News & Analysis

San Francisco 49ers 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

September 13, 2020; Santa Clara, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers players huddle during the fourth quarter against the Arizona Cardinals at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

In the lead-up to the start of free agency on March 17 and opening day of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

The San Francisco 49ers are coming off a disappointing 2020 season in which their roster was ravaged by injuries. Key players Jimmy Garoppolo, George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Nick Bosa and Richard Sherman all missed significant time due to injuries. The result was a 6-10 record just one year after the franchise represented the NFC in Super Bowl 54. 

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With a little bit better injury luck, this projects to be one of the most improved teams in the NFL next season. However, much of that will come down to what transpires at the quarterback position in the coming months. San Francisco has shown it can win with Garoppolo, but rumors have swirled around a potential upgrade either via trade or in the 2021 NFL Draft. 

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): $24,850,877 (11th in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 12, 43, 102, 117, 155, 172, 180, 193, 228, 238

Projected 2021 offense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB ?
RB Raheem Mostert 13 / 70 $3.6 million
FB ?
WR Brandon Aiyuk 20 / 127 $2.8 million
WR Deebo Samuel 21 / 127 $2.1 million
TE George Kittle 4 / 71 $5.5 million
LT ?
LG Laken Tomlinson 5 / 39 $6.6 million
C ?
RG ?
RT Mike McGlinchey 7 / 38 $6.0 million

The glaring question mark here is at the quarterback position. Garoppolo remains under contract as the presumptive starter, but his release could net the 49ers nearly $24 million in additional cap space. They could opt to make an aggressive move for his replacement in the draft, providing them that additional cap space to address several other potential holes in free agency. Those would include Trent Williams at left tackle and Kyle Juszczyk at fullback on the offensive side of the ball. Kendrick Bourne also joins the list of notable offensive free agents for San Francisco.

The interior offensive line also faces uncertainty this offseason. Center Weston Richburg is set to make $11.5 million dollars in 2021, but the 49ers could recoup some of that if they part ways with the veteran. Richburg has been oft-injured since joining the team as a free agent back in 2018, and he didn’t play at all in 2020 due to a setback during his recovery from a torn patellar tendon in 2019.

Daniel Brunskill started at both center and right guard last season for San Francisco and could step in as a starter at either position in 2021. He’s an exclusive rights free agent this offseason. 2020 fifth-round selection Colton McKivitz also drew several starts at right guard after Brunskill slid over to center. Those guys and cheaper free agents, such as Ben Garland, returning could be how the 49ers opt to move forward without making any big moves to the group up front.

Can the 49ers get an immediate impact quarterback with the 12th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft?

It doesn’t seem likely that any of what appear to be the top-four quarterback prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft — Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields or Trey Lance — are going to make it to San Francisco at No. 12. Beyond the franchises that will likely be in the market at the top of the draft, there are teams outside the top 10 that could trade up for a quarterback and quarterback-needy teams at the back end of the first round.

That all goes to say the 49ers' decision will come down to whether the team wants to take a chance on Mac Jones if they stand pat at 12th overall. Jones has been dinged in the evaluation process because he doesn't possess the same athleticism of other quarterbacks in the class. He also played in a loaded Alabama offense this past season.

There are clear strengths to his game, though. Jones is one of the more accurate quarterbacks in the class, more than capable of getting the ball out with timing and maneuvering a pocket under pressure.

Does he have the upside to become a top-five quarterback in the NFL? Probably not. But there is real value in having an above-average quarterback on a rookie contract, and Jones could be that, particularly in San Francisco’s stable offense. It would lead to an interesting decision should he be on the board when the 49ers are on the clock in Round 1.

What is the ceiling for this offense when fully healthy?

Back in 2019, the 49ers ranked seventh in the league in EPA per play. That dropped to 20th this past season, but an asterisk exists next to that rank. Not only did the 49ers miss two of their best receiving options for significant chunks of the year (Kittle and Samuel), but they also had a revolving door at quarterback. San Francisco finished the year with just the 28th-ranked team passing grade in the NFL after a rotating cast of an injured Garoppolo, Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard.

One has to expect that they are capable of getting back to being a top-10 offense in 2021 with better injury luck. That may even be the floor. When comparing this team to the 2019 group, it now has Aiyuk coming off an impressive rookie season and PFF’s highest-graded left tackle (potentially) returning in Williams. Jalen Hurd is another player who was generating plenty of buzz last offseason before his injury.

While there is legitimate reason for optimism, it’s hard to say exactly what the expectations for this group should be without knowing who will be behind center. Garoppolo isn’t the most exciting option, but he does provide a certain level of stability if healthy. A move to chase a higher ceiling at the position could, in turn, lower the floor for 2021.

Do the 49ers work out an extension for Trent Williams at left tackle? 

Williams’ recent appearance on the Cris Collinsworth podcast with 49ers teammate Richard Sherman seems to indicate that an extension will happen. 

“I’ve got San Francisco,” Sherman said when speculating on where Williams would end up next season. “I think he makes you guys happy for another 5-6 years and gets his gold jacket and then decides whether he wants it in Washington or San Francisco.”

