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.

Will 49ers look to trade backup QBs C.J. Beathard or Nick Mullens?

Will 49ers look to trade backup QBs C.J. Beathard or Nick Mullens?

One of the major competitions being waged on the 49ers’ practice field is for a spot the club hopes will never be asked to play a significant role this season.

The 49ers’ hopes for the season hinge in large part on quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo playing at a high level for 16 games. Behind him, in a too-close-to-call competition are C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens.

Once training camp opens in late-July, the competition for the backup role will heat up. Mullens outplayed Beathard last year, but all that did was create a level playing field for the competition that will ensue this summer.

This week marked the conclusion of the team’s official offseason program. Here are some questions submitted via Facebook:

What's the likelihood we trade one of our backup QBs to a team that loses a QB to injury? ( David Cummings)
The 49ers have three options:
1. Cut C.J. Beathard or Nick Mullens.
2. Keep three QBs on their 53-man roster.
3. Trade Beathard or Mullens.

Of those three options, there is no question the 49ers would rather trade one of their reserve quarterbacks.

I’m of the opinion right now that they are fine with either Beathard or Mullens as the backup to Jimmy Garoppolo. If another team feels a need to add a backup, I believe the 49ers would be open to trading either one – whichever player the other team wants more and will attract the better compensation.

Will Robbie be the starting kicker come the start of the regular season? (Richard Burley)
Robbie Gould has not publicly stated his intention, other than he has demanded a trade. (The 49ers said, in essence, “No, thanks. We want you to be our kicker.”)

It is difficult to imagine that Gould would forfeit more than $290,000 per game. The 49ers expect him to be on the field in Week 1 of the regular season. Jonathan Brown was the only kicker to participate in the offseason program. Right now, he’s their insurance policy.

Is there a possibility after the cutdowns start the 49ers will possibly pick up a savvy veteran guard or center considering the uncertainty and shakiness of our interior offensive line? (John Mayfield)
Based on their approach this offseason, the 49ers do not agree with your description of “uncertainty” and “shakiness” as it pertains to the interior of their offensive line.

There’s always a possibility of picking up someone for depth, but the addition of Ben Garland, who can play both guard and center, likely took care of that.

From what you've seen Matt, which WR has impressed you and the coaching staff the most? (Paul Martinez)
The 49ers’ top-two receivers during the offseason program were Dante Pettis and Trent Taylor. If Taylor remains healthy, he should benefit greatly from the tutelage of new receivers coach Wes Welker.

Considering the size of the front seven on defense are there concerns about our potential to defend against the run with the new Wide 9 scheme? (R.L. Stephens)
That is precisely why the 49ers’ defense now has three smaller, quicker stack linebackers. The Wide 9 is designed for the defensive ends to set the edge quicker to force running backs to cut inside earlier.

It also puts far more pressure on the linebackers to step up and cover more ground to prevent big plays on those plays.

Who is a name that might be a surprise cut before the 53-man roster is made? (Michael Tavares)
If I write the name here, he won’t be a surprise cut, right?

I’ll give you three players to watch. At first, I thought Marquise Goodwin might have a difficult time making the team. But he looked really good during the offseason program, and he does give the 49ers they don’t have anywhere else with his speed.

Veteran linebacker Malcolm Smith will have to earn his way. Elijah Lee and Dre Greenlaw look good, and they have special-teams value, too. Tight end Garrett Celek will be trying to come back from back surgery. I think he faces some pretty big odds at this stage of his career to remain on the team.

[RELATED: Kyle Shanahan believes 49ers can overcome injuries this season]

Who are the starting safeties at the beginning of the season? (Nick Gillo)
Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt. (Insert the obligatory, “If healthy.”)

With Shanahan talking about having great depth, predict the biggest 2020 offseason needs. (Jeff Bratton)
I predict the biggest needs for next season will be determined by what happens this season.

49ers linebacker Fred Warner looks to improve after solid rookie year

49ers linebacker Fred Warner looks to improve after solid rookie year

SANTA CLARA — Linebacker Fred Warner had a lot put on his plate as a rookie. Going into his second season as a pro, he's leaning on a wild first year.

“I’m expecting [my game] to grow a lot,” Warner said. “Having that experience from Year 1, obviously playing a lot of snaps, I think all parts of my game can improve. 

“Specifically I’m looking forward to working on tracking the ball, making sure that I’m improving on tackling, just communication, having clean eyes, and being able to anticipate things a lot quicker.”  

Warner explained that while he had a lot of responsibilities, he never felt like it was too much for him to handle. He added that linebackers coach DeMeco Ryans increased his workload as his experience grew. 

“I think they knew that they could rely on me, they never gave me too much,” Warner said. “DeMeco was always checking in with me to make sure that I wasn’t too overwhelmed and whatever they told me to do, I did it.

“They gave me more and more as I got more confident throughout the season, so leading into that last game against the Rams, we had a lot of stuff going on, but that’s when I was the most confident, in the last game of the year.” 

Warner’s experience is helping him look at last season’s game film with a new set of eyes, figuratively. He already sees ways he could have improved his performance. 

“No doubt,” Warner said. “I’m watching film right now and I’m looking at different things and I’m like, ‘Dang I would have called that’ or ‘I wish I was out there so we could do this,’ but I feel our defense is doing a great job right now. 

“Guys who maybe have not gotten as many reps are stepping up during this OTAs doing an outstanding job and I’m looking forward to getting back out there with them.” 

The defense has gotten notably faster after several key additions during the offseason and Warner believes it gives the group “swagger.”

“I think every year that we get more of that chemistry together as a group, I feel like that’s where it comes out, our confidence,” Warner said. “The more we can play with that, the more we can instill fear into our opponents on game day. They should be able to turn on the film and be like 'Oh, man. We got the Niners this week.’

“I think that with coach Kocurek, they are being taught to come off the ball hard and fast so they are going to create a lot of penetration which should create a lot of edges and so it’s our job to make them right, as linebackers. We are behind the ball for a reason so we can see everything and play off of them.” 

[RELATED: Jason Verrett feeling confident about his return]

Warner, like many players sitting out of team drills during OTAs and minicamp, is itching to get back on the field. But he knows that being patient is what’s best for him in the long run. 

“A lot of that you don’t have much control over,” Warner said. “You just have to listen to what the trainers tell you, and that’s what I’ve been doing. They have a plan for me and I’m just going to follow that, but yeah, just taking one day at a time.”