Fine-tuning the 49er Machine: Key re-signings, and a few changes, shed light on the team’s drive to keep building

Don Atkinson
Mar 19, 2020 at 5:47 PM4

Amidst the attention-grabbing news of election politics and a serious pandemic, the off-season bargaining and dealings of the NFL have largely gotten lost. Not much from the world of professional football has made it into the headlines apart perhaps from legendary quarterback Tom Brady leaving icy New England for the humidity of sunny Florida, where he will now, theoretically anyway, throw touchdowns for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

One thing that has gotten little attention, yet is certainly notable, is that the NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers have made it nearly to the NFL draft with their Super Bowl LIV team functionally intact.

49ers General Manager John Lynch and Head Coach Kyle Shanahan, at least thus far, have done an outstanding job at checking the team's superstructure and tightening the nuts and bolts where they have needed, in preparation for the influx of rookie talent, and perhaps a few veteran free agent signings later on.

Foremost in the 49ers' off-season news, of course, is the departure of star defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, who signed a hefty contract with the Indianapolis Colts earlier this week. Losing Buckner was not a circumstance the 49ers relished, even with the first-round pick that came with the deal, but it was for the most part inevitable, as the team simply did not have the cap space to afford keeping both Buckner and fellow defensive line star Arik Armstead. In the end, Armstead got his new contract with the 49ers, and Buckner got even bigger money in Indianapolis.

Other signings, though drawing less attention than the Buckner and Armstead decisions, are nearly as important.

Alongside bringing back Armstead, the team has now inked new deals with safety Jimmie Ward, defensive end Ronald Blair, and offensive linemen Ben Garland and Shon Coleman. All of the teams Exclusive Rights Free Agents (ERFAs) --- quarterback Nick Mullens, offensive lineman Daniel Brunskill, defensive back Emmanuel Moseley, running back Jeff Wilson, Jr. and tight end Ross Dwelley --- will be back with the team this coming season as well.

And though not yet a free agent, running back Jerick McKinnon had his contract restructured into a shorter-term package, a signal that 2020 is certainly going to be a "run-or-done" season for him.

Second round tenders were placed by the 49ers on clutch wideout Kendrick Bourne and speedster running back Matt Breida, and while both are still free to talk to other teams, there's a greater than average chance the two will be back with the 49ers this year.

So far, the 49ers have lost just a handful of players from their 2019 roster: Besides Buckner, tight end Levine Toilolo headed off to the New York Giants last week, and the team saw the predicted retirements of tight end Garrett Celek and defensive lineman Earl Mitchell. The most recent player to make that short list is offensive guard Mike Person, who was released just today, to the surprise of many.

Signed prior to the 2018 season, Person had started every game for the 49ers, except for two games this past season, which he missed due to a neck injury. The versatile Brunskill is likely to benefit most from the departure of Person, as he showed genuine ability at whatever assignment he was given throughout the 2019 season, earning superlative ratings from NFL analysts across the board.

In a move tied somewhat to the re-signing of Garland and the release of Person, the 49ers re-signed the oft-injured Shon Coleman to a short-term contract. Like McKinnon, Coleman is going to need to play a full season, and do it well, or he will likely be out the door in 2021.

With Armstead, Ward, Blair, Garland, Coleman and the players from the ERFA list under wraps, the 49ers can now turn their attention to resolving the status of their other remaining free agents before the NFL's late-April draft – something the team absolutely should do.

Offensive tackle Andrew Lauderdale, wide receivers Jordan Matthews and Emmanuel Sanders, defensive linemen Sheldon Day, Damontre' Moore, Anthony Zettel and Ethan Westbrooks, linebacker Elijah Lee, and cornerbacks Dontae Johnson and Jason Verrett make up the list of 49ers' remaining market-ready players. Lauderdale, Matthews, Zettel and Westbrooks are the likely candidates to sign elsewhere or be released, and the contract fate of both Lee and Johnson may well hang on what the 49ers can do in the later rounds of the draft. Contracts there may not be addressed until after the draft ends.

