Ten NFL free agents 49ers could target to improve defensive front


Ten NFL free agents 49ers could target to improve defensive front

The 49ers will have their first opportunity to make necessary upgrades to their front seven in March with the opening of NFL free agency.

The team's top priority entering the offseason is to bolster the outside pass rush, supplying a complement to the inside-rushing expertise of DeForest Buckner. En route to his first Pro Bowl, Buckner recorded a career-high 12 sacks, but nobody else on the 49ers generated six or more sacks.

Teams are allowed to begin negotiating with free agents from other clubs on March 11, and the signing period opens March 13. So, here are 10 scheduled unrestricted free agents who could draw interest from the 49ers:

DE Ziggy Ansah, Lions

Remember, if most of these players were perfect, they almost certainly wouldn't become available on the open market as long as their teams have the franchise-tag option available. Ansah has been productive ... when he is healthy. And that’s the problem.

Ansah had 14.5 sacks in 2015 and 12 sacks in 2017, but his even-numbered years were marred by injuries. New 49ers defensive line coach Kris Kocurek spent five seasons with Ansah, so there's a relationship there.

DE Dante Fowler, Rams

The 49ers discussed a possible trade for Fowler from the Jaguars last season. But why give up something during a season that was going nowhere for a player who's scheduled for free agency at the end of the year?

San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was around Fowler for two seasons in Jacksonville. Fowler isn't a star, but he’s an upgrade over what the 49ers already have, and that’s important. The 49ers would have to grow comfortable with any off-the-field concerns, though.

DE Trey Flowers, Patriots

Yes, he can rush the passer, but he is more than that. He is an every-down player with his ability to stuff the run, too. Flowers has been consistent over the past three seasons, recording 21 sacks over that time, so the Patriots clearly want to keep him around.

DE Za’Darius Smith, Ravens

He's been a productive pass rusher in limited opportunities. He is 26, and coming off an 8.5-sack season. He played outside linebacker in the Ravens' 3-4 scheme, and the 49ers would have to figure out where the 6-foot-4, 272-pounder best fits in their defense. But on third downs, he certainly would line up on the edge and get after the quarterback.

LB Preston Smith, Washington

At 6-5 and 265 pounds, Smith easily could transition to the 49ers' edge-rusher spot. He had eight sacks apiece in his rookie and third NFL seasons, and he recorded four this past season. He's 26 and still has a lot of room for improvement.

LB Anthony Barr, Vikings

The 49ers should be looking to add at linebacker, but Barr might not be a three-down player. He is best-suited for the strongside position, where he would be on the field with middle linebacker Fred Warner and either Malcolm Smith or Elijah Lee at the weakside spot. Barr has averaged just two sacks over the past three seasons.

DE DeMarcus Lawrence, Cowboys

He played under the franchise tag last season and has vowed not to do that again, if the Cowboys decide to lock him up for another year. He had 14.5 sacks in 2017 and 10.5 sacks last season. He figures to be a hot commodity if he reaches unrestricted free agency, but it still seems likely the Cowboys won't let him get there.

DE Frank Clark, Seahawks

He's young (turns 26 in June) and coming off a 13-sack season. Clark is a dynamic pass rusher, with 50 or more pressures in each of the past three seasons, according to Pro Football Focus. The Seahawks would like to bring him back, so they could use their franchise tag on him.

LB Dee Ford, Chiefs

After a 13-sack season, the franchise tag appears inevitable.

DE Jadeveon Clowney, Texans

The Texans likely will lock up the No. 1 overall pick from the 2014 draft for one season on the franchise tag.

Why NFL Media's Peter Schrager believes Richard Sherman is underrated


Why NFL Media's Peter Schrager believes Richard Sherman is underrated

Richard Sherman's resume is as long as any other cornerback, but NFL analyst Peter Schrager believes the 49ers veteran is underrated. 

"I think Richard Sherman last year had a really good season," Schrager said on NFL Network's "Good Morning Football" on Monday. "The Achilles didn't seem to bother him all that much. And then when it mattered most, [he] was shutting down the No. 1 wide receivers in the league, and that was with a completely depleted defense and an offense that had an undrafted rookie named Nick Mullens keeping them afloat. I think Richard Sherman [is] still underrated." 

Sherman started 14 games in his first season with San Francisco, defending a career-low four passes and intercepting zero passes for the first time in his career. Those low counting stats would be concerning for a defensive back's first season in their 30s, even excluding the season-ending Achilles injury he sustained in 2017, but Sherman's production wasn't the same as his best years with the Seattle Seahawks in large part because NFL offenses didn't seem to underrate him. 

According to Pro Football Focus, Sherman was targeted just once every 12.6 coverage snaps. No cornerback was avoided more than him, and Sherman also ranked first among corners in allowing a reception every 20.7 coverage snaps. In other words, opposing quarterbacks seemed to rate Sherman as one of the NFL's best cornerbacks. 

[RELATED: 49ers have important conversations beginning during OTAs]

How long that continues is an open question. Sherman is entering his ninth year in the NFL and turned 31 in March. Twenty-eight defensive backs were 31 or older last NFL season, and only 12 of them were 32 or older. Sherman will be 33 if he finishes out the three-year deal he signed with the 49ers last year, and it seems likely he will be targeted more the older he gets. 

But until then, it's clear Sherman's opposition under center view him as one of the best cornerbacks in the league even if Schrager's punditry peers do not. 

Ex-49ers linebacker Reuben Foster carted off field after suffering leg injury


Ex-49ers linebacker Reuben Foster carted off field after suffering leg injury

Organized team activities began Monday for NFL teams, and Washington suffered a loss shortly after the opening of camp.

Former 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster went down during the second play of OTAs with what appeared to be a serious left leg injury. He was on the ground for several minutes before being carted off while in tears.

After an receiving an MRI, Foster's injury appears to be very serious.

That's a brutal development for Foster and Washington.

[RELATED: 49ers have important competitions beginning during OTAs]

Foster was drafted by the 49ers with the No. 31 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, which was the beginning of a tumultuous time in the Bay Area.

The Alabama product was arrested three times and suffered multiple on-field injuries during his time with the 49ers. San Francisco cut ties with Foster last November after he was accused of committing domestic battery at a team hotel in Florida.

Washington claimed the linebacker off waivers a few days later. Foster recorded  84 solo tackles in his 16-game career with the 49ers.

The 49ers have since revamped their linebacking corps after Foster's departure. They signed Kwon Alexander to a four-year contract in the offseason and spent a fifth-round draft pick on Arkansas' Dre Greenlaw.

Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch hope Alexander, once he gets fully healthy, and Greenlaw can fill the role left by Foster's departure in the middle of the defense.