A Realistic Approach to 49ers Free Agency

Feb 25, 2017 at 8:46 AM

The San Francisco 49ers have several holes to fill across their entire roster. Years of neglect by ousted general manager Trent Baalke have left more than a few positions very thin. However, the neglect has also resulted in having the second most cap room available in the NFL. This will enable the new regime of John Lynch and his crew to not only use the sensible approach to overhauling the roster through the draft but also to sprinkle in a veteran presence to an otherwise very young team through free agency.

Trying to predict what the 49ers are going to do in free agency is difficult considering there is little evidence of how Lynch and Kyle Shanahan have approached an offseason before. Nearly every article concerning the 49ers and free agency suggests the team sign one of the top available players at every position of need. As great as it would be to see the 49ers sign the top pass rusher or wide receiver on the market, this team is in the beginning stages of a complete rebuild. They aren't one or two players away from the super bowl. A $17 million per season player at any position doesn't really seem likely. Spreading that cap space to sign two $8 million players that can shore up two roster holes would make more sense. Every year the period leading up to free agency is rife with players who signed large free agent deals as recently as last year getting released by teams that are forced to admit their mistakes. This should come as a yearly reminder to teams to spend wisely when it comes to players on the open market.

Free agency will always be about getting value for players that fit your system. Even if you have all the cap space in the world, you can always roll your cap space over into next year. If the 49ers spend about half of their available $80 million in cap space, that would be more than enough to sign a variety of solid players who can help the franchise all over the field. It would also leave them somewhere around $50-$60 million under next season's cap.

*Disclaimer 1-Pro Football Focus grades are cited for several of the players. The grades are just to get an idea of the area in which a player might be most effective. There are varying opinions of PFF's grading systems so please take the grades with an extreme grain of salt. However, until I watch every snap of the Ravens or Bills or whoever's season, I'm going to put at least a bit of trust in someone who has.

*Disclaimer 2-Market value prices for potential free agents are based on Spotrac's projections when applicable. As with PFF, take these with a grain of salt, they are just to get a general idea of what kind of money it might take to sign a certain player.

X Wide Receiver

Let's refer to an important quote from former Kyle Shanahan QB Brian Hoyer when discussing the Falcons offense under Shanahan, as told to MMQB

"they've got Julio Jones. That's the one thing I remember about Kyle, he'd say, 'You need an X in this offense, you need a big-time, play-making X receiver.' And they've got him."

Shanahan's offenses have almost always featured an X split end receiver who put up big numbers. Whether it was Andre Johnson having 115 catches for 1575 yards in 2008, Pierre Garcon hauling in 113 passes for 1346 yards in 2013 or Julio Jones going for over 1400 yards receiving this past season, the X has every opportunity to post some ridiculous stats in this offense. With Torrey Smith holding down the other side of the field as the speedster, a tough, possession receiver to move the chains is a must pick up via free agency or the draft.

Pierre Garcon

We start with one of the most obvious fits of the entire free agency class. Garcon spent two seasons in Shanahan's offense in Washington and put up the aforementioned big numbers in 2013. A slightly older player who will turn 31 before the start of the 2017 season, Garcon is nonetheless coming off of another 1,000 yard receiving season. His skill set is built to last, as his game is not based on speed but on route running, toughness and sure hands, similar to ex-Niner Anquan Boldin. His market value is set at $8.7 million per season, which is a bit high, but any deal he signs should be on the shorter side.

Kenny Britt

A younger, cheaper alternative to Garcon, Britt's value is set at $6.7 million per season. Britt is also two years younger. Britt had his first 1,000-yard receiving season in 2016, after never having gone for more than 775 yards in his career. It could be a one-off season, especially considering it came in a contract year, but any receiver who puts up 1,000 yards in last year's Rams offense, with that o-line and Case Keenum and Jared Goff throwing him passes, has to be an intriguing free agency prospect.

Right Tackle

Current RT Trent Brown is likely too big to be effective in Kyle Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme. Last year in Chip Kelly's zone scheme, he finished 72nd out of 79 tackles in PFF's run blocking rankings. Brown was slow to get to the second level on run plays in 2016 and the 49ers could use a much more agile RT.

Ricky Wagner

Another of the best possible free agent fits for the Niners. At 6-6 and 311 pounds, Wagner has played in Baltimore's zone scheme his entire career. Wagner is equally strong at run and pass blocking. He finished 2016 as PFF's 18th ranked overall tackle, is 27 years old and thus in the prime of his career. If Wagner were to continue his outstanding play, he could take over on the left side if Joe Staley ever loses a step. According to reports, the Ravens are going to let Wagner hit the open market. The MMQB podcast guessed his value at roughly what Mitchell Schwartz got last year, $6.6 million per season. Spotrac has his value as $6.9 million per. A younger, proven, effective zone-blocking right tackle for around $7 mil a year? Seems like a no-brainer.


An important position the 49ers suddenly have to fill this offseason. Shanahan used his FB in a variety of ways the last two seasons in Atlanta, not only as a lead blocker but also occasionally motioning him out wide to help give Matt Ryan a defined look against the defense. Some of the best in the biz are on the free agent market.

Patrick DiMarco

Another straightforward free agent perfect for the Niners. DiMarco was a vital piece in the Falcons record setting 2016 offense. A tremendous lead blocker, DiMarco ranked first in run blocking for FB's per PFF. He has the ability to catch a pass as well. DiMarco would slide right in place from day one as an experienced starter in Shanahan's west coast offense.

