The San Francisco 49ers represented a pleasant surprise in 2021. Despite low preseason expectations and a plethora of injuries throughout the year, the team found its way to the NFC Conference Championship. Players like Deebo Samuel and Elijah Mitchell had massive breakout campaigns while Jimmy Garoppolo impressed enough to keep his starting job over rookie Trey Lance. Meanwhile, offensive lineman Trent Williams and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Nick Bosa remained dominant.
From a coaching perspective, Kyle Shanahan played a huge role in the 49ers’ high-powered rushing attack, which featured both Mitchell and Samuel in key roles. However, Shanahan’s staff did lose more key members once the season concluded. 38-year-old Mike McDaniel, who wrapped up his first year as offensive coordinator, latched on with the Miami Dolphins as their head coach. Wide receivers coach Wes Welker and tight ends coach John Embree both followed McDaniel to South Beach. Finally, special teams coordinator Richard Hightower left for the same position with the Chicago Bears.
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Pending Free Agents
The 49ers have a long list of impending free agents set to test the market this offseason. The 49ers have a tendency to seek stability by retaining veteran players, but that can be easier said than done. With just $2.9 million in projected cap space, San Francisco doesn’t have an endless ability to win bidding wars. On the other hand, some key cuts and restructures could provide them with some much-needed financial relief.
Tomlinson, 30, was a first-round pick of the Lions back in 2015. After just two years, Detroit cut bait on the guard, flipping him to San Francisco for a fifth-round pick. Since then, he has started all but one game and even earned a Pro Bowl nomination in 2021. The left guard was a key part of the 49ers’ offensive line, playing alongside the dominant Williams. San Francisco will look to re-sign him in the coming months, but they will certainly face some competition.
Azeez Al-Shaair (RFA)
Just 24 years old, Al-Shaair is eligible for restricted free agency this offseason and will likely be a priority signing for the 49ers. He started all 13 games he appeared in this past season, racking up one interception, one fumble forced, two fumble recoveries, and two sacks, all while making 102 tackles. The 2019 undrafted free agent out of FAU has complemented Fred Warner nicely in the 49ers’ linebacking unit and would remain a key piece of their defense going forward, assuming he returns.
Tartt, 30, isn’t a star, but he’s been a key piece of the 49ers’ defensive secondary ever since they drafted him in 2015. This past season, he racked up a career-high 66 tackles through 13 games while also contributing a quarterback hit and pass deflection. Injuries have been a concern in the past (2021 was just the second time he started double-digit games), but there’s no doubt that the veteran knows the San Francisco system and can continue to play at a starting-caliber level. This feels like a situation where Tartt and the 49ers have mutual interest in negotiating a deal that pleases both sides.
Potential Cap Casualties
Currently, the 49ers are projected to be right up against the cap when free agency strikes. However, a slew of trades and cuts over the next couple of months should put them in a better position to spend money in March and beyond. The most glaring subtraction for this team comes in the form of its veteran quarterback, who could generate significant interest on the trade market.
Jimmy Garoppolo ($25.6 Million Saved)
It’s inevitable that the 49ers will part ways with Garoppolo. Doing so would create more than $25 million in cap space while carrying just $1.4 million in dead money. While the veteran signal-caller was respectable and played a role in the Niners’ success, the combination of Lance waiting in the wings coupled with financial reasons indicates that Garoppolo won’t take another snap in San Francisco. At this point, a trade seems most likely, with teams like the Steelers, Commanders, Saints, or Buccaneers looking like the best fits. It’s neat to think that Garoppolo could secede Tom Brady, as was once planned in New England.
Charles Omenihu ($2.5 Million Saved)
The 49ers landed Omenihu from the Texans in a deadline-day deal this past fall. Just 25 years old, Omenihu offers youth but hasn’t been a major contributor on defense. Through 15 games between Houston and San Francisco, he made just 17 tackles and failed to register a sack. Additionally, he suited up for nine contests with the 49ers but did not start any of them. The team’s unofficial depth chart lists him third behind Samson Ebukam and Jordan Willis. The Niners can create more than $2.5 million in cap space by cutting Omenihu, and it won’t cost them anything in the form of dead money.
