For the San Francisco 49ers, the 2021 season ended with an agonizing 20-17 defeat in the NFC Championship game to the Los Angeles Rams. The team recovered from a 3-5 start to the regular season and ultimately recorded two memorable playoff road wins. This offseason, Head Coach Kyle Shanahan and General Manager John Lynch will need to plan ahead to get back into Super Bowl contention. Here, we discuss eight options for the front office to consider this offseason:
1. Trade Jimmy Garoppolo
For Jimmy Garoppolo, this past season was a qualified success. He bounced back from a disappointing 2020 season and finished with 3,810 passing yards and 20 touchdowns. His quality wins were highlighted by a Week 18 victory over the Rams. However, Garoppolo was patchy in the playoffs and despite a starting record of 35-16, he is unlikely to lead the 49ers to their sixth Super Bowl.
The 49ers gave up their next two first round picks for Trey Lance and barring an offseason catastrophe, he should be under center in Week 1 of next season. The situation is similar to the one the Chiefs had in Patrick Mahomes’ rookie season, where Alex Smith was the starter until he was ultimately traded to Washington.
It will be a similar solution for Garoppolo, whose 2021 season enhanced his trade value. With only one year left and just $1.4 million of dead cap money on his deal, a trade makes more sense for potential suitors than waiting for San Francisco to cut him. Add to the fact that the 2022 NFL Draft holds a particularly thin quarterback class and Lynch is likely to get calls.
Possible destinations for Garoppolo appear to be headed by the Houston Texans, whose General Manager Nick Caserio drafted Garoppolo for the New England Patriots in 2014. Other suitors could include Pittsburgh, Carolina, Washington or perhaps Tampa Bay. At this point in his career, Garoppolo is at least a fine bridge quarterback option, with a day two pick the likely compensation heading to Santa Clara for the former Eastern Illinois passer.
2. Lock down Azeez Al-Shaair to a long-term deal
The 49ers are currently expected to have around $10 million in cap space for 2022, however, with Garoppolo traded (or cut) and other minor moves, that number could swell to the region of $40-45 million. San Francisco doesn’t have a large list of premium players slated to hit free agency, but the first player they’ll likely lock down to a long-term deal will be linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair.
Having being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2019, Al-Shaair was pressed into service following injuries to key linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw and responded with a career year. He ended the regular season with 103 tackles, two sacks, a fumble and an interception. Due to his undrafted status, Al-Shaair has played under inexpensive exclusive rights deals in his career to date. This season he is a restricted free agent, but given his excellent campaign, the 49ers should prepare his long-term contract extension sooner than later.
3. Re-sign Laken Tomlinson, Trade Mike McGlinchey
Of the 49ers pending free agents, left guard Laken Tomlinson is the one they will be keen to retain. Tomlinson has proven himself to be one of the best roster moves for San Francisco, having arrived for a fifth round pick in 2017 following a difficult tenure with the Detroit Lions.
Tomlinson remained consist last season, finishing the regular season with a PFF grade of 76.0; which was ranked 12th among NFL guards. As a result, he was named a Pro Bowl alternate. Tomlinson won’t command the type of contract the 49ers paid to retain Trent Williams a year ago, but the duo forms one of the best left-side offensive lines in the league.
In theory, the 49ers could let Tomlinson walk and move second round pick Aaron Banks to the left guard position. However, Banks is more likely to compete with Dan Brunskill for the right guard spot this offseason. Brunskill ranked just 52nd among qualifying guards in 2021, while Banks played just five snaps. Tomlinson, 29, has plenty of years in the tank and has a clean injury record.
At right tackle, former first round pick Mike McGlinchey was enjoying a solid season before a quad injury sent him to IR. In came journeyman Tom Compton, who proved to be a surprise hit, finishing the season with a PFF rating of 86.4; fourth among qualifying tackles. He also finished with a run block rating of 92.2, bettered only by teammate Williams. Compton is set to hit free agency, but having bounced around the league his entire career, it makes sense to retain him on a short term deal.
Retaining Compton on the roster throws McGlinchey’s future into question. The ninth overall pick from the 2018 NFL Draft has never quite lived up to his billing and will be playing next season under his pricey fifth-year option. The 49ers will likely let Compton and McGlinchey fight it out in training camp for the start, however, McGlinchey has a guaranteed $10.8 million salary next season. If a trade can be found, the 49ers should seriously consider the return value.
4. Pay for a Cornerback
When it came to addressing the secondary last offseason, the 49ers opted to kick the can a year down the line with a raft of one-year contract extensions. In return, they now have only three cornerbacks under contract for 2022. Emmanuel Moseley has proved himself to be a steady starter on the boundary, while rookies Ambry Thomas and Deommodore Lenoir both showed promise. However, both are still learning and it’s a stretch to see either as an immediate starter next season.
Of those out of contract, Jason Verrett is coming off an ACL tear and given his injury-ravaged career, the 49ers cannot rely on him on a weekly basis, even if he returns on team-friendly terms. Josh Norman looks set to retire, leaving K’Waun Williams as the only realistic premium candidate to return. Williams was the first player Lynch signed to the 49ers back in 2017 and he’s been a consistent performer at the slot corner position. He will turn 31 next season, so a short term deal is likely.
