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The embattled 49ers can build a competitive team in just two seasons

Colin Kaepernick has started a massive movement in the NFL. (AP Photo/Tom Gannam)
Roar Guru
30th January, 2017
4

San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York has just swung for the fences with the hiring of John Lynch as general manager and Kyle Shanahan as presumptive head coach.

A year after swinging for the fences with the head-coach hire Chip Kelly. A year after jettisoning the successful Jim Harbaugh and replacing him with career defensive line coach, Jim Tomsula.

Despite what is happening off the field, the roster is not the complete basket case many believe. Lynch and presumably Shanahan have capable starters (many are young) at the following positions for the next several years at least:

Running back: Carlos Hyde, LT Joe Staley
Centre: Daniel Kilgore
Guard: Joshua Garnett
Right tackle: Trent Brown
Tight end: Vance McDonald
Wide receiver #2: Torrey Smith
Defensive end: Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner
Inside linebacker: Navorro Bowman
Cornerback: Jimmie Ward, Rashard Robinson

Other positions that are debatable are: wide receiver #3 Jermey Kerley, outside linebacker Aaron Lynch, free safety Eric Reid, and strong safeties Anthoy Bethea and Jaquiski Tartt.

Despite the fact that the teams lacks starters at quarterback, #1 wide receiver, left guard, nose tackle, outside linebacker and inside linebacker, and just finished 2-14, they can address those holes and be back in playoff contention in just two seasons.

1. Spend some money

Free agency is a risk. Nearly every player is being paid higher than what he is worth. However, there are times when a team can afford to select free agents and this is one scenario for the 49ers.

Unlike the last time they went 2-14, in 2004, the 49ers have massive salary space. In 2005, the team was still paying out some prior stars that had been moved on, which prevented the team from bringing in high-profile free agents. Not the case this coming year.

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He may not have left the roster in great shape, but outgoing GM Trent Baalke at least hasn’t ruined the cap projections for future years. Only five players (NaVorro Bowman, Joe Staley, Torrey Smith, DeForest Buckner and Vance McDonald) are signed to deals upwards of $5 million in 2019.

If, as expected, current quarterback Colin Kaepernick opts out of his contract of $16 million next season, the 49ers are expected to have close to $80 million at their disposal to spend on free agents with the following options:

No.1 wide receiver
The 49ers have sorely missed Michael Crabtree’s play the past two years as a player who can compete with 50/50 balls on third downs. Quinton Patton hasn’t been able to gain the separation from cornerbacks required that the position demands. Whoever is quarterback in 2017, they must have a new target.

It’s expected Alshon Jeffrey has played his last game at Chicago. The 49ers should target the big guy that Trent Baalke didn’t select back in 2012 when he went with speedster and draft bust AJ Jenkins late in the first round. Jeffrey had a mixed season playing under the franchise tag that included a PED suspension for four games.

This will benefit his future side, as they should be able to sign him to a significantly less deal now than Demarius Thomas or TY Hilton received recently. A five-year deal worth around $55 million will get it done.

Outside linebacker
Melvin Ingram has put together two nice seasons for the Chargers, with 20 total sacks. OLB was a complete disaster for the 49ers in 2016, with Ahmad Brooks ageing quicker than expected, while Aaron Lynch was suspended for PED use and when he returned, was unable to capture his 2015 form.

Eli Harold filled in for Lynch and proved to be another draft bust, recording just three sacks this year and none last year. Ingram is looking at a future contract close to what Olivier Vernon signed last year; five years for $85 million, which seems too high, but who else is the team paying? He would provide versatility too, being able to play either a base 4-3 or 3-4 defence.

Nose tackle
I’m not one usually to advocate for signing NTs in free agency, as they usually represent poor value, however, given the 49ers defensive line will comprise next year of a third year player (Armstead) and second year player (Buckner) and potentially a rookie in Myles Garrett or Jonathan Allen, perhaps it’s time to add a veteran in his prime to the young list.

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Brandon Williams will be 28 this year and would provide the worst run defence with the anchor they sorely needed in the middle last year (Ian Williams was on IR and may not return, Glenn Dorsey returned mid way from an ACL). As a guide for a Williams deal, Damon Harrison signed a five-year, $46 million deal last year with the Giants.

Left guard
This position is not as dire as the previous three, where the team ranks last in terms of depth in the NFL. The 49ers signed Zane Beadles to a three-year deal worth just under $10 million last year. The 30-year-old provided some leadership as the team transitioned to a zone-based rushing attack that Beadles performs better in, however he still enjoyed only limited success.

By season’s end, the team was rushing very well to the right side, behind first and second-year men Garnett and Brown, but would routinely get nothing behind the left. If the team is to progress an upgrade is required, and if they can afford it, why not try and upgrade?

