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49ers Free Agency: Keeping key pieces, plugging holes

It’s quiet … almost too quiet. The final days before NFL free agency are upon us, and the San Francisco 49ers have positioned themselves for a very busy offseason ahead of the unofficial start to free agency.

NFL teams can begin negotiating, and come to terms (unofficially) with players starting March 15, just two days before any moves can be made official. With plenty of holes to fill, the 49ers are expected to be extremely busy from now until the draft.

Key Free Agents

Just how important is free agency for the 49ers? Of their 30+ free agents, at least 13 of them were either starters or players who played a significant role with the team over the past couple of seasons. Those players include, but are not limited to:

LT Trent Williams, CB Richard Sherman, DE Solomon Thomas, FS Jaquiski Tartt, CB Jason Verrett, FB Kyle Juszczyk, WR Kendrick Bourne, CB K’Waun Williams, DE Kerry Hyder, CB Ahkello Witherspoon, C Ben Garland, DT DJ Jones, and CB Emmanuel Moseley.

Not only are there big names hitting free agency, but the roles some of these players play are absolutely crucial to the fabric of the team. Most of these players the 49ers can survive without, except for the likes of T. Williams.

As big of a focus as the secondary will be this offseason, it still is second to the 49ers attempt to retain Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams, who will command the most money of all the teams’ free agents, and could become the highest-paid left tackle in football. The 49ers should, and likely will, prioritize Williams’ potentially record-breaking contract.

The 49ers have likely seen the last of Sherman, which the veteran CB alluded to in an interview with the Sacramento Bee. Losing a leader like Sherman could be one of many losses for the 49ers’ secondary this offseason. Nearly the entire secondary is hitting free agency, and that’s not an exaggeration.

Sherman, Tartt, K. Williams, Verrett, Witherspoon, and Moseley were all starters at one point for the 49ers this season. The only starting defensive back still under contract is safety Jimmie Ward. That sort of loss in the secondary could present the 49ers with a major problem next season.

The third order of business is addressing another area on the offensive line. Centers Ben Garland and Weston Richburg are not likely to return to the 49ers next season, which leaves a glaring hole in the middle of an already inconsistent offensive line.

So. What’s the plan?

The NFL was hit hard financially this season due to the Covid-19 Pandemic. The league-wide salary cap is expected drop from last season, and will present financial difficulties for many teams around the league.

The 49ers are expected to have anywhere from $24 million to $28 million in salary cap space ahead of free agency. That number could grow larger after some anticipated cuts and restructures, giving the team more financial flexibility.

So what’s the plan? How do the 49ers navigate a very difficult offseason? As mentioned previously, the primary focus will be on the offensive line and the secondary.

The 49ers will need to make a couple of moves to address the offensive line, and at least a few moves to fill glaring needs throughout the secondary. After that, we can expect the team to add firepower on offense, and more depth on the defensive line.

Predictions and potential deals

General Manager John Lynch and Head Coach Kyle Shanahan have been good about not tipping their hand. For most of the offseason, there’s been radio silence. A lot of what the 49ers are going to do next week is still up in the air and could come as a surprise to a lot of people. The first order of business is obvious.

Re-sign LT Trent Williams to a 4-year, $94 million deal. It’s not often that one of the best tackles in the league hits the open market. The 49ers should do everything in their power to re-sign Williams, and that will likely require signing him to the most lucrative contract for an offensive lineman in league history.

The $94 million price tag will pay Williams an average of $23.5 million per season, the most of anyone at the position. With a smaller salary cap this season, I would expect a large signing bonus, in order to allow for a small cap hit in the first year of the deal.

Re-sign both FS Jaquiski Tartt (2 years, $17 million) and CB Jason Verrett (1 year, $7 million). The 49ers will re-sign at least a couple of their free agent defensive backs, that much we can expect. They need to fill two or three of those holes in the secondary before the draft in late April. Tartt has been a very important leader in the secondary, and Verrett finally put together a stellar bounce-back season post-injury. I would expect there to be a strong push to retain both players.

49ers cut C Weston Richburg, and sign C Alex Mack (2 years, $12 million). Richburg has had trouble staying on the field both of the previous two seasons. Cutting him will allow for added financial flexibility, and even more if done after June 1. Holding off until summer remains a possibility, but I’m not sure the 49ers will go that route.

Alex Mack has been an above-average center in the league throughout his career and played for Shanahan in Atlanta. The need is there, the connection is there, and I expect Mack and Shanahan to reunite.

49ers re-sign DT Kerry Hyder (2 years, $9 million). Hyder was a rare bright spot for the 49ers in 2020. Suffering numerous injuries to the defensive line, Hyder was given a large role in 2020, much bigger than anticipated heading into the season. Recording 8-1/2 sacks, Hyder exceeded expectations and should provide the 49ers with nice depth on the defensive line next season.

49ers re-sign FB Kyle Juszczyk (2 years, $11 million). Ah yes, I can hear it now. The roar of the Levi’s Stadium crowd chanting “JUICEEE” after a completion deep down the sidelines to the fan-favorite fullback. Juszczyk is an important part of Shanahan’s offense, and is beloved throughout the organization. Every Shanahan offense needs a good fullback, and this deal just makes too much sense.

49ers release Dee Ford and sign DE Ryan Kerrigan (2 years, $24 million). The Dee Ford situation is very messy and quite complicated, to say the least. A once huge acquisition for the 49ers has resulted in half a season of play in two years, and a looming $20 million per year contract.

The 49ers need Ford, who missed nearly all of 2020 with a back injury, to pass a physical before April 1 in order for the team to avoid paying $11.6 million in injury guarantees. If he were able to pass a physical, the 49ers could release him and create over $5 million in cap space. If he is unable to pass a physical before that deadline, that cap space will not likely be available.

The Ryan Kerrigan signing comes with a big asterisk. This is more of a luxury signing, not something the 49ers are desperately needing. If the 49ers are to create cap space with Ford, I can see them targeting a player like Kerrigan who has averaged 9-1/2 sacks/season throughout his career.

Kerrigan has played in every single game in nine out of his ten career seasons. You know what they say, “the best ability is availability.”

49ers re-sign WR Kendrick Bourne (1 year, $5 million). Bourne has been a consistent piece in the 49ers offense and has become more reliable the further he’s progressed as a pass catcher. A high-energy player who is beloved in the 49ers locker room, Bourne set a career-high in snaps (688), targets (74), receptions (49), and yards (667). Bourne is familiar with the 49ers’ offense and provides Shanahan with a reliable weapon behind Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk.

More to come…

These are just a few of the bigger moves I expect the 49ers to make this offseason. There will be plenty of smaller moves from here on out, up until the start of the regular season, but these will fill much-needed holes up and down the 49ers roster.

The 49ers projected cap space does not currently allow for all of these moves. Fortunately for John Lynch and Co., they have one of the most creative front offices in professional sports, in addition to a number of ways they can maneuver their way around the salary cap, while still making the necessary moves. If they want to do something, they’ll find a way to get it done.

With ten total draft picks and not a lot of money to spend, the 49ers will look to add cheap, young talent in a very important 2021 NFL Draft. More to come on that front.

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