Williams responded by saying, “That’s not a bad take, fellas. That’s not a bad take. Y’all barking up the right tree.”

It’s not difficult to see why San Francisco would want Williams back or why Williams would want to return. That pairing resulted in the 49ers getting stability on the left side of their offensive line following Joe Staley‘s retirement and Williams having one of the better years of his illustrious career as PFF’s highest-graded left tackle. A return should be in the cards.

Potential targets at open spots

Quarterback: Justin Fields, Sam Darnold

There is a very slim chance Fields slides to 12th overall, so this fit would require San Francisco to trade up in all likelihood. His fit in Kyle Shanahan’s offense makes it an intriguing thought, though. Fields is arguably the most accurate quarterback in this class when looking at PFF’s accuracy charting data, and he brings an added element of mobility that the 49ers haven’t had previously at the position. 

Darnold would also require a trade — just one that isn’t quite as costly. There is no getting around the fact that the beginning of his NFL career has been disastrous. On the other hand, it’s difficult not to acknowledge that he was thrown to the wolves with his supporting cast and coaching. The 49ers would offer an offensive environment on the opposite end of the spectrum. 

San Francisco might want to take a chance on the 23-year-old in the hopes that he begins to show why he was the No. 3 overall pick in the draft with more talent around him on offense.

Fullback: Kyle Juszczyk, Tommy Tremble

This is the one and only mention of a fullback in these free agency previews, but Juszczyk isn’t your typical fullback. He has a much more impactful and pronounced role than any other player at the position across the NFL in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. You have to imagine the 49ers will try to bring him back for 2021. 

If they don’t, Tremble is one of PFF lead draft analyst Mike Renner’s favorites to transition from tight end to fullback in the NFL. His bottom line in the PFF Draft Guide reads, “In the right scheme, Tremble could very easily take the torch from Kyle Juszczyk as the league’s best fullback.” Perhaps the 49ers have had similar thoughts with his combination of blocking ability, size and athleticism.

Tackle: Trent Williams, Rashawn Slater

Retaining Williams should be a priority for San Francisco. He graded out as the best left tackle in the league last season in his return to the field and fits like a glove into the 49ers' offense.

If the contract doesn’t work out for one reason or another, Slater could be the solution to the 49ers’ starting left tackle dilemma in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. He is listed as PFF’s second-ranked tackle, behind Penei Sewell, and the 12th overall player. Slater recorded a 90.0 overall grade in his last season of action back in 2019 and has the kind of athleticism and talent to stick at tackle despite what could be considered less-than-desirable size and length.

Interior offensive line: Alex Mack, Ben Garland

Mack has frequently been floated as a potential replacement for Richburg at center given his time with Shanahan in Atlanta and success in zone-blocking schemes. His 65.9 overall grade in 2020 was the lowest of his 12-year career, but he still finished with a middle-of-the-pack mark among qualifying centers across the league. 

Garland is a re-sign candidate in free agency for that same center job after two solid seasons with the team when healthy. He earned PFF grades of at least 71.0 in both 2019 and 2020 with the 49ers, but he played just 414 and 333 snaps in those two seasons, respectively.

Projected 2021 Defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
DI Javon Kinlaw 93 / 125 $3.5 million
DI ?
EDGE Nick Bosa N/A $9.3 million
EDGE Arik Armstead 17 / 110 $12.5 million
LB Fred Warner 1 / 83 $3.6 million
LB Dre Greenlaw 30 / 83 $0.9 million
LB ?
CB ?
CB ?
CB ?
S ?
S Jimmie Ward 15 / 94 $10.9 million

While there are some minor depth concerns along the defensive line and at linebacker, the secondary is the only defensive area for San Francisco to focus on. 2020 starters Richard Sherman, Jason Verrett, K’Waun Williams, Ahkello Witherspoon and Jaquiski Tartt are all unrestricted free agents this offseason, and there is a very high chance that at least one of those guys moves on. Emmanuel Moseley joins that group as a restricted free agent. 

The 49ers must focus on prioritizing which free agents they want to bring back and how they will replace the remaining vacancies.

The rest of the defense is in good shape. Along the defensive line, San Francisco could be in the market for a new nose tackle, with D.J. Jones hitting free agency. The notable name not listed in the projected starting lineup is Dee Ford — a big-time trade target prior to the 2019 season who has really struggled to stay healthy in San Francisco. There’s a chance he isn’t on the roster come Week 1. 

Does Javon Kinlaw take a big step forward in his second season out of South Carolina?

The 49ers selected Kinlaw in the first round of last year’s NFL draft with the intent that he would replace the recently traded DeForest Buckner. The 2020 season showed that that transition was going to take some time. Buckner ended the season as PFF’s fifth-highest-graded interior defender in his new home in Indianapolis, while Kinlaw struggled a bit as a rookie. He ranked just 93rd among 125 qualifiers in overall grade. Kinlaw's 46.9 run-defense grade was of particular concern, especially without him making a high-level impact when rushing the passer.

