesn’t feel like the 49ers value that position all that much. It’s only used in base packages, which account for roughly one-third of the snaps.
They were fine with bringing back Malcolm Smith and Mark Nzeocha to compete there, though neither player would preclude the team from using an early draft pick at that spot. Their feeling about “Sam” was telegraphed when the team traded away Eli Harold last summer for a conditional seventh-round draft pick – despite needing pass rushers off the edge.
All the talk about Lynch looking for “power” in a defensive end amid the new emphasis on the “wide-9” alignment screams Bosa, in my opinion. And that might be a reason why the team was eager to move on from Cassius Marsh, a relative featherweight on the edge, by releasing him last Friday.
Schematically, the 49ers defense plays mostly zone, which means linebackers aren’t asked to cover tight ends and running backs in man-to-man all that much. So Allen’s coverage skills might get lost unless coordinator Robert Saleh makes some drastic changes, which wouldn’t be impossible.
But I’d be very surprised if the pick wasn’t Bosa for all these reasons, though I think Allen would be a fine consolation prize if Bosa went first overall. It also wouldn’t be surprising if the 49ers traded down if Bosa was off the board.
I am Responsiblish asks: How do the Niners view Mathews, As a Z, slot, or move to all 3? And are they viewing mainly Z WRs in the draft as they may see Mathews as more a natural slot receiver? Can’t wait to see the mismatches the Niners create on offense!
As we know, Shanahan in his receivers prizes route running and the ability to separate from man-to-man coverage, which is generally a trait of slot receivers. I’d imagine Matthews will work primarily as a “Z” receiver, which is what Pierre Garçon and Kendrick Bourne have done the last two seasons. And yes, I’d imagine that will include spending time in the slot as an “F.” The “X” receivers are typically the most explosive deep threats on the field.
The team already has a glut of slot receivers in Trent Taylor and Richie James. At “X,” they have Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis. Bourne and Matthews would make up the pair that plays “Z.” Pettis seems like the only player on the roster that could play any of the three if needed. In the draft, Brown, Ridley, Harry and Samuel all seem like strong “Z” candidates. Isabella is probably an “X” or an “F.”
I’d imagine Matthews’ roster spot will be the one challenged most by an incoming rookie, which might indicate the team is targeting a long-term “Z” to replace Garçon.
Niners Narwhal asks: Besides the top 3 picks last year, who all look like greats picks to me, we didn’t see much of last year’s later round picks. Any chance one of them swoops in and makes some noise?
Yes, a slew of those players will be competing for significant playing time – and perhaps starting jobs – during training camp.
Kentavius Street, the fourth-round pick who missed his season rehabbing a torn ACL, should challenge for playing time all across the defensive line. Fifth-rounder D.J. Reed could battle K’Waun Williams for the starting job at nickle corner. Marcell Harris played well enough at strong safety to force Jaquiski Tartt to re-earn his starting job.
Jullian Taylor had a strong camp and preseason last August, which included working with the first team, and will be in the mix along the defensive line. James has good versatility as a receiver and return man. He was the primary slot option late in 2018 while Taylor was dealing with his nagging back injury.
Chris Falco asks: If Bosa or Allen are the choice at 2, do we trade AA or Thomas, or do we start the season with a heavy DL rotation to get them all involved & keep them fresh?
The 49ers’ decision-makers like Arik Armstead enough to pay him over $9 million fully guaranteed on his fifth-year option despite paltry sack totals and injury issues during his first four seasons. To me, that signals he’s still considered a better option than Solomon Thomas both as a run-stopping defensive end and interior pass rusher. Thomas’ only sack last season came when he was near Derek Carr as he ran out of bounds, after all.
So what if the 49ers do what we all expect and draft another defensive end after adding Dee Ford?
I think it could make Thomas expendable, as much as that could pain the front office (Armstead doesn’t have trade value because of his contract).
Because if San Francisco drafts Bosa, he’s likely to be a three-down player. And if Armstead is above Thomas as an interior pass rusher, how many snaps should Thomas realistically expect each game? 15? 20? And would it be worth paying Thomas his $7.7 million if he were only a bit player not getting the playing time he would need to properly develop?
If that’s the case, there might be more value in trading him with two seasons and his fifth-year option remaining on his contract. The 49ers might be able to get a fifth-round pick (my estimation) to a team that has more room for Thomas along the defensive line.
Because if San Francisco adds Bosa (or Allen), to DeForest Buckner, Armstead, D.J. Jones, Sheldon Day, Ronald Blair, Street and Taylor, there simply might not be room for Thomas to flourish.
But we know injuries happen – and having depth along the defensive front is always a good thing.