49ers

49ers' road back to Super Bowl made tougher by Drew Brees, Greg Olsen

49ers' road back to Super Bowl made tougher by Drew Brees, Greg Olsen

The 49ers' road back to the Super Bowl always was going to be tougher than their most recent one. That's what happens when you play a first-place schedule as opposed to a third-place one. But based on a couple of developments Tuesday, that road just got even tougher.

First, Drew Brees took to Instagram to let the world know he would be returning for a 20th NFL season and 15th with the New Orleans Saints.

Brees, who turned 41 in January, was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent next month, but the quarterback previously had made it clear that he would either retire or return for another season in the Big Easy. Clearly, he chose the latter.

While Brees and the Saints still will need to agree to a contract, it appears that is a foregone conclusion. When Brees hit free agency in 2018, he agreed to a two-year, $50 million contract with New Orleans, but with only one year guaranteed.

Brees will be back with the Saints for the 2020 NFL season, but it now appears unlikely that his backup, Teddy Bridgewater, will do the same. Like Brees, Bridgewater is an unrestricted free agent, and is likely to command a higher salary on the open market than New Orleans can afford after he went 5-0 as a starter while Brees was injured last season.

Taysom Hill, the Saints' do-it-all third-string QB, is a restricted free agent, so New Orleans can match any offer for him and stands a much better chance of retaining him than Bridgewater.

The Saints arguably were San Francisco's toughest competition in the NFC last season, and matched the Niners with a 13-3 regular-season record. That was with Brees missing five games with a thumb injury, and there is every reason to believe New Orleans will be one of the best teams in the conference again in 2020.

If the Saints weren't the 49ers' toughest opponent last season, then it probably was the Seattle Seahawks, who beat San Francisco at Levi's Stadium and came within inches of sweeping the regular-season series to win the division title. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has been a thorn in San Francisco's side ever since he was drafted by Seattle in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, and he just got another weapon.

Former Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen signed a one-year, $7 million contract with the Seahawks on Tuesday with $5.5 million guaranteed. ESPN's Adam Schefter was first to report the news.

Olsen isn't what he once was, as injuries have taken their toll on the 13-year NFL veteran. Still, after being limited to 16 combined games over the 2017 and 2018 seasons, Olsen appeared in 14 games for Carolina last year and hauled in 52 receptions for 597 yards and two touchdowns. 

With Will Dissly coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon, Jacob Hollister a restricted free agent and Luke Willson an unrestricted free agent, Seattle was in dire need of some quality tight end depth. Olsen checks that box, and since he was released by the Panthers, the signing won't cost the Seahawks a compensatory draft pick.

With wide receivers Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf posing major problems on the outside, Olsen likely will have more room to operate in the middle of the field than all those years spent in Carolina, where he was often his team's No. 1 receiving option. Of course, he'll have to stay healthy to be of use.

[RELATED: 49ers have solid running backs, but group lacks something]

The 49ers have some tough decisions to make in how they plan to load up for next season. Clearly, some of their top competitors already have begun that process.

Emmanuel Sanders was down to 49ers, Saints, Packers in NFL free agency

Emmanuel Sanders was down to 49ers, Saints, Packers in NFL free agency

Emmanuel Sanders is a man of his word. He said he would prioritize an opportunity to contend for a Super Bowl when deciding which team he was going to sign with in free agency, and given the finalists for his services, that's precisely what he did.

Sanders joined "The Rich Eisen Show" on Monday and explained that his decision ultimately came down to the top three seeds in the NFC from last season.

"I was talking to Green Bay, I was talking to the Niners and just trying to figure out what type of deal, what type of money are we talking about," Sanders explained. "And then the Saints called, and I was ecstatic about them calling. The opportunity to play with Drew Brees and everything. The numbers made sense -- Drew has two more years left on his deal, and I signed a two-year deal."

As you might recall, the 49ers and Packers earned the Nos. 1 and 2 overall seeds in the NFC last season -- and a first-round bye -- while New Orleans finished as the No. 3 seed. The Saints saw their season end in the wild-card round, whereas San Francisco defeated Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game to advance to Super Bowl LIV.

While the 49ers and Saints didn't face each other in the playoffs, they did combine for a thrilling regular-season shootout in Week 14 -- a 48-46 San Francisco road win in which Sanders played a huge role, catching seven passes for 157 receiving yards and a touchdown. The next time he returns to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, it won't be as a visiting player.

"I'm just excited to be a New Orleans Saint," Sanders continued. "I looked at the schedule -- we've got 11 or 12 games inside in a dome. Michael Thomas being my counterpart, Drew Brees throwing the ball, Sean Payton calling the plays -- a wide-open spread offense just like I was with Peyton [Manning] in 2014 -- it just set a new fire under me."

Though Sanders didn't elaborate on those indoor games, he was correct in that the Saints will play 11 regular-season games in a dome next season. In addition to road games against the Atlanta Falcons, Las Vegas Raiders and Detroit Lions, they of course have their eight home games -- one of which might be circled as soon as the official schedule is released.

[RELATED: NFL will expand playoffs to seven teams beginning in 2020]

That one?

Against the 49ers.

NFL plans to start 2020 season on time, with fans despite coronavirus

NFL plans to start 2020 season on time, with fans despite coronavirus

While the sports world remains on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, the NFL is planning on forging ahead.

The league didn't push back the start of the new league year and conducted free agency as scheduled. While it's impossible to predict what state of the pandemic will be come fall, the NFL is committed to the idea that the 2020 season will go as expected and without delay.

"All of our discussions," Jeff Pash, executive vice president and general counsel for the NFL, said Tuesday, via ESPN. "All of our focus, has been on a normal, traditional season, starting on time, playing in front of fans, in our regular stadiums, and going through a full 16-game regular season and a full set of playoffs. That's our focus.

"We're still in March, so it's quite a few months between now and when our season would begin. The belief and the information that we have is leading us to continue on focusing on a season that starts on time and played in a normal way."

Pash also noted the NFL schedule, which was slated to be released in April, will come out May 9 and will include international games, according to Sports Illustrated.

While the NFL is planning for business as usual some five months from now, the pandemic has greatly impacted the way the league operates. Team facilities are shuttered except for a few essential employees. Draft visits and workouts have been canceled. The NFL draft, which was slated to be Las Vegas' introduction to the football world, now will be held remotely.

Pash told reporters there are no current contingency plans for a shortened season or a delayed one, citing: “how the curve has trended down and tailed off in other countries, and what they believe will be the result based on the modeling that has been done in this country."

[RELATED: NFL to expand playoffs to seven teams per conference beginning 2020]

Be sure, the NFL has a lot of money at stake. A lot of advertisers and companies that want to know what their plan is. For now, it's to plan for normalcy and adjust should the pandemic reemerge in the fall as most epidemiologists expect.

As of Tuesday, there have been more than 160,000 cases of coronavirus in the United States and more than 3,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and NBC News reporting.