Emmanuel Sanders ranked as 49ers' top scheduled NFL free agent by PFF

Emmanuel Sanders ranked as 49ers' top scheduled NFL free agent by PFF

The 49ers do not want defensive tackle DeForest Buckner or tight end George Kittle to ever reach free agency.

Retaining Buckner and Kittle appear to be the organization’s top long-term priorities. They have contract rights to both players through the 2020 season.

But, first, the 49ers have to deal with the situations of players on contracts that are set to expire after Super Bowl LIV. The list includes three players who rank among the top 30 scheduled free agents, according to Pro Football Focus.

The 49ers’ top-ranked player scheduled for unrestricted free agency, according to PFF, is wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who came to the club in a midseason trade with the Denver Broncos. Sanders is ranked No. 19 among all NFL scheduled free agents.

Everything has worked out well for both sides since Sanders joined the 49ers. In 10 regular-season games, Sanders caught 36 passes for 502 and three touchdowns with the 49ers. He had two receptions for 33 yards in the playoffs against the Minnesota Vikings and did not catch a pass against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game.

Sanders, who turns 33 in March, made $10.15 million during the final year of his contract.

The only receivers ranked ahead of Sanders are Amari Cooper (No. 1), A.J. Green (6) and Robby Anderson (11), 

One spot behind Sanders is 49ers defensive lineman Arik Armstead at No. 20. Armstead had his best season as a run defender and pass-rusher, yet did not make the Pro Bowl. Armstead registered a team-high 10 sacks during the regular season. He made $9 million this season on the fifth-year option.

Free safety Jimmie Ward ranks No. 29 among the NFL free agents after a season in which he remained healthy for the final 13 games and was a big reason no team gave up fewer big pass plays in the league than the 49ers. Ward made $3.8 million on a one-year contract this season.

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Here is a look at the 49ers' other top scheduled free agents this offseason:

C Ben Garland
DE Ronald Blair
DT Sheldon Day
TE Levine Toilolo

WR Kendrick Bourne
RB Matt Breida
LB Elijah Lee

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers Super Bowl coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (5:30 p.m. Monday and Wednesday; 8:00 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 6:00 p.m. Friday).

49ers' need perfectly timed with loaded 2020 NFL Draft receiver class

49ers' need perfectly timed with loaded 2020 NFL Draft receiver class

Timing is everything.

The 49ers were arguably the most well-rounded team in the NFL last season on their way to finishing runner-up to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. San Francisco had the best defense in the conference, and the second-most productive rushing offense in the league. Jimmy Garoppolo finished 22 passing yards short of 4,000, and only five other teams finished the regular season with more takeaways than the reigning NFC champions.

When looking up and down the 49ers' 2019 roster, they were strong across the board. There weren't any holes, and certain areas were tremendous strengths. However, it goes without saying that some of San Francisco's position groups are stronger than others. While the defensive line is arguably the best of its kind, the wide receiver group, for instance, isn't nearly as dominant or impressive.

Deebo Samuel had an exceptional rookie season, and Kendrick Bourne emerged as a consistent contributor. But if the position group was strong enough entering the season, the 49ers wouldn't have had reason to make a midseason trade for Emmanuel Sanders. The 10-year veteran hit the ground running as soon as he joined San Francisco and immediately became one of Garoppolo's go-to targets. However, Sanders, 31, is an unrestricted free agent, and while Samuel would like for his mentor to return, there is no guarantee that he will.

Whether or not the 49ers re-sign Sanders, they couldn't have asked for a better draft to beef up their receiving corps than the one upcoming in April. The 2020 NFL Draft is absolutely loaded at wide receiver, with NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah going so far as to call the draft class the "deepest" he has ever seen.

In addition to giving 27 receiver prospects a top-three-round grade, Jeremiah also has nine receivers ranked among his top 50 prospects overall. The cream of the crop includes Alabama's Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs, Oklahoma's CeeDee Lamb, LSU's Justin Jefferson, Clemson's Tee Higgins and Colorado's Laviska Shenault, among others. Depending on what happens with Sanders, it's certainly possible one of those top prospects gets selected by San Francisco.

As things currently stand, after picking No. 31 overall in the first round, the 49ers won't be on the clock again until the fifth round, partly the result of sending their own third- and fourth-round draft picks to the Denver Broncos in the trade for Sanders. While San Francisco's receiving corps could use a boost, the team has additional needs that would make it difficult to rationalize using a first-round draft pick on a pass-catcher, especially if Sanders is re-signed. 

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As such, a more plausible scenario is the 49ers trading back out of the first round to acquire more draft picks. With those additional selections, they would still stand a great chance of having a great receiver prospect fall to them, as there inevitably will be a greater supply of standouts than the demand. While every team in the league would love to get their hands on a big-time playmaker, almost all of them have far more pressing and numerous needs than San Francisco does, and each team only has so many picks.

If Sanders is re-signed, the 49ers' need for improvement in the receiving corps will be severely diminished. But, given his age, one could argue San Francisco needs to draft at least one more receiver this coming April -- and if Sanders isn't re-signed -- probably more than one.

Lucky for the 49ers, the timing should work out quite well.

Why 49ers could be interested in adding Taylor Gabriel to receiver mix

Why 49ers could be interested in adding Taylor Gabriel to receiver mix

When the 49ers signed wide receiver Marquise Goodwin on the first day of free agency in 2017, coach Kyle Shanahan envisioned using him in a role similar to what he designed previously for Taylor Gabriel.

Now, Goodwin’s time with the 49ers appears to be coming to an end at the same time that Gabriel is set to become available. The Bears on Friday released Gabriel.

Gabriel was scheduled to make $5.5 million this season with the Chicago Bears for the 2020 season. Goodwin is on the books to cost the 49ers $4.5 million this year and is expected to be released in a cost-cutting move.

The 49ers could look to replace Goodwin with Gabriel, who has a valuation of $1.864 million, according to OverTheCap.com. But the move would have to be a low-risk deal, as Gabriel missed the final five games of last season after sustaining his second concussion of the season.

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Gabriel, 29, played in nine games for the Bears last season. He caught 29 passes for 353 yards and four touchdowns. If the 49ers have interest in Gabriel, it would be to add him to the roster to compete for a spot as a part-time player to stretch the field.

Gabriel had the two highest yards-per-reception averages of his career with Shanahan calling the plays. In 2014 with the Cleveland Browns, Gabriel caught 36 passes for 621 yards (17.3-yard average). And in 2016, he caught 35 passes for 579 yards (16.5 average).