Kyle Juszczyk

Considered the best fullback in the NFL. He caught 41 passes in 2015 and 37 in 2016. The complete package and will only turn 26 in July.

Running Back

An extremely top-heavy position on the 49ers' roster. Carlos Hyde is the best skill player the 49ers have, but Hyde has yet to shake the injury prone label he has been stuck with his entire career. After Hyde, there is a major drop-off talent-wise. Shanahan's offense typically features a pass catching running back, which the current roster seems to lack. Selecting a backup running back in the upper tier of the draft could be too much of a luxury. Luckily for Lynch and Shanahan, there are a lot of solid, affordable receiving backs available in free agency.

Jacquizz Rogers

Rogers filled in admirably for Doug Martin in Tampa last year, averaging 4.3 yards a rush on 129 carries. But Rogers' true value would be as a third-down receiving back. An excellent pass protector, Rogers also has two 50 catch seasons under his belt. He would come relatively cheap and be a very low-risk signing.

Rex Burkhead

Burkhead took advantage of a great opportunity when the Bengals' Giovanni Bernard tore his ACL roughly halfway through last season. Burkhead finally had a chance to get some runs and in his contract year no less. While serving as the complimentary back to Jeremy Hill, Burkhead rushed for 4.6 yards a carry over 74 carries and added 17 catches on 20 targets for 145 yards. In a limited sample, Burkhead showed the potential of being a younger, bigger Danny Woodhead. As with Rogers, he would be cheap and low-risk.


Brian Hoyer

The ideal bridge quarterback of the available free agent passers. He played in Shanahan's system in Cleveland in 2014. He also stepped in when Jay Cutler was injured for the Bears last season and actually played very well over the course of 5 starts, completing 67% of his passes while throwing for 6 TDs and 0 picks. Hoyer won't set the world on fire, but would be a solid mentor to a rookie QB, should the 49ers go the draft route to find their QB of the future.


The LEO position is one of the marquee positions on the new defense. Currently, Aaron Lynch is probably the best fit for this position. The 49ers will need someone who is a pure pass rusher and will almost certainly draft a pass rush specialist. A reasonably-priced free agent would add depth at the LEO position in the base defense and also at edge rusher in their sub looks.

Mario Addison

Addison is a slightly older free agent who will be 30 at the start of the 2017 season but has had the best two years of his career in 2015 and '16. He's put up very solid pass rush numbers in limited snaps with Carolina. Last year in only 309 pass rush snaps, Addison recorded 9.5 sacks and 36 hurries. As with many of these "second tier" available free agents, it remains to be seen if Addison can maintain his level of play over a larger number of snaps. Regardless, he would be a much cheaper alternative to the outrageous salaries the most popular edge rushers are expected to command. Melvin Ingram's market value is projected to be $17 million per season, whereas Addison's value is set at $7 million per.

Lorenzo Alexander

Another veteran who is coming off the best season of his career, Alexander posted 12.5 sacks in 2016, good for third in the NFL. He is considered an exemplary teammate who would add veteran stability to a young squad learning a completely new defense. As a bonus, Alexander is from Oakland and went to Cal, so the 49ers might have a leg up on other teams if Alexander is inclined to return to the Bay Area. His market value is set at $6.5 Million per season.

Free Safety

Another must-have in the Carroll defense is a safety to play the single high centerfield role. Earl Thomas is, of course, the standard for this position. No one is quite sure if the 49ers have this player on their current roster. Rumors of Jimmy Ward moving to safety are prevalent. If Ward remains at corner, the team will have to look to the draft or to free agency to find its Thomas.

Duron Harmon

This NESN article heaps praise on the mostly anonymous Harmon, calling the 26-year-old "The Patriots defensive secret weapon." The money quote for the 49ers is as follows:

"Harmon won't be found near the line of scrimmage in run defense often, and he's not the strongest defender in man coverage, but he's as dependable as it comes at doing his job as a rangy free safety. He's never missed a game in his career, could start on many teams."

A rangy free safety is exactly what the 49ers roster lacks. Can Harmon be depended on to play 1,000 snaps at free safety? That remains to be seen. In the current state of the league, true, effective free safeties are very hard to come by. Harmon could be a relatively cheap flyer on a young player who might be ready for a feature role, or at the very least, can hold down the position until a rookie grows into the position.

Will Linebacker

The weak side linebacker will need to be able to play the run but most importantly must be good in coverage. Ray Ray Armstrong showed flashes of WLB characteristics during his brief stint at the beginning of last season, but Armstrong had previously struggled when playing in a 4-3 defense.

Zach Brown

Brown is a quintessential 4-3 weakside linebacker and had an outstanding season in 2016. He's a superior athlete whose game is built on speed. He finished second in the NFL with 149 tackles. Brown graded out as PFF's 17th ranked LB including, most importantly, an 82 grade in pass coverage, good for 18th overall and tied with Navorro Bowman. Brown is a three-down linebacker who could line up next to Bowman and give the defense an extremely strong pair of cover linebackers. Although his value is set at $4.5 million per season, which would seem to be on the low side, anything in that ballpark would be well worth it for the versatile Brown.

Michael Morgan

A veteran of the Seattle-style defense, Morgan has played under Pete Carroll for virtually his entire adult life, having gone from USC to Seattle. Morgan would be a good vet depth pickup who is also very solid on special teams, an important role if the 49ers end up losing special teams standout Nick Bellore to free agency.
The views 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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