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College Football National Championship 2019: Alabama, Clemson set for Levi's

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College Football National Championship 2019: Alabama, Clemson set for Levi's

Who else could it have been?

When the College Football Playoff concludes at Levi's Stadium on Jan. 7, the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide will take on the No. 2 Clemson Tigers. Clemson steamrolled No. 3 Notre Dame 30-3 in the Cotton Bowl, while Alabama withstood a late charge from Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray and his Oklahoma Sooners en route to a 45-34 win in the Orange Bowl. 

That means one of the best rivalries in the sport is coming to the Bay Area. It will mark the third time in four years the schools will square off in the title game, and the fourth consecutive season they've met in the playoff.

49ers and Raiders fans with an eye to the future will have plenty of reason to watch, too. Both teams are on course to pick in the top five of the 2019 NFL Draft, and the best two teams in college football feature plenty of blue-chip players that could begin their NFL careers in the Bay Area -- and/or wherever the Raiders play next season.

Here are a pair of prospects 49ers and Raiders fans should have their eyes on:

Clelin Ferrell, DE (Clemson)

Ferrell moved into a tie with William "The Refrigerator" Perry for fourth on Clemson's all-time sacks list on Saturday. He also forced -- and recovered -- a fumble, and broke up a pass against the Fighting Irish. 

His ability to rush the passer is something the 49ers and Raiders desperately need, as the teams entered Week 17 standing 19th and 32nd in sacks, respectively. The 6-foot-5, 260-pound edge rusher was initially expected to enter the draft last spring, but his decision to spend another year in school could prove to be a boon for either Bay Area franchise if they take him in the first round. 

Ferrell may be a reach in the top five, as he's projected by many mocks to be picked after the top 10. That just may make him an option for the Raiders second (and maybe third) first-round pick -- one of which was acquired, ironically enough, when they traded their best pass rusher. 

Quinnen Williams, DL (Alabama)

Pro Football Focus rated Williams as the best player in college football this season, and he showed why on Saturday. Williams backed up his (almost) trash talk about Murray, helping the Crimson Tide hold the Sooners to just 10 points in the first half.

While the 49ers and Raiders don't need an interior lineman per se, Williams may be too good for either team to let slip past them. Rams superstar Aaron Donald has shown just how valuable an interior rusher could be, and neither the 49ers nor the Raiders are in a position to be choosy about how to make vital improvements in their pass rush. 

It's unlikely Williams will remain on the board much longer after San Francisco and Oakland end up picking, assuming he enters the draft. But if he does, a strong performance in their own backyard could be enough to convince the 49ers or Raiders to call his name. 

49ers roster analysis: Ascending linebackers should make group better in 2020

49ers roster analysis: Ascending linebackers should make group better in 2020

This is the seventh installment of a nine-part series that examines the 49ers’ roster coming out of the 2019 season, looks ahead to 2020 and outlines the offseason challenges facing general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan on a position-by-position basis.

Today, a look at the 49ers’ linebackers.

Under contract (signed through)

-Kwon Alexander (2022)
-Fred Warner (2021)
-Dre Greenlaw (2022)
-Mark Nzeocha (2021)
-Azeez Al-Shaair (2021)
-Joey Alfieri (2021)
-Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles (2021)

The 49ers and Alexander agreed to a contract restructure in November that saves the team more than $8 million in cap space for the 2020 season. His salary is set to leap to $12.55 million in 2021. Three voidable years were added to his contract. He is still scheduled for unrestricted free agency after the 2022 season.

Expiring contracts

-Elijah Lee (RFA)

Lee was among the 49ers’ final cuts and was signed to the practice squad. He was promoted to the active roster for the final eight games of the regular season after Alexander went on injured reserve. Lee saw action in each of the 49ers’ three postseason games as a core special-teams contributor.

What needs to happen

The 49ers’ only real decision is with Lee, who is a restricted free agent. The lowest tender of $2.144 million is probably too much, but the 49ers can look to re-sign him to a minimum level contract.

