49ers' offseason needs -- a year ago and now


49ers' offseason needs -- a year ago and now

A year ago, general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan inherited a mess.

The 49ers won five consecutive games to finish the season at 6-10. They may have improved their roster and schemes on both sides of the ball, but many of the 49ers' needs at the beginning of the 2017 offseason remain positions that require strengthening.

Coming off a 2-14 season that led to the firings of coach Chip Kelly and general manager Trent Baalke, the 49ers’ roster was in shambles.

Here is a look at the 49ers’ needs a year ago and where the 49ers stand at the beginning of the 2018 offseason at those same positions:

Then: The 49ers had no interest in retaining Colin Kaepernick, Blaine Gabbert or Christian Ponder. Quarterback was the top priority a year ago. And on the first day of the free-agent signing period, Shanahan targeted Brian Hoyer. The team also signed Matt Barkley and selected C.J. Beathard in the draft.
Now: Hoyer and Barkley are long gone. But, thanks to New England’s football czar Bill Belichick's generosity, the 49ers have their franchise quarterback. The team could keep Jimmy Garoppolo and Beathard as their top two QBs for the foreseeable future.

Wide receiver
Then: The 49ers likely had the worst grouping of wideouts in the league. One of the first moves of the new regime was the retain the club’s leading receiver from 2016, signing slot receiver Jeremy Kerley to a three-year extension. Kerley did not even make it to the regular season, as rookie Trent Taylor beat him out. On the first day of free agency, the 49ers signed Pierre Garçon, Marquise Goodwin and Aldrick Robinson.
Now: The 49ers still have a need at wide receiver, but it’s more nuanced. They can use a tall athlete who can be a presence in the red zone. Perhaps, the 49ers can find an underachieving veteran who Shanahan believes can shine in his offense. Or, the 49ers could just wait to draft a player to develop.

Edge rusher
Then: Ahmad Brooks was still good for a half-dozen sacks and Aaron Lynch was still considered an exceptionally talented player with tons of promise. But the new 49ers regime did not view either player as reliable. The 49ers signed veteran Elvis Dumervil to a two-year contract and used a sixth-round pick on Pita Taumoepenu.
Now: Brooks was cut in late-August and Lynch never stepped to the plate. Dumervil led the 49ers with 6.5 sacks. Nothing has really changed since the 49ers released Aldon Smith nearly three years ago. An outside pass-rusher is required for the 49ers’ defense to take the next step in defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s scheme.

Then: The 49ers released their top cornerback, Tramaine Brock, after an alleged domestic violence incident. (Brock was later cleared.) That incident occurred three weeks after the start of free agency and three weeks before the draft. The 49ers decided to move Jimmie Ward to free safety, a position they continue to believe best suits him. Rashard Robinson was penciled in as a starter. Then, the club drafted Ahkello Witherspoon in the third round. Witherspoon had a good rookie season, but Robinson experienced a meltdown that led to the team’s decision to trade him to the New York Jets in late-October. Nickel back K’Waun Williams was a quality addition, as the 49ers signed him to a three-year extension through the 2020 season just a couple weeks into the regular season.
Now: Cornerback was a glaring weakness for the 49ers throughout the season. The 49ers believe Witherspoon has a bright future. But there do not appear to be any other starter-caliber players in the organization. Dontae Johnson struggled mightily late in the season, and it appears unlikely the team will place a priority on re-signing him. The team needs a starter and quality backups, too.

Then: Veteran NaVorro Bowman was returning from a torn Achilles, and it was uncertain if he could return to anywhere near his pre-injury form. One of the last moves of the previous regime was to sign Ray-Ray Armstrong to a contract extension. Malcolm Smith was the 49ers’ biggest defensive free-agent acquisition. The team added Brock Coyle to work as a backup, as well as a core special-teamer. Then, the club traded up to No. 31 to select Reuben Foster. The 49ers began reducing Bowman's playing time to take him off the field in passing situations. He was not pleased with his demotion. The 49ers decided to release him. Armstrong was also released. The club finished the season with Foster and Coyle as the starters.
Now: Smith missed the season with a torn pectoral he sustained in training camp. He and Foster are expected to be the starters. The 49ers are lacking quality depth at the inside spots.

