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A 2018-19 season for the San Francisco 49ers that began with playoff aspirations ended on Sunday with a regular season record of 4-12. At first sight, the initial hopes for the 49ers were dependent on QB Jimmy Garoppolo, as well as the young and upcoming defense. In reality, Garoppolo tore his ACL in Week 3, and the defense somehow went backwards.
In addition, the team also lost talents in Jerick McKinnon, Pierre Garçon, Marquise Goodwin, Jaquiski Tartt, and Adrian Colbert. The Ruben Foster fiasco happened to be the closing chapter to a forgettable season.
A critical 2019 awaits
Just 2 seasons into their 6-year contracts, Head Coach Kyle Shanahan and General Manager John Lynch are currently safe. They inherited arguably the worst roster in the NFL and were always going to need time to rebuild. That being said, both men have to exceed their roles for a franchise with playoff aspirations. Simply meeting the bare minimum of 8-8 would be a major stepping stone for the San Francisco fan base in 2019.
The 49ers hold the 2nd overall pick of the 2019 NFL Draft, and 4 picks in the top 100. In addition, the front office contains a projected $63M in cap space with no lucrative contract renewals due until 2020. There are plenty of resources to strengthen the roster, but what areas should they be targeting?
Low priority positions
With McKinnon due back, he will form a potent one-two attack alongside Matt Brieda. In addition, Raheem Mostert offers a credible change of pace in the backfield after averaging 8.7 yards per carry in 2018. Mostert and Jeff Wilson could both hit free agency, and signing both to extensions represent sensible low-risk investments. Meanwhile at fullback, the 49ers have arguably the best in the league in Kyle Jusczcyk.
Garoppolo remains the 49ers central hope, and his ACL tear was closer to the one suffered last season by Houston Texans QB Deshaun Watson than the more series one suffered by Philadelphia Eagles QB Carson Wentz. Both CJ Beathard and Nick Mullens are developmental passers, making it pointless for the 49ers to draft another QB in the later rounds. Shanahan will stick with what he has and will only make a move if Garoppolo suffers another serious injury in the distant future.
DeForest Buckner is developing into an elite interior defender, and became the first 49ers player since Aldon Smith to record double-digit sacks. Former 3rd overall pick Solomon Thomas is clearly better suited to the 3-technique position than playing on the edge, and Sheldon Day provides a reliable rotational piece. The 49ers need to move on from veteran nose tackle Earl Mitchell, but already have his long-term replacement in DJ Jones.
This is never a high priority, but the Niners have expiring contracts at hand with the special teams unit. Kicker Robbie Gould has proved to be among the most reliable in the NFL, and was critical to the 5-game run that concluded the 2017 campaign. Punter Brad Pinion averaged a serviceable 43.7 yards per punt in 2018 and is a solid locker room presence.
Best move: Re-sign Gould and Pinion
George Kittle is now an elite NFL tight end after a record breaking 1,377-yard season, highlighted by his 210 yard performance in Week 14. However, behind Kittle, there is not much depth. Garrett Celek fared better when Garoppolo was around and blocks well, but if Shanahan wants to run two tight end sets, he needs another quality target. Lynch has spoken of the need for an X-Factor receiver, and while the 49ers have a greater need at wide receiver, this is a stronger draft class at the tight end position.
Best move: Early Day 3 draft pick
Consistency has to be the watchword for an improving 49ers offensive line. Most fans groaned when Lynch selected OT Mike McGlinchey 9th overall, but the Notre Dame prospect has proven himself. On the opposite end, Joe Staley remains an excellent left tackle, as the 12-year veteran has a few more seasons left in the tank. Finding a longer term partner for McGlinchey is an objective, but one Lynch should put beyond the 2019 offseason.
At left guard, Laken Tomlinson showed improvement in his second season, while Mike Person proved to be a sleeper success at right guard. However, former 1st round pick Joshua Garnett has been established as a bust, with no chance of his 5th-year option being picked up. The 49ers will try to trade Garnett for whatever they can get this offseason, and may look to add a developmental interior lineman on Day 3 of the draft.
