Matt Maiocco

49ers mailbag: Could co-coordinators ease Kyle Shanahan's workload?

49ers mailbag: Could co-coordinators ease Kyle Shanahan's workload?

It has been two weeks since the 49ers’ loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. That’s more than enough time to turn the page and look ahead.

So that’s what we’re doing -- with the help from some of our Twitter friends. Here is the first offseason edition of the 49ers Mailbag.

Kyle Shanahan is one of the best play-callers in the NFL. I don’t think there’s even a question about that. Is there? So I can’t envision any scenario in which Shanahan stops doing the thing he does best.

Shanahan certainly believes McDaniel and LaFleur are ready to call plays. McDaniel and LaFleur are, in essence, co-offensive coordinators. They are responsible for putting together the first components of the weekly game plan.

Through the first three seasons together with the 49ers, they have found a pretty good rhythm together and Shanahan finds himself placing more trust in them. What they’re doing is working.

If the 49ers have the $19 million-plus in cap room to devote to a franchise tag for Arik Armstead, then I think they could work out a long-term deal that would work for both sides.

As for the question about a tag-and-trade, I’m sure you’re thinking about how the Kansas City Chiefs tagged Dee Ford a year ago and, then, traded him to the 49ers. In that instance, the Chiefs had Frank Clark on the line, so that made sense.

In this case, I don’t think there’s anyone who plays Armstead’s position they would prefer over him. Armstead is exactly what the 49ers need: A defensive end on base downs who moves inside next to DeForest Buckner to rush the passer in nickel situations.

There is no need for the 49ers to do anything with Thomas, except work with him to continue to improve and become more valuable as a rotational player on the defensive line. The 49ers certainly will not pick up the fifth-year option on Thomas for the 2021 season. But with Thomas’ rookie contract guaranteed, there is no cap advantage in parting ways with him this year.

Regardless, Thomas should have a significant role next season. But if for whatever reason Armstead is not back, Thomas has a strong chance to be a starter.

The possibility of recouping a draft pick is part of the reason the 49ers felt compelled to make the trade in the first place. In my opinion, they would have preferred Mohamed Sanu, who was under contract through the 2020 season. But the Patriots offered the Atlanta Falcons a second-round draft pick, and the 49ers did not have a second-round pick after dealing it to Kansas City for Dee Ford.

Instead, the 49ers acquired Sanders and a fifth-round pick from Denver in return for third- and fourth-round draft picks. The 49ers do not figure to be active with veteran acquisitions on the free-agent market this offseason, so it is likely the 49ers have more losses than gains. If Sanders is a loss, the 49ers would stand a good chance of picking up a compensatory pick for the 2021 draft.

Get stronger. Work. Work. Work.

Pettis had a good offseason program a year ago, but he was not the same player when he came back for training camp. Other receivers on the team came back stronger at the opening of camp. Pettis did not. That is why Pettis struggled and fell out of favor to the point he rarely played in the second half of the season.

Pettis needs to take it up another few notches to get stronger and avoid the nagging injuries that also set him back last season. Pettis has more ability than almost anyone on the team to run some of Shanahan’s favorite routes. He will have an opportunity to prove himself in the offseason and training camp this year.

If Jalen Hurd and Pettis are both healthy, I think the answer is Hurd. The reason is because of his size and his unique skill set.

I envision Hurd being a big part of the 49ers’ two-minute offense because of his versatility. The 49ers can line him up anywhere in the formation, including running back. That puts the onus on the defense to figure out how they want to treat him. Is he a runner, wide receiver or tight end? Then, based on the defensive personnel, the 49ers can exploit those weaknesses.

[RELATED: Juice sick of Jimmy G, Shanahan criticism after Super Bowl]

The draft takes place more than a month after free agency. So the answer to this question could change, based on what the 49ers’ roster looks like at the time of the draft. But, right now, if the 49ers hold onto the No. 31 overall pick, the team can choose among the best available wide receiver, cornerback or defensive lineman.

There are two ways to look at this. But if there’s a team willing to move up to No. 31 overall, then that is the default move. It would make a lot of sense to sit out the first round of the draft to come away with multiple picks on Day 2.

But if there is someone at No. 31 with whom the organization has fallen in love, then they should take that player. The advantage of holding onto the first-round draft pick is that the 49ers would control the contract rights to the player for five years, instead of four.

George Kittle leads six 49ers ranked in PFF's top 101 players of 2019

George Kittle leads six 49ers ranked in PFF's top 101 players of 2019

George Kittle was voted as the winner of the 49ers’ most-prestigious team award.

He also took home the top league-wide honor from Pro Football Focus as the best overall player from the 2019 season.

Kittle, as PFF describes it, graded out as the best player, regardless of position, in the NFL last season on a snap-by-snap basis. He was among six 49ers whom PFF graded among the top 101 players in the league.

Kittle, who was voted by his 49ers teammates as winner of the Len Eshmont Award, had 1,053 receiving yards and five touchdowns in the regular season.

He averaged 7.3 yards after the catch, most in the league among players with 50 or more receptions, according to PFF. He led all tight ends with 20 broken tackles.

Kittle, who also is an outstanding blocker, had the highest grade PFF has ever given to a tight end. His grade was the best in the entire NFL in 2019. He appears to be in line to become the league's highest-paid tight end this offseason.

Here are the other top 10 players, according to PFF’s grading system:
2. DT Aaron Donald, L.A. Rams
3. QB Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
4.
QB Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs
5.
G Brandon Brooks, Philadelphia
6. DE T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers
7.
QB Lamar Jackson, Baltimore
8. WR Michael Thomas, New Orleans
9. T Ryan Ramczyk, New Orleans
10. DT Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh

Five other 49ers were ranked among the top 101, according to PFF:

13. CB Richard Sherman
Sherman was not challenged much during the regular season. When teams went his way, they often paid the price. Quarterbacks who tested him had a 45.3 passer rating for the entire season, despite his struggles in the Super Bowl, according to PFF. He gave up just 227 passing yards in the regular season on his way to his fifth Pro Bowl recognition.