Offensive guard
Then: Joshua Garnett had just finished an uninspiring rookie season, and there were legitimate questions if his style was a fit for Shanahan’s scheme. The staff figured an upgrade was needed at the other guard spot, where Zane Beadles started in 2016. In May, the 49ers signed veteran Brandon Fusco to a one-year contract. Fusco ended up as a starter. Garnett was ruled out for the season late in training camp, and the 49ers executed a trade with the Detroit Lions for Laken Tomlinson.
Now: There is optimism Tomlinson can improve into the kind of consistent performer Shanahan requires from the guard positions. But there will be competition, for sure. Garnett has tried to reshape his body to enter the competition this offseason. The 49ers will undoubtedly try to get better. Center Daniel Kilgore is scheduled for free agency. Also, the 49ers have to begin making plans for the future at the tackle positions. Joe Staley finished the season strong, but he enters his 12th season. Trent Brown is coming up on his contract year, and it’s uncertain whether he will be back in 2019.

Running back
Then: The 49ers had no depth behind Carlos Hyde in 2016. And Hyde was entering his contract year. The 49ers signed veteran Tim Hightower, traded for Kapri Bibbs, drafted Joe Williams and signed undrafted rookie Matt Breida.
Now: Hightower and Bibbs were cut before the start of the season. Hyde’s status with the organization remains uncertain, as he is scheduled to hit the open market. He said he wants to return. And it appears the 49ers want him back, but only at the right price. The team desires more playmaking ability. Breida will be back, and Williams gets his chance to earn a job after sitting out the season with a minor foot injury. Running back figures to be a need that could be addressed as late as the final day of the draft.

Tight end
Then: The 49ers inexplicably signed Vance McDonald to a contract extension in December 2016. The new regime signed blocking specialist Logan Paulsen, selected George Kittle in the draft, then signed undrafted rookie Cole Hikutini. Before the season began, McDonald was dealt to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Now: Veteran Garrett Celek and Kittle came on strong late in the season after Garoppolo took over at quarterback. On the list of 49ers priorities for the offseason, tight end ranks down the list.

Then: Veteran Phil Dawson was a free agent after wrapping up an impressive four-year run with the organization. Dawson joined the Arizona Cardinals, and the 49ers signed Robbie Gould to take his place.
Now: Gould, 35, is signed through the upcoming season. He led the NFL with 39 made field goals and had only two misses. He also kicked two game-winners as part of the 49ers’ season-ending five-game win streak.

Deepest position in the NFL Draft? 49ers VP of Player Personnel weighs in


Deepest position in the NFL Draft? 49ers VP of Player Personnel weighs in

The 49ers concluded the first wave of the free-agent signing period with the signings of players to fill the team’s biggest offseason needs.

--Cornerback. Aqib Talib would have been the answer in a trade with the Denver Broncos, but he wanted to play elsewhere. Instead, the 49ers signed veteran Richard Sherman, whom the Seattle Seahawks cut a day earlier.

--Interior offensive line. Center Weston Richburg was the player the team had rated as their top target in free agency, and they signed him to a lucrative five-year deal.

--Running back. The team decided Jerick McKinnon was a better fit than Carlos Hyde. They wrapped him up with a four-year contract.

--Edge rusher. Lacking many options in free agency, the 49ers signed Jeremiah Attaochu to a one-year contract in hopes he will earn a spot on the team and make a contribution at the “Leo” position.

The 49ers can still use more help at a number of different positions, including cornerback, wide receiver, offensive line, linebacker and edge rusher. While the 49ers might add some role players in the second wave of free agency, most of the major acquisitions at this point are likely to come in the draft.

On the 49ers Insider Podcast, 49ers vice president of player personnel Adam Peters addressed what positions he believes are strong in this year’s draft.

“I think running backs, absolutely. It’s a deep position,” Peters said. “Quarterbacks at the top is deeper than it was last year. Secondary, corners, it’s not deeper than it was last year, but it’s a strong class of corners. Those are the main ones. The offensive line class is a little better than last year, too.”

The 49ers got major contributions from their rookie class last season. Tight end George Kittle, receiver Trent Taylor, quarterback C.J. Beathard, running back Matt Breida, defensive lineman Solomom Thomas, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, linebacker Reuben Foster and safety Adrian Colbert each played more than 300 snaps.

The 49ers feel good about Witherspoon, a third-round draft pick, as a starter with Sherman on the other side. Peters said a lot of the team’s rookies played larger roles than expected in 2017, but Witherspoon might have been at the top of the list.