Center Weston Richburg had a hit-and-miss first season since signing a large free agency deal. The 49ers have invested too much money in him to move on quite yet, and he should improve with an offensive line where 3 of the 5 starters were in their first season with the team.
Best move: Day 3 draft pick on the interior, push drafting a tackle to 2020
High priority needs (in order)
The Ruben Foster era ended in a DV charge at the team hotel in Week 12. Whatever Lynch says publicly, drafting a player with this many red flags was a mistake. Fortunately, 3rd round pick Fred Warner had a stellar rookie season at middle linebacker, leading the team in tackles. Brock Coyle landed on IR in Week 1 of the season and should be back for 2019. Malcolm Smith has proved a horrendous free agency mistake, as the 49ers may look set to cut him this summer.
Best move: Late Day 2/3 draft pick, or free agent signing
4. Wide Receiver
Shanahan and Lynch have turned over the 49ers receiving corps inside 2 years with inevitably mixed results. Marquise Goodwin has proved to be a huge hit, adding excellent route running to his track speed. In addition, Dante Pettis added 5 touchdowns in his rookie year. Meanwhile, slot receiver Trent Taylor struggled with injury in his second season, but is still a favorite target for Garoppolo. Kendrick Bourne has proved a valuable depth piece, and rookie Richie James should be back again next season.
However, the ageing Pierre Garçon has struggled with injury throughout his 2 seasons in San Francisco. With such a young group, the 49ers may be best served to look in free agency for an extra weapon. Donte Moncrief is an intriguing prospect, particularly given the fact that Jacksonville is currently $12M over the projected 2019 cap. Golden Tate and Randall Cobb are two others possible options worth looking into.
Best move: Free agent signing
The San Francisco secondary was woeful in 2018, with a staggering 9 different starting safety combinations. Jaquiski Tartt and Adrian Colbert have flashed signs of hope, but consistency remains a major issue. Rookies DJ Reed and Marcell Harris showed promise as well, but are still learning. The 49ers lack a difference maker to underpin their defense.
Should they trade back in the upcoming draft, Deionte Thompson might be an option worth investing in. However, the nearing free agency pool is oozing with Tyrann Mathieu, Earl Thomas and LaMarcus Joyner all potentially available in March.
Best move: High-end free agent signing
It became apparent quickly in 2018 where opposing quarterbacks looked to attack, as Ahkello Witherspoon clearly struggled. The 3rd round pick in 2017 became the scapegoat for the 49ers issues in the secondary. As a result of Witherspoon being targeted, it’s difficult to asses the season of 4-time Pro Bowl CB Richard Sherman.
Beyond Witherspoon and Sherman, K’wan Williams has proven to contain under-the-radar success. If the 49ers miss out on pass rusher Nick Bosa, LSU’s Greedy Williams would be a fine addition to this roster.
Best move: Day 2 draft pick, plus experienced free agent signing
1. Edge Rusher/ Defensive End
The San Francisco 49ers edge attack was hapless in 2018 and is far and away their biggest priority in the 2019 offseason. The only true edge rushers on the roster are the Cassius Marsh and Dekoda Watson.
Meanwhile at defensive end, Arik Armstead is a fine run defender, but an average pass rusher and is entering his 5th-year option. The 49ers have sound rotational pieces in Ronald Blair, who added a respectable 5.5 sacks, and Julian Taylor. Kentavius Street infamously tore his ACL last spring on his College Pro Day, but none of the aforementioned options are true edge players that can disrupt opposing offenses.
Fortunately, the best player in the 2019 NFL Draft just happens to be an edge rusher in Nick Bosa. If he is available, the Ohio State prospect should be taken by San Francisco without hesitation. However if Bosa goes first overall the Niners may consider trading down or possibly taking Kentucky’s Josh Allen.
Best move: 1st round pick
Picture Credits: USA Today, SB Nation, Yardbarker, ESPN