Kelechi Osemele signed a five-year, $60 million deal last year. Kevin Zeitler is the #1 ranked guard this year and would be available on a cheaper deal than that. The 28-year-old should be available on a five-year, $50 million deal. If the 49ers signed him and had Beadles as a capable back-up, they would possess one of the best offensive lines in the league.

So that’s four players added that average out to be $10 million a year each. Even if Kaepernick stays (more below) the 49ers won’t even be close to maxing their cap next year. One may say that in each of these examples, the player is being overpaid. That’s free agency for you. It’s going to happen whether it’s the 49ers or not.

Adding four quality free agents all in their playing prime of 28 years of age would boost the 49ers’ chances of winning. The New York Giants spent significant money to free agents Damon Harrison, Janoris Jenkins and Olivier Vernon in the 2016 off season with terrific results. Given the massive amount of salary-cap space they have for next year and in coming years, San Fransisco should aim to do the same.

Five-year contracts to four players won’t be mortgaging the future of the franchise either. There will still be plenty of space in the coming three-to-five years to re-sign the six or so good young players that are currently on the team when their rookie contracts expire.

2. Draft good players

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That’s easier said than done of course. It’s not like Baalke was deliberately having poor drafts and to state facts, he has hit in the last two years with starters DE Armstead, RT Brown (2015), DE Buckner, RG Garnett and CB Robinson (2016).

However, Lynch should avoid the temptation at number two overall to select a quarterback. Given there are no certainties in a draft, a successful draft is about playing the percentages and selecting the best player available (BPA).

The top two rated players (Myles Garrett and Jonathan Allen) are two of the highest rated players to come out in recent years.

Garrett is widely viewed as the highest rated OLB prospect since Von Miller, who was drafted in 2011. He even went to the same college as Miller; Texas A&M.

Allen has been described by NFL.com analyst Daniel Jeremiah as “the most technically sound defensive lineman I’ve ever evaluated”. Allen reportedly also has the versatility to line up at either as a 4-3 DE and also move into a DT in pass-rushing situation. His selection would help a possible transition to a 4-3 base defence, which may happen once a new defensive co-ordinator is hired.

Meanwhile, this quarterback class has several media analysts rating it in a similar fashion to the 2013 draft that produced EJ Manuel, Geno Smith and Mike Glennon. In other words, there are questions over their ability to be starters in the NFL.

Now we don’t know what the future 49ers draft ‘war room’ has rated these quarterbacks, but given the multiple evaluations from media analysts, it seems safe to assume none are worthy of the number two overall selection, especially when the ability to rush the passer is a need that one of two highly rated players would fill.

Can the 49ers go into a season without a highly prized rookie at quarterback? Absolutely. Many draft analysts are gushing already over the college talent to come out the following year.

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The 49ers could sign a capable free agent veteran like Jay Cutler, Nick Foles or Brian Hoyer, or even trade for Tony Romo (a third or fourth round pick may be enough) then aim to draft a higher rated rookie quarterback in 2018. They could also choose to retain Kaepernick, should he not choose to exercise his option to test free agency, and see how he handles Shanahan’s offence. They could also do the above and select a quarterback further down the draft – say in the third or fourth round.

They could also trade for a younger quarterback. Jimmy Garappolo from the Patriots (early second or third round pick?) or even Kirk Cousins should Washington place the franchise tag on him again. Unlikely though, as that would cost two first-round draft choices.

If the team does choose a veteran free agent and forgoes choosing to draft or trade for a quarterback this year, there is plenty to offer in 2018.

Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson should all be available in the first round of 2018. It makes more sense to wait a season and get a higher rated pick than rush for the sake of it this year. Bring in free agents this year and next. Draft future complementary stars this year and build a solid team that doesn’t put the onus on a rookie quarterback to come in and be a saviour.

Baalke’s biggest failing was that he wasn’t able to provide the team with any depth the past few years, hitting on only three players per year. A decent draft that selects five or more quality players of starting or solid rotational value will finally provide the team with some young depth.

The 2007 49ers draft provided five starters. So did the 2000 draft. If the 49ers can produce two drafts in the next two years that provide several starters and another seven capable backups to provide the integral depth the team currently lacks, they will be on their way to turning the franchise around.

So to recap, free agency finds you four starters. This year’s draft another three and some depth. The team is suddenly solid.

A quarterback drafted in 2018 meets a solid team with a veteran in place for support.

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This allows the team to play the way the Seahawks did in Russell Wilson’s first year in 2012 or even Dak Prescott this past season; be conservative on offence by running the ball well and managing short third downs. The defence is solid enough to keep you in the game. Both those teams made the playoffs with this formula.

By building a team first, then adding a rookie quarterback to the mix, you give that QB a much better chance to succeed, as opposed to selecting them this year with several holes on offence and defence.

Lynch and Shanahan have many challenges ahead. Few people are expecting anything out of the 49ers for several years at best. If they hit on the holes outlined above, they can be back in playoff contention in two years and surprise the football world.