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Will the 49ers remain aggressive in free agency?

Mar 10, 2024 at 2:00 PM--

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There is likely a growing sense of urgency inside the San Francisco 49ers organization, and it has nothing to do with the outside perception that the organization's championship window is set to slam shut. That notion might be exaggerated. Throughout head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch's tenure, the 49ers have been remarkably well-run, making it unwise to assume any sudden downfall.

The 49ers have demonstrated their ability to ascend towards the mountaintop via multiple paths, investing heavily in a quarterback (Jimmy Garoppolo) and utilizing a fraction of that money at the position (Brock Purdy). However, in each case, they have failed to reach the peak.

When Shanahan and Lynch took the helm, their objective was clear: construct a competitive roster, secure a Super Bowl victory, sustain competitiveness, and vie for additional Super Bowls. They have locked down the competitive part. As for the Super Bowl part, they've come close—agonizingly close—but failed to secure the organization's elusive sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy. Despite their near misses, the team's resilience and talent suggest that it's only a matter of time before they fulfill that ultimate goal. At least, that's the belief held by Shanahan and Lynch.

The recent near-misses on the grand stage, including their most recent Super Bowl disappointment last month, have intensified the 49ers' determination to get over the hump. As they gear up for free agency next week and the NFL Draft next month, they aim to bolster their roster to overcome championship opponents like the one that thwarted their latest Super Bowl hopes—the Kansas City Chiefs.

Most NFL front offices would argue that it would be more practical from a roster-building perspective if the draft came first, followed by free agency. That would allow teams to prioritize the best players available in the draft and then fill any remaining roster deficiencies in the free agency. Of course, the NFLPA is unlikely to approve such a schedule since it would diminish the value of veteran players seeking their next lucrative contracts.

As it stands, teams try to spend big money to fill their more significant needs via free agency and hope they can fill their remaining needs via more cost-effective players in the draft.

San Francisco owns a first-round pick for the first time since selecting quarterback Trey Lance—now with the Dallas Cowboys—in 2021. At the NFL Scouting Combine, when asked about the 49ers' plan for their first-round pick, No. 31 overall, general manager John Lynch simply stated, "Yeah, tune in and watch."

The 49ers executive was equally unspecific when asked if the team might be aggressive in free agency.

"I don't know," Lynch responded. "I know it's still very much a fluid thing. We're gathering a ton of information, and we'll get back, and we'll put it into motion."

In recent years, the 49ers have adopted an aggressive offseason approach, making unexpected signings such as cornerback Charvarius Ward in 2022 and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave last year.

"While some teams might pull back after a loss as painful as the 49ers' Super Bowl overtime nightmare last month with cash commitments at the top of the league, I get no sense of that from Shanahan & Co. at this moment," Tim Kawakami recently in a feature for The Athletic. If anything, I'm guessing the 49ers will be even more aggressive — some of their most essential guys are reaching the apex of the salary-vs.-value equation, and you can only go so long and suffer so many anguished defeats with the same core."

I tend to agree with that assessment. If the 49ers were aggressive in recent years, there is no reason to believe they will change their strategy this year, following an overtime Super Bowl defeat. Yes, salary-cap constraints weren't nearly as prominent in previous years, but the organization has found ways to create the cap room it needs to bring in the players it wants.

That ethos hasn't been limited to free agency. In recent years, the team has made some significant mid-season trades, believing it was a piece away from being a Super Bowl-caliber squad. They traded for running back Christian McCaffrey in 2022 and defensive end Chase Young last season.

Kawakami brings up an interesting free agent fit—Minnesota Vikings pass rusher Danielle Hunter. Logic would preclude me from even considering Hunter as a possibility. He'll be a hot commodity in free agency. However, that was also the case for Hargrave last year, so no move would be surprising at this point.

I'm not saying I'm expecting the 49ers to go after Hunter, but such a move would prove they are all in on a 2024 Super Bowl run. Hunter recorded a career-high 16.5 sacks last season. That's just the type of production the 49ers have been lacking and searching for to place opposite Nick Bosa along the defensive line.

While that would mean a lot of money invested in their defensive front, a move like that would allow the 49ers to focus on the offensive line with their first-round pick, maybe even making them more receptive to trading up to acquire an elite prospect to protect their young quarterback of the future—Purdy.

Alternatively, the 49ers may opt to reinforce their offensive line in free agency, allowing them to focus on pass rushers in the draft. They could also target a starting-caliber cornerback to complement Charvarius Ward.

The 49ers have many options and several areas they could address. After coming so close to Super Bowl glory once again and falling just short of victory, I don't expect them to sit idly by and watch as other teams fight to improve.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.

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