With no first round pick to call on, San Francisco should explore what looks to be a deep free agency pool. It is unlikely New England’s JC Jackson or Kansas City’s Mike Hughes make it to the open market. Names to watch, however, include Kevin King, Darious Williams and Charvarius Ward. King would not normally reach free agency, but Green Bay is facing a cap crunch. As for Kansas City, they are faced with paying both Hughes and Ward, meaning one might go elsewhere. Williams has had a comparatively disappointing season with the Rams, but he could be a target in free agency should the likes of King prove to be out of reach. Either way, the 49ers cannot enter the NFL Draft without adding to their cornerback room.
5. Let Jaquiski Tartt Walk
If San Francisco do spend on a cornerback and retain both Laken Tomlinson and K’Waun Williams, there will be others set to depart in free agency. One likely candidate is long-time safety Jaquiski Tartt. Drafted in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft, Tartt is one of the longest tenured players on the 49ers roster. San Francisco appears to have found a diamond in the rough in the fifth round in rookie Talanoa Hufanga, who stood in well for Tartt and should be seen as the veteran’s long-term replacement.
It would a shame for his career to end on the agony of a dropped interception, but he has been injury prone in the past and the 49ers will likely let him test the open market. If Tartt, 30, doesn’t attract much interest from around the league, then he could always return to the roster once again on a team-friendly deal.
6. Draft an Edge Rusher Early
For once, the San Francisco 49ers will not be selecting a defensive lineman in the first round of the NFL Draft. However, when they get on the clock on Day Two, they could very well revert to drafting a pass-rusher early on and with good reason. Nick Bosa had an exceptional season, coming back from an ACL injury in 2020 to record a 15.5 sacks and reach the Pro Bowl. However, Dee Ford struggled with multiple injuries and has been limited to just seven games since Super Bowl 54. Former Ram Samson Ebukam arrived in free agency, but he struggled to make an impact on the defensive end early in the season. However, he did improve down the stretch, finishing with 4.5 sacks and was ranked 48th among EDGE defenders, according to PFF.
When Javon Kinlaw landed on IR, Arden Key was switched to the interior defensive line where he logged an impressive campaign alongside Arik Armstead. Armstead remains a versatile player and may get more snaps on the edge once Kinlaw returns. However, with Charles Omenihu as the only other EDGE defender under contract alongside Bosa and Ekubam, there is a need for new blood.
The 49ers could look to free agency, but with cornerback a more pressing issue, it’s not likely they can go for a premium edge rusher such as Hassan Reddick. Meanwhile, both Key and DJ Jones are pending free agents with both likely to be offered fresh terms, reducing the 49ers options of returning talents. The team may also bring Jordan Willis back, but Ford is almost certain to be cut, leaving at least one spot open.
Fortunately for San Francisco, this year’s Draft contains a deep EDGE class. The preferred pick will be long gone when the 49ers are on the clock on Day Two, but prospects such as Houston’s Logan Hall, Oklahoma’s Nik Bonitto and Ohio State’s Zak Harrison could be in play.
7. Find Another Receiving Option
At first glance, the 49ers have one of the best receiving groups in the NFL in team MVP Deebo Samuel, All-Pro George Kittle, and second-year receiver Brandon Aiyuk. The trio logged over 3,000 receiving yards in the regular season. Beyond the star trio, however, there is minimal depth with the emerging Jauan Jennings listed as the only other wide receiver set to be retained along with blocking specialist tight end Charlie Woerner.
Shanahan has always tailored his offense to his quarterback, but with Trey Lance almost certain to be the starting quarterback next season, he may look for a different option.
A speedy slot receiver seems to be an obvious pick, with Jennings and veteran Mohamed Sanu the 2021 options and Sanu unlikely to return. Another option could be a second pass-catching tight end after the 49ers struggled when Kittle was injured during the 2021 season. However, in tailoring his team to Lance’s skill set, Shanahan may just look for a deep threat. The last true deep ball receiver San Francisco had was Marquise Goodwin. It is still early for the 49ers offseason, but a prospect such as South Alabama’s Jalen Tolbert could be worth keeping an eye on in the middle rounds of the 2022 Draft.
8. Repeat the Elijah Mitchell trick
Most of the 49ers rookie class flashed potential this past season, with Elijah Mitchell leading the pack. The Louisiana product lead the team in rushing with 963 yards, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. Despite missing a number of games, Mitchell still found the end zone on five occasions. Fellow rookie Trey Sermon didn’t fair as well, as he logged just 41 carries last season. Raheem Mostert tore his ACL in Week 1 and is a pending free agent alongside Jeff Wilson, leaving the running back room a little short.
Shanahan has plenty of form for finding productive running backs in the late rounds or even within the undrafted pool with Matt Breida among the previous success stories. With three compensatory picks likely heading their way in the seventh round, the 49ers can swing the bat late in the draft on players who fit the athletic profile Shanahan craves.