Verrett, a first-round draft pick of the then-San Diego Chargers in 2014, has been an acquisition that never panned out for the 49ers. Like running back McKinnon, Verrett has spent almost the entirety of his time with the 49ers out on injury – certainly not his fault – but with the emergence of Emmanuel Moseley in 2019, and with cornerbacks Richard Sherman, Ahkello Witherspoon and K'Waun Williams not going anywhere, the 49ers keeping Verrett on the roster is looking not just highly improbable, but inadvisable.

The 49ers still have the other loose ends to tie up, most notably with veteran wideout Emmanuel Sanders, whose future has yet to be set. There is a growing likelihood he signs elsewhere, and the Dallas Cowboys, who just lost their starting slot receiver Randall Cobb to the Texans, have shown heightened interest. But if losing the highly talented Sanders were ever to come at a good time, this might be it, with a 2020 draft class loaded with quality receivers.

Sitting (at least for now) with two first round picks (Number 13, obtained from the Colts, and their original Number 31), the 49ers are in a prime spot to grab a top-level wideout, and still have draft capital to go after another impact player or two. Even with the loss of Buckner to the Colts, the 49ers' defensive line is looking premier, and the addition of another interior defensive lineman or edge rusher from this talent heavy draft class will only solidify that position.

The team's remaining free agents, Sheldon Day and Damontre' Moore, both showed flashes of talent when they've been on the field, and there is at least a decent chance both stay with the 49ers in 2020 if they can work out dollar-friendly contracts.

Beyond the framework of free agency, the 49ers will need to make some other personnel decisions regarding receivers Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis, quarterback C.J. Beathard and a few others. The 49ers' roster spots, players are discovering, aren't as easy to keep as they were a few years ago, and with the talent bank the team now has, there simply isn't a valid argument for keeping the roster open to players who, whether through injury, inconsistency or lack of opportunity, aren't contributing at a maximum level.

There is, as always, a "chicken and the egg" argument at this point in the off-season, in that arranging trades or trimming some players not under contract clarifies where to place draft choices, yet it's not always clear where to trim until draft choices have been made.

Should the 49ers sit on their remaining free agents to see first what comes of the draft? Or do they first take care of their free agency situation, so they know where to focus in the draft? The latter is the more compelling argument by far, and there will almost certainly be good veteran free agent options out there for the 49ers post-draft, if they don't get the rookies they want in April. And with Armstead, Ward and Blair locked in, there is no reason to go into the draft speculating about where to pick.

It will be interesting to see just what Lynch and Shanahan do with the two first round picks they presently have. The 49ers can clearly go after a top-tier receiver with their first draft pick, and at Number 13, Clemson's Tee Higgins, Alabama's Jerry Jeudy or Henry Ruggs, or even possibly Oklahoma's CeeDee Lamb, are all within reach.

Many other high-caliber receivers will remain on the board at 31, and there will be plenty of great defensive linemen available still within Round 2, so it wouldn't be surprising to see the 49ers trade off one of their first round picks for multiple picks in later rounds.

With Jimmie Ward signed and some good free agent defensive backs likely to be available post-draft, the interest in San Francisco on first round rookie defensive backs like Ohio State's Jeff Okudah or LSU's Grant Delpit has clearly softened considerably.

There is still much in play for the 49ers and both the remaining free agent signings and the pick swaps leading up to the NFL draft will clue observers in to just what the intentions of the 49ers' front office are, heading into the 2020 season.

One thing is certain: the 49ers have set out to build upon the solid foundation they have created, and all that Lynch and Shanahan have done thus far in keeping the team not just together but improving speaks volumes about how long this team may sustain its elite makeup.

It's not just brilliant football. It's also good business.
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.


  • Bill Brown
    Thank you. Very good read and great commentary. Keep up the great writing!
    Mar 21, 2020 at 6:14 PM
  • Paul
    Solomon Thomas needs at least a very good year to make it to 2021. Buckner is a tough loss, but I get the reasoning. I wish they had a Bird rule in the NFL.
    Mar 19, 2020 at 9:04 PM
  • Marty
    Very good article. Well thought out all around. Will be another interesting season to see how the Niners respond after the failure to put away the Chiefs in the closing 7 minutes of the game...
    Mar 19, 2020 at 8:27 PM
  • Chris
    Nice article ! Really well done
    Mar 19, 2020 at 7:04 PM

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