Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

10 impactful 49ers March moves in the Lynch-Shanahan era

Feb 21, 2021 at 12:34 PM--

The month of March is just over a week away, which means the 49ers may soon do something that will have a profound impact on their team for years to come.

It's not much of a stretch to expect that to happen, at least based on what the team has done during the month of March in the four years that general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan have been together. The 49ers have made a slew of March roster moves in that time, some of which made major headlines across the NFL.

A few of those moves paid off for the 49ers, while others have had little or no impact -- or have even been impactful in a negative way. Here's a look back at ten March moves in particular that left a positive or negative mark (or both).

10. Signing defensive end Kerry Hyder (March 25, 2020)

Sometimes the under-the-radar signings wind up producing a big return. Such was the case with Hyder, who joined the 49ers last March on a one-year, $1.5 million deal and wound up becoming the team's most productive pass rusher in 2020 after a season-ending knee injury to Nick Bosa. The 30-year-old Hyder finished the season with career highs in sacks (8.5) and tackles (47), proving to be a major asset in Bosa's absence. The bad news: It won't be nearly as easy for the 49ers to bring Hyder back in the fold for 2021.

9. Signing linebacker Kwon Alexander (March 13, 2019)

Things didn't end quite like the 49ers expected when they signed Alexander to a four-year, $54 million deal. The 49ers hoped they'd be adding a long-term leader on defense in the fiery Alexander, who was still just 24 years old at the time of his signing and was a productive player in Tampa Bay before seeing his 2018 season come to an end due to a torn ACL. Injuries wound up haunting Alexander again in 2019, as a torn pectoral muscle limited him to just eight regular-season games. Alexander and his hefty contract were traded to the New Orleans Saints during the 2020 season in exchange for a conditional fifth-round pick and linebacker Kiko Alonso, who was later released.

8. Signing C Weston Richburg and RB Jerick McKinnon (March 14, 2018)

Other than the number eight move on this list, Richburg and McKinnon were the 49ers' marquee free-agent additions in 2018. But due to injuries, neither one worked out quite as the 49ers hoped they would and neither of them is expected to be with the team in 2020.

The hope for Richburg was that he would become the long-term battery mate for Jimmy Garoppolo after signing a deal for $47.5 million over five years, and at first, that seemed to be the case. Richburg started 15 games for the 49ers in 2018 and 13 in 2019, but he's been on the shelf since Week 14 of the 2019 season due to a torn patellar tendon and is now frequently mentioned as a cap casualty candidate in the weeks ahead.

McKinnon was expected to be the lead back for the 49ers after signing a four-year, $30 million deal, even though he never was a full-time starter in four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. A torn ACL in 2018 followed by lingering knee problems in 2019 wiped out his first two seasons with the 49ers, then after coming back on a restructured contract, he rushed for 319 yards on five touchdowns on 81 carries while catching 33 passes for 253 yards and one touchdown in 2020. McKinnon doesn't seem to be in the plans for 2021, nor does he seem that interested in being a 49er any longer.

7. Adding cornerback Jason Verrett (March 14, 2019)

The 49ers took a relatively risk-free bet on Verrett by signing him to a one-year deal in 2019 after an injury-plagued stint with the Chargers, but it wasn't until 2020 that his relationship with the team started to pay dividends. Verrett signed another one-year deal with the 49ers in 2020 after health issues kept him out for most of 2019, and he responded with a comeback season that saw him become the top cornerback on the team. The 49ers would surely love to have Verrett back with the team in 2021, but the question is how much they'd be willing to pay him versus how much he might be able to make elsewhere. It's a tricky situation given the team's limited cap space and Verrett's extensive injury history.

6. Keeping FS Jimmie Ward (March 13, 2019)

There was a time when the chances of Jimmie Ward being a long-term part of the 49ers' future seemed somewhat low. Ward, who was a first-round pick of the 49ers in the 2014 NFL Draft, came to the end of his rookie contract in 2018 with uncertainty after seeing four of his first five NFL seasons shortened due to injury. He was also moved from safety to corner and back again over his first five seasons, and at times there was some question over where exactly he fit in. The 49ers decided to keep him around on a one-year deal in March of 2019, however, and it paid off for both parties after Ward settled in at safety to deliver 61 tackles and eight passes defensed in 13 games over the 2019 season. The 49ers signed Ward for three years in March of 2020, which he responded to with a career-best 73 tackles and four passes defensed to go with a Pro Football Focus rating of 73.5 over 14 games. As unlikely as it may have seemed in 2018, Ward remains an important piece of the puzzle in the secondary as 2021 approaches.

5. Signing CB Richard Sherman (March 11, 2018)

Quite a few members of the 49ers Faithful didn't know what to make of this move when it happened, but three years later most would agree it paid off. Sherman signed with the 49ers after being released by the Seattle Seahawks and has battled through his share of injury issues since then, but there have been a number of high points as well, particularly during his Pro Bowl season of 2019. Sherman was clearly a valuable leadership presence to boot, and along the way, he managed to win over a large number of 49ers fans -- something that would have seemed impossible back when he was a much-hated nemesis with the Seahawks. Sherman's days with the 49ers are likely done as he has repeatedly said he expects to be playing elsewhere in 2021, but chances are he'll remain popular among many in the Bay Area (assuming he doesn't again wind up with a rival).