“I don’t think he was active for the first four games,” Peters said of Witherspoon. “And he ended up playing at a high level at the end. Really driven, conscientious player who wants to be great. 

"We were lucky we got a chance to play a lot of rookies because that’ll help us moving forward.”

Shanahan sees versatile McKinnon as piece that was missing from 49ers' offense


Shanahan sees versatile McKinnon as piece that was missing from 49ers' offense

The player Kyle Shanahan studied on video was a lot better than the player he saw on the stat sheet.

The 49ers coach said he places a lot more emphasis on how he projects a player in his offense than what the player did with his former team.

And that is why the 49ers placed a large priority on signing former Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnonon the first day of the free-agent signing period. McKinnon comes to the 49ers on a four-year, $30 million contract with $11.7 million guaranteed.

McKinnon's stats might not suggest he is anywhere near a top running back in the NFL, but Shanahan sees it differently. And that is why the 49ers opted to pursue McKinnon instead of Carlos Hyde.

“I don’t know the numbers until I like the guy,” Shanahan said. “I always watch the guy first, and turn on the tape and get lost in it for a while. There were so many things I liked about him, visualizing how we would use him and stuff he would do. And even though there wasn’t a ton of it, you still got to see him do some stuff that we do a lot. Where he did it, he excelled a ton and was very good at it.

“Eventually, I look at the numbers and it did surprise me. Then you go back and you try to see why. I’m not going to get into all the whys, but I know all the stuff we liked about him, we cut up those numbers. I think they would’ve been good numbers.”

In four NFL seasons as a part-time player, McKinnon (5-9, 205), averaged 4.0 yards per rushing attempt. The past two years, he gained 539 and 570 yards with rushing averages of just 3.4 and 3.8 yards.

Hyde (6-foot, 230) is a bigger back with more production in his career. He rushed for 988 and 938 yards in 2016 and ’17 with averages of 4.6 and 3.9 yards.

Shanahan said he looked at every player who was available, and McKinnon was the player he evaluated to be the best of all the free agents. Shanahan has long valued running backs who are versatile in the run and pass games with an ability to make defenders miss.

“A good run is when you get more yards than what it was blocked for,” Shanahan said. “Sometimes, runs are blocked for negative 1 (yard) and the best run in the game was a 1-yard carry.

“Sometimes the one that most people could do is a 60-yarder because it was a busted coverage or a busted front and nobody was there. Numbers do tell stuff, but it’s never an absolute."

The 49ers signed McKinnon to be the starting running back with Matt Breida likely mixing into the action. The 49ers could also be in the market to add to the competition and depth through the draft.

Shanahan is likely to deploy multiple players, just as he did successfully with Atlanta Falcons running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. McKinnon is expected to take Freeman’s role. In each of Shanahan’s two seasons as Falcons offensive coordinator, Freeman accounted for more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage. He rushed for 1,056 and 1,079 yards while catching 578 and 462 yards in passes.

“I’m just excited to be in the offense that I feel is a perfect fit for me,” McKinnon said on Thursday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

“Things that coach Shanahan has done with the backs like he did in Atlanta with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, I see myself doing those kinds of things. For me, I feel like the scheme is right. The fit was just perfect for me. I feel like I can’t be in a better situation as a player.”

Shanahan said he liked McKinnon as a draft prospect in 2014 out of Georgia Southern but it was more difficult to evaluate him because he mostly played quarterback in college.

But in studying McKinnon while with the Vikings, he saw a runner who has speed and elusiveness while also exhibiting the strength to break arm tackles. He set the record at the NFL Scouting Combine for running backs with 32 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press in 2014. But McKinnon's best asset might be his ability to be a factor in the passing game in blitz pickup, while also being a dependable receiver out of the backfield or in the slot.

“When it comes to separating and beating linebackers and safeties in man-to-man coverage, I definitely think he’s an issue for teams,” Shanahan said. “I think this league, when it comes to third downs and things like that, you move the chains based off of matchups, which allows you to get points in the long run. I think Jerick is very versatile and we can do a lot of things with him.

“He’s good enough to make it as a runner alone in this league. He’s good enough to make it in the pass game as just a third down threat alone, but when you can do both of those, it gives you a lot of freedom as a coach.”