Samson Ebukam ($6.5 Million Saved)
Admittedly, Ebukam’s chances of staying with the 49ers are relatively high considering he racked up 36 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 11 quarterback hits, and one forced fumble in 2021. He was a key starter on San Francisco’s defensive line and made his presence felt. However, he’s at least worth mentioning in this category considering his release would free up $6.5 million in cap space while carrying just $1.8 million in dead money. The 49ers surely want Ebukam to stick around, but their tight cap situation could coerce them into making tough decisions this offseason.
Open Market Free Agent Targets
The 49ers need to find good talent on value deals. Sure, that sounds like every team’s dream, and it’s definitely easier said than done. Still, it’s true. With Bosa and Samuel awaiting extensions, San Francisco can’t dole out big money to fill notable vacancies. Instead, they need to find solid players willing to fetch reasonable salaries for the next three or four years. On a positive note, the 49ers shouldn’t limit their scope to younger players in free agency. Their willingness to sign players of varying ages opens up their list of potential options.
Connor Williams, Dallas Cowboys
Even with Garoppolo departing, the 49ers could find themselves pressed for money if they extend Samuel and Bosa. Such a scenario could remove them from the Tomlinson sweepstakes. Instead, they could look for a younger, cheaper, but still talented option like Williams. The 24-year-old is a former second-round pick who played in all 17 games (14 starts) while gracing the field for a career-high 77.3 percent of snaps in 2021. He’s also a natural left guard, meaning the transition from Tomlinson to Williams could be relatively seamless.
Kyle Fuller, Denver Broncos
With K’Waun Williams, Jason Verrett, and Josh Norman all heading for free agency, the 49ers need some clear help at the cornerback position. Fuller is a dream addition for San Francisco, and he could be a good fit considering he’s not the most expensive option on the market but still has plenty of good football left in him. He racked up 51 tackles and four pass deflections through 16 games (10 starts) with the Denver Broncos in 2021. The fact that he’s north of 30 years old and wasn’t phenomenal in 2021 narrows his list of suitors but doesn’t mean he can’t be a viable starter for a couple more seasons.
Ahkello Witherspoon, Pittsburgh Steelers
Witherspoon is a familiar face for the 49ers, who rostered him for the first four years of his career from 2017 to 2020. The former third-round pick latched on with the Steelers this past season, and although he only played in nine games (three starts), he made his ball-hawking presence felt with a career-high three interceptions and nine passes defended. His strong 2021 plus his familiarity with the 49ers’ system makes him a clear fit heading into free agency.
Previewing the 2022 NFL Draft
Heading into the draft, the 49ers need to address the positions that they don’t prioritize in free agency, which could include guard and cornerback. The team might also look into drafting their center of the future. Don’t be surprised if Shanahan gets lured in by the idea of drafting an exciting gadget player on offense, too.
Round 2, Pick 61: Jamaree Salyer, OL, Georgia
With no first-round pick, the 49ers aren’t scheduled to be on the clock until No. 61. They could very likely trade up, but for now, let’s assume they stand pat. Most of Salyer’s experience has come at tackle, but the expectation is that he’ll shift to guard in the NFL. He would make plenty of sense as a replacement to Tomlinson if the 49ers don’t address the position in free agency, but he could also be a candidate to take over for 36-year-old Alex Mack at center.
Round 3, Pick 93: Marcus Jones, CB, Houston
With Williams heading for free agency, the 49ers need a new nickel cornerback. Regardless of their draft plans, they’ll likely sign one in free agency. However, if they sign a veteran, they’ll still look to address the position in the draft. Jones is a talented and athletic nickel cornerback who has the ability to be a key starter after a year or two of development.
Early 2022 Expectations
The 49ers’ 2022 success hinges on what the 49ers can get in a Garoppolo trade, whether or not they extend Bosa and Samuel, and how well Lance fares in training camp. As of now, though, the immediate future looks quite bright for the 49ers. They have a young, high-powered offense with a respectable offensive line and a strong defensive core with players like Bosa and Warner. Shanahan’s strong coaching ability and his success when coaching a run-heavy offense also gives the Nines a leg up. The biggest obstacle for San Francisco will be its competition, including challenging divisional foes in the Cardinals and Rams.
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