The 49ers used the first week of NFL free agency to acquire options at all of their positions of need.
General manager John Lynch, coach Kyle Shanahan and chief negotiator Paraag Marathe used a variety of strategies to plug those holes. Along the way, they took more than a few chances. But that is the nature of free agency and the draft. There is no such thing as a sure thing.
The 49ers also appear to be putting a lot of trust in their restructured player-performance structure with more integration of the team's athetic training and strength and conditioning staffs.
Here’s a look the 49ers’ most-notable transactions in the opening days of the new league year:
DE Dee Ford
The 49ers’ biggest need entering the new league year was at edge rusher. Not only did the 49ers get a pass-rusher, they got a franchise player. The Kansas City Chiefs placed the franchise tag on Ford after his 13-sack season.
Ford is a five-year NFL veteran. Has he figured things out? Or is he a one-year wonder? He certainly has the talent. Ford entered the NFL in 2014 as a first-round draft pick. The 49ers surrendered a second-round draft pick in 2020 to acquire Ford’s rights. Then, the sides worked out the details on a lucrative five-year contract extension.
“I love an ascending player,” Lynch said. “I think it's a fair characterization that last year was his best year. We think the arrow's up. We think he's only getting better.”
LB Kwon Alexander
C.J. Mosley was widely considered the top inside linebacker available in free agency. Before Mosley agreed to his deal with the New York Jets, the 49ers targeted, pursued and landed Alexander.
Shanahan knows all about the former Tampa Bay linebacker from his time as offensive coordinator in the NFC South with the Atlanta Falcons. Alexander gives the 49ers the kind of explosive playmaker in the middle of the defense the team wanted to pair with Fred Warner. In 46 games with the Buccaneers, Alexander recorded six interceptions and six forced fumbles.
On the negative side, Alexander is rehabilitating from a torn ACL in his left knee. He sustained the injury on Oct. 21. Throughout his career, Alexander has rated high on Pro Football Focus’ list of missed tackles. The 49ers’ contract is a four-year, $54 deal, but the team can get out of it after one season for $14.25 million.
RB Tevin Coleman
Running back depth is a necessity, as the 49ers found out last season The club acquired a low-risk option to go along with Jerick McKinnon.
Coleman reunites with Shanahan and running backs coach Bobby Turner after playing for them in Atlanta. In those two seasons, Coleman caught 58 passes and averaged 12.4 yards per reception – an absurdly high average for a running back. That means Shanahan put Coleman in space to catch passes, utilize his speed and make big plays.
Shanahan has never suited up four running backs for a game, he said. That is not likely to change this season. So if Coleman, McKinnon, Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert are healthy, a good player will not be active for games. (Mostert is virtually assured of being the No. 3 back every game due to his special-teams skills.) That kind of depth creates a good problem for the 49ers.
CB Jason Verrett
There is no denying the talent level of Verrett, a first-round pick of the Chargers in 2014. There is also no denying that Verrett has been unable to remain healthy in his five-year career with a variety of severe shoulder, knee and Achilles injuries.
He has suited up for just 25 games in five seasons and has not played in an NFL game since Sept. 11, 2017.
The 49ers signed Verrett to a low-risk one-year contract. He comes in to compete for a starting job with recent third-round draft picks Ahkello Witherspoon and Tarvarius Moore.
If he stays healthy, Verrett will be the starter. If history repeats itself and he is unable to get onto the field, the 49ers will be back where they started.
WR Jordan Matthews
The 49ers did not like any of the available wide receivers enough to extend a high-money, multi-year offer. They monitored the Odell Beckham situation but were unwilling to part ways with the No. 2 overall selection.
The 49ers did not necessarily need a big wide receiver, though Matthews certainly fits that description at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds. They need someone who can get open.
In his first five NFL seasons, Matthews caught 22 touchdown passes. He said his three strong points are getting open, catching passes and blocking. There you have it. But Matthews has become something of a journeyman at 26 years old.
He played three productive seasons with Philadelphia before getting traded, along with a third-round draft pick, for cornerback Ronald Darby. He played one season in Buffalo, then signed a one-year, $1 million deal with New England. He never made it to the regular season in New England.
The Patriots released him with an injury settled after he sustained a hamstring injury prior to training camp. Matthews returned to Philadelphia, where caught 20 passes for 300 yards and two touchdowns in 14 games.
The 49ers are not necessarily relying on Matthews to be a starter. Kendrick Bourne, Marquise Goodwin and, likely, a draft pick will compete for the job opposite of Dante Pettis. If Matthews remains healthy, he could be a veteran presence who serves a specific role as part of a rotation.
For what was out there in free agency, it was another low-risk move.
LB David Mayo
The addition of Mayo is not a signing that moves the needle, but he serves a valuable purpose on a 53-man roster as a core special-teams player who has the versatility to fill in, in a pinch, at any of the linebacker spots.
DB Jimmie Ward
You know the story: Four of Ward’s five NFL seasons have ended with him in a sling or cast.
The 49ers were hopeful they could re-sign Ward to a one-year deal. When no other team came with a multi-year offer, the 49ers were able to bring him back.
“To have Jimmie back here with the talent he has and if he can stay healthy, and we're going to give him every chance to, we know we've got as good of a safety as we can get,” Shanahan said.
If – and this is a big if -- Ward remains healthy, the 49ers re-signed a guy who will be their starting free safety.