But even with some uncertainty surrounding Lee, the 49ers appear set with their starters and backups. The 49ers certainly do not need to spend free-agent money to add a player. And they do not need to use one of their top draft picks to bring in a linebacker, either.

[RELATED: 49ers roster analysis: Work needed to keep up defensive line dominance]

Expectations

This position group is comprised of players who are all ascending. The unit was good in 2019. It should be better in 2020.

Warner was one of the breakout stars for the 49ers as a second-year player. He had an interception of Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl that looked, at the time, to be one of the big plays in that game. Warner believes he can make improvements in all areas, including the production of more game-changing types of plays.

Alexander sustained a torn pectoral in the middle of the season. Then, worked hard to get back for the playoffs. Although he settled back into the 49ers’ defense as a part-time player, Alexander still served an important role on the team due to his leadership and energy.

Greenlaw became an every-down player after Alexander’s injury and made one of the most memorable plays of the season when he stopped Seattle Seahawks tight end Jacob Hollister just inches short of the goal line to preserve the 49ers’ Week 17 win to clinch the NFC West and home-field advantage in the playoffs. It will be difficult to keep Greenlaw off the field.

Al-Shaair, who defied the odds to win his roster spot last season as an undrafted rookie, and Nzeocha are solid backups and core special-teams players, too.

NFL free agency: A.J. Green would fit 49ers, but health risks are real

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NFL free agency: A.J. Green would fit 49ers, but health risks are real

A.J. Green last played in an NFL game on Dec. 2, 2018. He injured his toe in that game, and underwent season-ending surgery shortly after.

Green then missed all of last season, as the Cincinnati Bengals' star receiver dealt with an ankle injury. And yet, he's one of the biggest names set to hit free agency next month.

So, should the 49ers take a run at signing the seven-time Pro Bowl pick? Talent-wise, yes. But it's not that simple.

Green, who turns 32 years old on July 31, has played in just nine games in the last two seasons. He has missed 29 games since 2016 and isn't getting any younger. But he's also one of the most talented receivers in the league when healthy.

The former No. 4 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft started his career with five straight seasons of at least 1,000 receiving yards. He was well on pace to extending that streak in 2016 when he had 964 receiving yards in 10 games and then had 1,078 in 2017.

San Francisco simply doesn't have any receivers with Green's kind of pedigree. Deebo Samuel opened eyes as a rookie, and he is dangerous with the ball in his hands. The 49ers have to add talent around the young South Carolina product, though.

Green also is the kind of large target that 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan hopes to give quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Samuel is listed at 5-foot-11 and 214 pounds. Green, however, is 6-4 and 210 pounds.

One NFL executive believes Green hopes to move on from the Bengals this offseason, too. 

"I think he wants out of Cincinnati," the exec told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. 

That, however, isn't in Bengals coach Zac Taylor's plans

"He's a guy that we're excited about to have part of this team, first and foremost. That’s what matters right now," Taylor said Thursday in his interview on the '"Bengals Beat Podcast." "As we go through the offseason, we'll figure out how it best fits. But right now, we expect him to be a part of the team. We want him to be a part of the team.

"He's certainly been a valuable member for the last couple years and done some great things. I'm excited to coach him, really for the first time this next season."

Green signed a four-year, $60 million contract with the Bengals in 2015. He will be an unrestricted free agent for the first time this offseason, and the veteran still could sign another hefty contract. The same executive told ESPN that "even 'B' receivers are getting $14 million to $15 million."

The 49ers currently have just under $17.9 million available in cap space this offseason, according to Spotrac. San Francisco also has its own contracts to take care of in free agent Arik Armstead, as well as extensions for George Kittle and DeForest Buckner. 

[RELATED: Why 49ers could add Gabriel to receiver mix this offseason]

One way or another, the 49ers should look to give Jimmy G more weapons this offseason. This year's NFL draft class is loaded with receivers, and the front office could make that their priority with their first pick. There's no doubt Green could be a great option in free agency, but it all comes down to health.

"As long as the foot checks out, he's still elite," an NFC personnel evaluator said to ESPN.

That's a big if, though. Green is one talented question mark.