There was a lot to like about Kinlaw’s game coming out of South Carolina. He was long, strong and explosive with two straight years of grading at 85.0 or higher in the SEC. In many ways, he projected as a prototypical 3-technique in the NFL. The 49ers will hope it is only a matter of time before he starts to meet those expectations. It would be surprising if we didn’t see a second-year jump from Kinlaw.

Can DeMeco Ryans continue to build on the foundation Robert Saleh laid?

The 49ers decided to keep things in-house in their search for a new defensive coordinator. Why wouldn’t they after Saleh's success prior to his departure for a head-coaching job in New York?

Ryans began as a defensive quality control coach with San Francisco back in 2017 before serving as the team’s inside linebackers coach over each of the past three seasons. He’s also one of the rare coaches in the league whose playing career is captured in its entirety in the PFF database. Ryans enjoyed a 10-year career from 2006 to 2015, including stops with the Houston Texans and Philadelphia Eagles

He’s gotten strong endorsements from members of San Francisco’s defense over the past several years. That list includes pending free agent Richard Sherman, who said of Ryans in an interview with the Sacramento Bee, “I think he’s going to do great. I think he’s a guy that works hard in his preparation, very detailed, really takes time with each one of his guys in the linebacker room especially, and gets to know them. And I think that’s going to bode well for him when he’s managing all of the defense and really knowing the strengths and weaknesses of his players and emphasizing their strengths.”

As was the case with the reception of Saleh’s hiring as the Jets' head coach, negative reviews of Ryans' promotion to defensive coordinator have been few and far between. 

Which of San Francisco's free agents in the secondary should the team prioritize?

The 49ers certainly have options in the secondary. The uncertainty that comes with four of five starters in the secondary hitting free agency also comes with the flexibility to remake the unit. Going with an entirely new-look secondary is a risk that San Francisco is unlikely to take, though. 

All indications point to the idea that Sherman will be playing elsewhere next season. That leaves a decision to be made on Verrett, Williams and Tartt, along with key rotational pieces at cornerback, such as Moseley and Witherspoon. 

Moseley seems the most likely player to return as a restricted free agent this offseason. He has played primarily out wide over the past two seasons but has seen some time in the slot, as well. I would wager the 49ers will lose at least one of Williams or Verrett to another team next week — the New York Jets being the favorite there. 

PFF’s Sam Monson recently named Verrett the most underrated cornerback on the free agent market this offseason. Sure, you carry significant injury risk with an extension, but when healthy, he has proven to be a top-flight outside cornerback. Those guys have real value. And the 49ers could be getting that high-level production at a discount given his injury concerns.

Potential targets at open spots

Interior defender: D.J. Jones, Alim McNeill

One option for San Francisco is to bring Jones back on a reasonable deal. The 2017 sixth-round pick has gradually increased his role with the team in each of his first four NFL seasons. Jones ended the 2020 campaign with 420 snaps and a 61.3 PFF grade. 

McNeill stands out as a potential source of value a little bit later on in the 2021 NFL Draft. He currently sits as PFF’s DT2, behind Alabama's Christian Barmore, and he has some legitimate pass-rushing juice for a guy who played nose tackle at N.C. State. McNeill ended the 2020 season with a career-best 90.7 overall grade.

Linebacker: Brandon Copeland, Monty Rice

At linebacker, San Francisco needs to look at players who project to add quality depth and will contribute on special teams. 

Heading into his age-30 season, Copeland hits both of those marks. He spent some time as a starter on the edge with the New York Jets but has also played off-ball while contributing on special teams. He could give additional depth in two phases of the game. 

Rice would represent a bigger investment as a potential mid-round draft target. He projects as an early key contributor on special teams and has the kind of speed and tackle ability that teams want at linebacker. As the PFF Draft Guide says, “Now, Rice needs to have the game slow down for him.”

Cornerback: Greg Newsome II, Jason Verrett

Newsome appears to be one of the better fits in the draft in San Francisco’s zone-heavy scheme. He rarely gets caught out of position, allowing just one catch of 10 or more yards downfield in the entire 2020 season. The question for San Francisco is where they would target him. The 12th overall pick is a bit early for Newsome to come off the board, but he’s generated the kind of hype that will make it likely he doesn’t slip to the 49ers' second-round selection. 

Of the large group of unrestricted free agent cornerbacks from the 49ers’ 2020 roster, Verrett may be the most valuable to return. The risk is apparent. 2020 was the first time he played more than 300 snaps in a season since his second year in the NFL in 2015. However, he graded out as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL this past season (77.6 overall) and is the younger of the two outside options — him and Sherman. 

Safety: Tashaun Gipson Sr., Paris Ford

After being hit with injury after injury in his time with San Francisco, Tartt seems to be one of the more likely free agents in the secondary to move on.  

He played a versatile role in San Francisco’s defense, and Gipson projects to be able to do similar things as far as bouncing between the box, slot and deep responsibilities. He’s coming off a solid showing with the Chicago Bears in 2020, earning a 72.0 overall grade with strong efforts both as a run defender and in coverage.

Ford is far from the biggest safety prospect in this draft class, but that doesn’t stop him from throwing his body around with reckless abandon. He isn’t afraid to make early breaks on plays, which led to some splashes both against the run and the pass at Pitt. 

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