Entering the 2017 season, the San Francisco 49ers had reason for optimism. Besides having a new head coach in Kyle Shanahan, they also had a new general manager in John Lynch. The season was thought to be filled with promise but started off historically slow with a 1-10 start. Their new quarterback acquisition, Jimmy Garoppolo, started the last five games of the season and did not disappoint. The 49ers ended 2017 in style with a five-game winning streak. The future looks bright for the City by the Bay but pieces are still needed if the 49ers are to compete for a Super Bowl.
The Pieces in Place:
The San Francisco 49ers began the 2017 season with a number of promising players. On offense they had running back Carlos Hyde, left tackle Joe Staley and tight end Garrett Celek. On defense, they had inside linebacker Reuben Foster, defensive end Arik Armstead and strong safety Eric Reid. They have been quietly bulking up the defense over the past several seasons, especially on the defensive line. Along with Armstead and Foster they also acquired defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas. With a little bit of seasoning and added depth, this front seven can be scary good.
The offensive deficiencies were evident before Garoppolo took over. The lack of talent at wide receiver and offensive line showed in poor play with the two previous quarterbacks. The San Francisco 49ers have a good problem because Garoppolo has been able to overshadow all of that lack of talent. He has been able to get the ball out quickly and he has been able to move much better than his predecessors. These are all qualities coaches look for in their quarterbacks. He has been able to instill confidence in his receivers by throwing them catchable passes. His receivers are not the worst in the league, they just lack Pro Bowl level talent. What they have is speed and elusiveness. Wide receivers Marquise Goodwin and Trent Taylor, as well as tight ends Garrett Celek and George Kittle, have a special connection with Garoppolo which should not go unnoticed when the free agent market opens up. This group of receivers may lack Pro Bowl level talent but they do have the ability to lead the franchise to greatness.
The 49ers have the most projected salary cap space in the league with between $80 million to just over $100 million. This is great because some of the key pieces they need are in the free agent market. These pieces include an offensive guard, a free safety and a shutdown cornerback. Not all of these pieces can be found in the free agent market, but with the cap space they have the financial flexibility to build a contender with proven veterans. What follows is a list of mostly free agents as well as the top choice the 49ers should take in the 2018 NFL Draft. As the old saying goes, “You have to spend money to make money.”
Garoppolo was able to get away from a lot of the pressure caused by lack of effective pass blocking on the inside of the offensive line. While he was able to get away with this for a few games, when the playoffs come around this deficiency will be exposed. The 49ers guard Brandon Fusco is a big bodied man and not much more. With him becoming a free agent this offseason, the team is free to look at a couple of replacement options. One of those options is Luke Joeckel, the former second overall selection in the 2013 NFL Draft. He entered the league as a left tackle but is now being used as a guard. He is huge for a guard, 6’6” and 307 lbs., but brings the agility to pass block for a mobile quarterback. Keep in mind, he blocked for Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M, an extremely mobile quarterback who was constantly going all over the field, therefore making it difficult for blockers to stay with pass rushers who were constantly changing direction. Considering where Joeckel’s career is headed playing for three teams in three years, the 49ers should be able to get a discount for his services. The Seahawks only gave him a one-year deal and he really did not do much for a team which has never had much talent on the offensive line. With superior coaching and a better environment, it might make sense for the 49ers to give him a two-year deal with an option for a third year. The first two years will be $3 million per year with incentives. The third year should be worth $6 million because this would already indicate that both parties want to see him retire as a 49er.
Another guard prospect is D.J. Fluker. This man is even larger than Joeckel at 6’5” and 345 lbs. Judging from his girth, it is clear that he would be an excellent prospect as a bulldozing blocker in the run game. Similar to Joeckel, he was a high draft pick in 2013, 11th overall, but has never been in the right system. Both the San Diego Chargers and New York Giants are known for passing, not running. The San Francisco 49ers can be a perfect blend of both but they need to be more physical in run blocking, especially on the right side where they averaged less than one yard per carry in 2017. If the 49ers get him, they should give him a three-year deal with an option for a fourth year. The first three years will be worth a total of $15 million. The fourth year will be worth $10 million. The reason why he should be given more money than Joeckel is because most of his career he has not been given the chance to show his talents in the run game. Joeckel had his chance and was moved to guard. Fluker was only given a one year $3 million contract in New York. That is not much confidence. By giving him a longer, more lucrative contract he will play with more confidence and will show his true potential.
Another position of dire need for the 49ers is free safety. Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick is a noted student of the game and has collected just about every award there is to get as a defensive player at the collegiate level. Even if he does not fit in at strong safety, the 49ers could move him to cornerback. His intense study of the game should make the position switch painless.
Cornerback is also a position of need as teams constantly took advantage of a weak defensive backfield. Malcolm Butler is a player the 49ers should pursue in free agency. The Super Bowl 49 hero followed his clutch performance with a Pro Bowl season in 2015. While it has been widely publicized that he was benched for this year’s Super Bowl for disciplinary reasons, there is no reason to believe he will not be a quality player for a team needing a cornerback. If the 49ers get him they should give him a four-year deal with a fifth-year option. The average salary should be $10 million. Due to the publicity involved with his supposed disciplinary issues, the team should lace most of that $10 million per year in incentives. The only guaranteed money would be $5 million per year.
The 49ers have a promising cornerback on the roster in Dontae Johnson. He had the most tackles of his career in 2017 and looked promising all year by making big plays. The 49ers should give him a five year, $25 million deal. While he has not made a significant impact yet, his production increased as the 2017 season unfolded. He is the kind of cornerback a championship caliber team would want due to his athletic ability as well as his potential.
While the 49ers don’t necessarily need another wide receiver, it would not hurt to bolster the depth chart with a seasoned veteran. Jarvis Landry would make an excellent addition to a weak receiving core. He has been the main target for the Miami Dolphins for the past four seasons and has three Pro Bowl invites as evidence of his ability. The 49ers should offer him a five year, $75 million contract. This will make him one of the highest paid wide receivers in the NFL. While his Dolphins teams have mostly been out of contention, he has been the lone bright spot. If the 49ers get him, they will be Super Bowl contenders in 2018.
Sammy Watkins is another wide receiver the 49ers should pursue. This is mostly because he was with the Los Angeles Rams in 2017, a historical rival of the 49ers. He is one of the most athletic receivers in the NFL and he flourished in the Rams system. The 49ers should offer him a five year, $90 million contract. The reason why this is higher than Landry’s offer is because Watkins is with a rival of the 49ers who will surely give him a lucrative offer after having a productive season in 2017. Watkins is just hitting his stride in the NFL and his potential is limitless. If the 49ers do not get him then it will be much tougher to defeat the Rams who are also looking to contend for the Super Bowl in 2018 and beyond. This is a war between two historic rivals. The 49ers should fire the first shot before they fall far behind in the championship chase.
The San Francisco 49ers are just starting to discover themselves. They realize they have talent but their current roster will not get them to the Super Bowl. They need just a few more pieces to truly become championship contenders. If they follow this blue print for the offseason, they will have a chance to be Super Bowl champions by February of 2019. San Francisco 49er fans should start planning for Atlanta, the sight of the Super Bowl, because their team is on the cusp of a championship. The future is bright for the 49ers and the NFL will soon realize just how bright their future is.