4. Keeping RB Raheem Mostert (March 15, 2019)

Running back Raheem Mostert was a journeyman when he first joined the 49ers, having already spent time with six NFL teams in just over a year before coming to the Bay Area as a practice squad player. He emerged as a special teams standout for the 49ers, then stuck with the team after it extended an exclusive rights tender in March of 2018. Mostert began to establish himself as a running back during the 2018 season before suffering a broken arm, then the 49ers decided to hand him a three-year extension in March of 2019.

Mostert rushed for 772 yards and eight touchdowns in 2019 while also producing a memorable 29-carry/220-yard/four-touchdown performance in a 37-20 win over the Packers in the 2019 NFC Championship game. Injuries limited him to 521 yards and two touchdowns in eight games during the 2020 season, but he still figures to be one of the top playmakers on offense next season as long as he stays healthy.

3. Acquiring DE Dee Ford from Kansas City in exchange for a second-round pick, then signing him to a five-year deal worth $85 million (March 13, 2019)

Writer Gregg Rosenthal of recently labeled this trade as being "quietly one of the costliest NFL acquisition misfires of the last few seasons." Unfortunately, that description is proving to be on the mark. Ford's time with the 49ers has been somewhat of a microcosm of his NFL career -- explosive, disruptive, and productive when healthy, but injured too often to reach his long-term potential. His latest injury could prove to be particularly costly for the 49ers. Ford proved to be an instrumental piece of the 49ers' powerful pass rush when healthy in 2019, but he appeared in just one game in 2020 due to a back issue. He's due a hefty salary ($15.15 million) in 2021 and has an injury guarantee in his contract in the form of an $11.6 million of base salary that becomes guaranteed if he's on the roster on April 1. The 49ers could certainly use the cap space they would free up by parting ways with Ford under normal circumstances but could be stuck with him for now.

2. The free agent frenzy of March 9, 2017: Signing WR Pierre Garçon, WR Marquise Goodwin, K Robbie Gould, QB Brian Hoyer, FB Kyle Juszczyk, TE Logan Paulsen, and LB Malcolm Smith

Lynch and Shanahan inherited a mess of a roster when they were hired in early 2017 and quickly got to work on an overhaul that kicked into high gear when free agency opened on March 9. The 49ers added seven players on that day, and while not all of them went on to produce as much as the team hoped, two of them in particular -- Gould and Juszczyk -- became key pieces in a turnaround effort that eventually culminated with a Super Bowl appearance just under three years later.

The rest of the signings showed mixed results. Goodwin left a mark when he led the 49ers in receiving in 2017, which led to a contract extension, but his production slipped from there and he was eventually traded to Philadelphia in 2020 after falling back on the depth chart. Paulsen, who was primarily a blocking tight end, caught zero passes in 14 games with the 49ers. Hoyer began the 2017 season as the starting quarterback but was cast away after the 49ers traded for Jimmy Garoppolo. Garçon was the marquee signing of the group at the time, but injuries limited him to 16 games, 64 catches, 786 yards, and one touchdown over two seasons. Smith was expected to take over a starting spot for the 49ers but missed the 2017 season due to injury, then played in 12 games in 2018 before being let go in 2019.

The 49ers handed out over $100 million in contracts on that day and wound up getting at least some of their money's worth. With Juszczyk heading towards free agency, there's a chance Gould could be the only one left on the roster from this group come next season, but the 49ers seem set to at least make an attempt at preventing Juszczyk from heading out the door.

1. Trading DT DeForest Buckner to Indianapolis for a 2020 first-round pick (March 18, 2020) after signing DL Arik Armstead to a five-year extension (March 16, 2020)

Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard is generally someone who operates with patience, frugality, and a reluctance to make big splash moves that cut too deeply into his future assets. So it spoke volumes when Ballard abandoned those principles without hesitation to acquire DeForest Buckner from the 49ers and then sign him to a four-year, $84 million deal.

Buckner developed into a high-end defensive tackle in his four seasons with the 49ers since being selected in Round 1 of the 2016 NFL Draft and seemed to be a cornerstone piece the team would want to invest in over the long term. But, to the surprise of some, that proved not to be the case. The 49ers decided to move on from Buckner and invested instead in Arik Armstead by giving him a five-year deal worth $85 million.

The addition of Buckner paid big dividends for the Colts, who flourished on defense with him in the middle. Buckner was selected as a first-team All-Pro in 2020 after totaling 45 tackles and 9.5 sacks. Armstead followed up a breakout 2019 season (54 tackles, 10 sacks, two forced fumbles) with a more quiet performance in 2020, totaling 49 tackles and 3.5 sacks. The 49ers used the pick they acquired from the Colts to select Javon Kinlaw, who took Buckner's place in the lineup and finished his rookie season with 33 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and one interception.

It's far from too late for all this to work out for the 49ers, but there's little doubt Buckner's presence was missed in 2020. Barring a future injury to Buckner, the Colts seem set to get everything they could have hoped for out of this move. Time will tell if the 49ers feel the same.

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