Not first pick, Saleh has proven to be best choice as 49ers D coordinator


Not first pick, Saleh has proven to be best choice as 49ers D coordinator

SANTA CLARA – Robert Saleh knows he was not Kyle Shanahan’s first choice as 49ers defensive coordinator. But, now, Shanahan has come to conclude Saleh might have been the best choice for the job.

After Shanahan was named 49ers head coach in February, the clock was ticking for him to put together his staff. Former Jacksonville Jaguars coach Gus Bradley accepted the coordinator job with the San Diego Chargers. And the Chicago Bears would not allow Vic Fangio out of his contract to return to the 49ers.

But with two games remaining in his first season as 49ers’ defensive coordinator, Saleh has proven himself and will unquestionably be back in the same role next season, Shanahan said.

“Yeah, there’s no doubt about that,” Shanahan said on “49ers Game Plan,” which is scheduled to air Saturday at 3 p.m. on NBC Bay Area (Ch. 3).

“Robert has been great. I think he’s gotten better throughout the year, and I think he’ll be even better next year. Robert has a great future ahead of him. And I feel very fortunate that he’s the coordinator for the Niners.”

Saleh, appearing on the 49ers Insider Podcast during training camp, said he knew he was not the top person on Shanahan’s list to become defensive coordinator after serving three seasons as Jacksonville’s linebackers coach. But he said he was confident if he got an interview, he would convince Shanahan of his worthiness to lead the defense.

And that is exactly what he has accomplished while implementing his 4-3 scheme. The 49ers were ranked last in the league a year ago. This season, the 49ers' defense is holding the opposition to 56 fewer yards per game and is 22nd overall.

The 49ers’ defense is playing its best football in the second half of the season. A defense that was among the worst in league history stopping the run a year ago has now turned in four consecutive games of holding the opposition to fewer than 100 yards rushing.

“I think Robert has done a great job,” Shanahan said. “It’s his first year as a coordinator, and I know he’s waited for this time for a while. He’s been everything I hoped for and more. He’s very smart with how he’s run our scheme. I’ve been excited with our scheme.”

The 49ers’ improved defensive play has coincided with better continuity – the result of fewer injuries forcing starters to leave the lineup.

“He’s really worked through a lot of things this year with moving people around with the injuries we’ve had and trying to find the best spots for guys,” Shanahan said. “I think it’s not a coincidence this last month or so we’ve had the most consistent play with the same people out there. If you look through our first 10 weeks, it seemed like a new lineup almost every week.

“And the more guys can play together, the more you can run the same coverages, the same fronts, the same blitzes every week-in and week-out, and that’s when you can start improving.”

49ers set aside cap space with an eye to the future


49ers set aside cap space with an eye to the future

The first wave of free agency is over, and the 49ers struck quickly.

The club identified two players coach Kyle Shanahan tabbed as fits for his offense and they paid the money it took to get them.

General manager John Lynch said there were five teams seriously interested in free-agent running back Jerick McKinnon. Even more teams were going after center Weston Richburg, he said.

That drove up the prices on McKinnon and Richburg to the point that they rank behind only quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo ($37 million) as taking up the most cap space among the 72 players currently under contract to the 49ers.

McKinnon and Richburg account for $10.5 million and $9.26 million, respectively, on the 49ers' salary cap. Veteran cornerback Richard Sherman's deal takes up $6.175 million on the 49ers' cap this season.

The big spending to attract free agents to the team is likely over. The 49ers have $45.1 million in cap space, according to the NFL Players Association. That figure does not include a projected $8.3 million to sign their 2018 rookie class, according to overthecap.com.

The major spending for this offseason is over because the 49ers have apparently looked to the future and set aside cap space with the idea of retaining some of their own players whose contracts are winding down.

The first decisions for the future must occur by May 3, the deadline for picking up the fifth-year options on first-round picks from the 2015 draft. The 49ers have decisions to make on defensive lineman Arik Armstread and left guard Laken Tomlinson, who was acquired from Detroit in a trade just prior to the start of the 2017 regular season.

It is still unclear how or if Armstead’s skills fit into the 49ers’ defense. He opened last season at the team's pass-rush end before moving to the "big end," which also appears to be first-round pick Solomon Thomas' best position.

Tomlinson showed reasons for the 49ers to be optimistic about his future as his play got better as he acclimated to the offense. Among the guards already on the 49ers’ roster, Tomlinson appears to be the most likely to be a starter in 2018.

Presumptive starting safeties Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents next offseason. Ward’s fifth-year option deal of one-year, $8.526 million became fully guaranteed last Wednesday. But in order for the 49ers to make a multi-year commitment, Ward would likely have to prove he can remain healthy and available for a full season.

DeForest Buckner is likely the target for the next blockbuster contract extension. Buckner has emerged as one of the top young defensive linemen in the league. Next offseason will be the first time the 49ers are permitted to negotiate a multi-year extension with him.

With a scarcity of offensive linemen available in the draft and free agency, right tackle Trent Brown could be set to cash in with an enormous deal next offseason – either with the 49ers or some other team.

DL Arik Armstead
FS Jimmie Ward
SS Jaquiski Tartt
RT Trent Brown
LB Eli Harold
LG Laken Tomlinson
K Robbie Gould
P Bradley Pinion

DL DeForest Buckner
LT Joe Staley
OG Joshua Garnett
DL Ronald Blair
TE Garrett Celek
RB Matt Breida (RFA)
WR Kendrick Bourne (RFA)

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.”