The 49ers hope that the 2021 season sees them return to the top of the NFC West after injuries and inconsistent play saw them finish at 6-10 and in the division cellar in 2020.
But the 49ers' rivals aren't making San Francisco's path back the conference supremacy easy. The Los Angeles Rams made a splash a few weeks ago by going all-in to acquire quarterback Matthew Stafford in a trade with the Detroit Lions, and the Arizona Cardinals became the latest NFC West team to make an upgrade Monday when they agreed to sign defensive end J.J. Watt to a two-year contract that reportedly is worth up to $31 million with $23 million guaranteed, sources told ESPN's Adam Schefter.
In adding Watt, the Cardinals addressed one of their biggest needs of the offseason, getting a productive edge rusher to play opposite Chandler Jones. Jones leads the NFL in sacks since he was drafted in 2012 with 97. Watt ranks second with 95.5.
While Watt, 31 isn't the dominant force he once was, he still is a good edge rusher, ranking 15th out of 119 qualified pass rushers in win rate in 2020 despite being the NFL's most double-teamed player, per ESPN Stats and Info. The Watt signing doesn't come without risks for the Cardinals. The star pass rusher has only played in all 16 games twice in the past five seasons. But when he's healthy, Watt still can destroy an opposing offense's game plan.
The Cardinals had a top-10 defense in the NFL last season and now they add Watt to go along with Jones, who missed a majority of last season with a right biceps injury.
The Watt signing gives the Cardinals potentially four defensive game-changers in Watt, Jones, safety Budda Baker and impressive rookie Isaiah Simmons who came on in the second half of last season. It also allows the Cardinals to focus their draft capital on the secondary, where they will need to fill the void left by Patrick Peterson at cornerback, and on the offensive line where they must protect Kyler Murray better if they want the young quarterback to take a leap in Year 3.
For the 49ers, Watt joining the Cardinals puts an even bigger emphasis on one of their greatest offseason needs: Improving the offensive line.
Re-signing Trent Williams, Pro Football Focus' top-rated tackle last season, already was a priority for the 49ers this offseason, but now the veteran tackle has even more leverage in negotiations with another talented pass-rusher gearing up to make Jimmy Garoppolo's life hell in 2021.
The 49ers now will face the Watt-Jones tandem and Aaron Donald each twice a season. If they plan to get back to the top of the NFC West, they have to find ways to keep Garoppolo healthy and upright. We saw what happens to the offense when Garoppolo is in sweat pants on the sidelines and it wasn't pretty.
Bringing Williams back is important, yes. But the 49ers also have to bulk up the rest of their offensive line or else they'll be relying on Williams, a quick passing game and a power run game to keep Garoppolo clean.
After having a dominating offensive line in 2019, the unit took a step back last season. Per PFF, the 49ers had the ninth-ranked offensive line overall, buoyed by Williams' impressive season, but they ranked 24th in pass protection with Mike McGlinchey, Laken Tomlinson and Daniel Brunskill all struggling in pass protection. Williams was the only 49ers' lineman with a pass-blocking grade above 66, per PFF.
The 49ers own the No. 12 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Experts are all over the map on what general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan will opt to do in Round 1. Despite the offseason clamoring for a move at QB, it's doubtful the 49ers will move up in the draft to take Justin Fields or Zach Wilson. With Richard Sherman, K'Waun Williams, Jason Verrett, Ahkello Witherspoon and Jaquiski Tartt all set to be unrestricted free agents, the 49ers could opt to take a cornerback in the first round, but that goes against the franchise's traditional roster-building approach.
Watt coming to the division should make the 49ers focus on upgrading their offensive line with the best possible prospect at No. 12. Oregon's Penei Sewell will be long gone by the time the 49ers go on the clock. He won't get past the Cincinnati Bengals at No. 5 and could go earlier. But Northwestern's Rashawn Slater, Virginia Tech's Christian Darrisaw and USC Alijah Vera-Tucker all should be appealing options for the 49ers at No. 12.
The 49ers also should look for an affordable interior line upgrade in free agency. Perhaps Alex Mack, who played under Shanahan in Atlanta will be an option. David Andrews and Austin Reiter also could be free-agent options at center.
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Watt might not be the J.J. Watt of five years ago, but he still can get after the quarterback and will be much better now that he shares a front with Jones, a defensive menace in his own right.
The 49ers know how important the offensive line is to their Super Bowl success. It helped get them there in 2019 and it was one of the reasons the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took home the title this past season.
The Cardinals, who went 8-8 last season and flamed out at the end with Murray hobbled, should be better in 2021. There's no reason to think they can't go 9-7 or 10-6, especially if Kliff Kingsbury and Murray continue to improve. The Rams should be the front-runners for the division thanks to the addition of Stafford.
Russell Wilson's issues with the Seattle Seahawks could take one obstacle off the board for the 49ers. But if the Seahawks elect not to trade Wilson, Seattle once again will be a threat to win 11 or 12 games and take the division.
The 49ers enter the offseason with a number of holes to patch up. The loaded 2019 roster that was 10 minutes away from the Super Bowl has, and will continue to undergo some changes.
But the Watt signing should signal to the 49ers what their offseason focus should be, and it's not replacing Garoppolo.