Last year, Lynch made sure to get some key figures in place via free agency so they could truly take the 'best player available' in the draft. In that way, by the time the draft rolled around, they knew what they already had in place and wouldn't need to reach for an unproven rookie that would be counted on to fill a major void (at least right away). I believe Lynch will take the same approach this year. Here are the positions of need I believe will be Lynch's major area of focus in free agency, in order of importance:
OL/G: The middle of the offensive line was a sieve the first 10 games of the year, letting every defensive player and his brother crash through for a hit on quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard. It was only Jimmy Garoppolo's quick release that made up for their deficiencies and saved him from getting obliterated. The Niners need a stalwart guard here that is both stout at the point of attack to protect their $137.5M investment and nimble enough to block the outside zone run plays that are a staple of Shanahan's offense. Think Andrew Norwell or Josh Sitton here. Norwell seems destined to be headed to the Giants, but Sitton wouldn't be a bad consolation prize.
CB: Ahkello Witherspoon played admirably after getting over the rookie jitters that kept him off the field to begin the season. Will he see a sophomore slump? Even if he doesn't, the Niners need to find someone that can play on an island on the other side, as well as some competition and depth at the position. Dontae Johnson is not the answer. He sees more flags than a 4th of July parade. I think the Niners will make a hard push for Trumaine Johnson; he knows the scheme, has the size/speed, and would weaken a division rival. Some of the Niner Faithful have made a push for Malcolm Butler, but he might be a bit on the small side at 5'10", and there's still that lingering question of why he was held out of the Super Bowl. My dark horse: Richard Sherman, if he becomes a cap casualty and liability due to injury. Don't think the 'Hawks would do it? Tell that to NaVorro Bowman.
DE: The only reason this position isn't at the very top of the list is because they simply aren't available in free agency; especially following the franchise tags doled out to Ezekiel Ansah and DeMarcus Lawrence (who, honestly, probably weren't ideal fits anyway). Nevertheless, the Niners need an edge rusher to fill their "Leo" role, and they need one bad. Could it be that we'll see yet another defensive lineman taken in the first round? Either way, don't be surprised if Shanahan eyeballs a familiar face from the Falcons in Adrian Clayborn or kicks the tires on Alex Okafor, who is coming of an Achilles injury...yes, they're that desperate.
ILB: Yes, Rueben Foster played brilliantly...when he played. Let's pretend for a moment that he didn't have the myriad of off-the-field concerns all too reminiscent of Aldon Smith; he still seemed to come off the field a lot even when he was playing. Yes, his shoulder seemed fine, yes the dreaded high ankle sprains can happen to anyone, but it wasn't just that...he seemed to miss a few plays because of dings in every game, due to his reckless style of play. With a likely suspension looming this season, and who knows what else, the prudent course of action here is to have a contingency plan in place and hope for the best while preparing for the worst. I think Lynch will grab a "Mike" ILB at some point in the draft, but I also think he'll pick up a hardworking 'backer in free agency as a stop-gap and also as a role model and voice of reason in position group meetings. I'd love to see Paul Posluszny here (he ran the same defense in Jacksonville with Saleh), but Tahir Whitehead is also intriguing.
RB: Carlos Hyde played well and showed his versatility by changing his style of play in a contract year, but my guess is the Niners aren't willing to pay what he can find elsewhere. Keep in mind, with Le'Veon Bell franchise tagged, Hyde arguably becomes the best back available in free agency. However, his bruiser style of play isn't a great fit and he dropped too many passes to be counted on in Shanahan's offense. Matt Breida played well in spot duty but he's not a three-down back. There are some potential fits in the draft but do you want to count on a rookie to pick up a blitzing linebacker looking to decapitate your franchise quarterback? Yes, bringing Frank Gore back would be fun for the fans but he's not exactly a scheme fit either, and he'll be 35 in May. I see Lynch going hard for another former Patriot, Dion Lewis. He's excellent at catching the ball out of the backfield, knows how to pick up the blitz, and has the vision for the outside zone scheme.
WR: At the beginning of the season, this position would have been closer to the top of the list, but, simply put, Jimmy G makes these guys look better...and he never even had a chance to play with Garcon. I don't think this group is that far away from being really good. Garcon is a stellar possession receiver, Goodwin can take the top off the defense with his break-neck speed, and Trent Taylor proved to be dependable and slippery-good out of the slot. The only real missing piece here is a tall, physical red zone threat. The tallest guy in the position group is Garcon, and he's only 6'0". Lynch could go for the oft-injured Allen Robinson, who stands at 6'3", but I could also see him looking at Sammy Watkins, who, though is only marginally taller at 6'1", plays the jump ball like he's 6'3" or 6'4". Furthermore, with Watkins, you also get a player familiar with Shanahan's scheme (via Sean McVay's offense last season), and you also get to pluck from a division rival again.
Look for Lynch to be aggressive in going after at least a couple of these players, with perhaps Trumaine Johnson and Allen Robinson leading the pack. And while both players have shown serious flashes of talent in the past, are they really worth a bidding war and breaking the bank to get? I would rather see Lynch sign solid contributors that will come at a fraction of the price, like Dion Lewis, Alex Okafor, and Paul Posluszny. The best teams are built from the draft and supplemented with a few key pieces in free agency. Let's see what year two brings.