28. DE Nick Bosa
Bosa, who placed one spot ahead of his brother, Joey, registered the most pressures PFF ever has recorded by a rookie. PFF has been around since 2006. Bosa only got better in the postseason with 22 pressures in three games, including 12 in the Super Bowl. Bosa, the No. 2 overall pick, won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

30. DE Arik Armstead
Armstead had his breakout season with a team-high 10 sacks during the regular season. He recorded a total of nine sacks in his first four seasons. He had 73 quarterback pressures for the entire year, which is one shy of doubling his previous career high, according to PFF. He also produced a career-best 42 defensive snaps, as he proved to be a force both as a run and pass defender. Armstead is scheduled for unrestricted free agency, but general manager John Lynch said the 49ers’ goal is to keep him around for “a long time.”

54. S Jimmie Ward
Ward never spoke out during his first five NFL seasons. Despite constant position changes, Ward did not complain. He just did his job. This season, the 49ers kept Ward at safety, and he remained healthy. The results showed. Ward did not register an interception, but he broke up eight passes and was a big reason no team surrendered fewer pass plays of 20 yards or more. Ward likely is one of the 49ers’ top priorities to re-sign this offseason as a scheduled unrestricted free agent.

[RELATED: How DeForest Buckner, George Kittle impact 49ers' free agency decisions]

82. DT DeForest Buckner
Buckner is described by PFF as “a player with no real weaknesses.” After the 49ers’ three postseason games, Buckner ended the season with a career-high in quarterback pressures. He registered 7.5 sacks in the regular season and 2.5 more in the postseason. There’s no question what the 49ers coaching staff thinks of Buckner. He was named the winner of the Bill Walsh Award, which is given to the 49er who has best represented the standard of professional excellence established by the Hall of Fame coach.

How DeForest Buckner, George Kittle impact 49ers' free agency decisions

How DeForest Buckner, George Kittle impact 49ers' free agency decisions

Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and tight end George Kittle are under contract for another season apiece.

But any discussion about the 49ers’ finances and free agency must include mention of the big contracts that loom for Buckner and Kittle.

This offseason could be key for both men, as the 49ers would like to find a way to reward both players and keep them under contract for the foreseeable future.

Therefore, as the 49ers are about a month away from free agency, they’ll be watching exactly where they spend their dollars after advancing to Super Bowl LIV, where they lost to the Kansas City Chiefs.

“We're committed to finding a way to be better,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said. “We'd love to keep everybody. This team is special. There's a special feel to it. We hope that's the case. It's probably not likely, it just doesn't happen in this league.”

“There may have to be tradeoffs along the way. But I think we're in a good position to find a way to certainly keep the core together and even like I said our mindset to improve it.”

Following is a look at the 49ers who are not under contract for 2020 and are scheduled for unrestricted or restricted free agency:

Unrestricted free agents

The 49ers have sole negotiating rights with each of the following players until March 16, when the open-negotiating window opens. On March 18, players can sign with other teams. Teams can tag a franchise player at any time from Feb. 25 to March 10. Here are the team’s scheduled unrestricted free agents (with most-recent yearly salary in parenthesis):

DL Arik Armstead ($9.046 million)
Armstead put together back-to-back seasons in which he played every game. That comes after two seasons in which he missed a combined 18 games due to injuries. Armstead always has been good as a run defender. This season, he was a man for all downs.

Armstead figures to land a lucrative free agent contract -- either with the 49ers or some other team. If the 49ers want to place the franchise tag on him, it would cost approximately $18 million for just one season. A multi-year deal would give him more guaranteed money with the cap hit in 2020 would not be as large for the 49ers.

It would be difficult to replace what Armstead brought to the team this season. He is perfect for this defense -- a defensive end on base downs who moves inside to rush the passer.

Lynch suggested he does not want to use the franchise tag on Armstead because he wants a long-term deal.

“We want to find a way to keep him and make him a part of the 49ers for a long time,” Lynch said.

S Jimmie Ward ($4.5 million)
After injuries and position switches prevented Ward from ever showing what he could do, things settled down for him this season. Ward just wants to play free safety. For which team he plays is another question.

Tarvarius Moore started the first three games of the season at free safety when Ward was out after undergoing surgery on a broken finger. Moore played five snaps on defense in the Super Bowl, and he was in the middle of three plays. Two were very good, including an interception of Patrick Mahomes. One was not so good, as he was flagged for pass interference on a crucial third-and-10 play in the fourth quarter.

The 49ers must decide if they want to pay the price to keep Ward or to make the transition next season to Moore. Re-signing Ward would appear to be a priority.

WR Emmanuel Sanders ($11 million)
Sanders, a 10-year veteran, fit in well with the team after coming to the 49ers in a midseason trade with Denver. He said he loves playing for the 49ers. But will the 49ers be willing to pay the price to make a multi-year offer to retain him? The 49ers will want to bring him back, but it the question is whether there will be other teams willing to make a more lucrative commitment.

Deebo Samuel, Richie James and Dante Pettis are under contract. The 49ers figure to bring back Kendrick Bourne as a restricted free agent. Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd missed this season due to injuries but, if healthy, figure to be major contributors.

DE Ronald Blair (650,000)
Blair sustained a torn ACL in November. He was a valuable member of the 49ers’ defensive line rotation, and his absence late in the season meant less rest for the third-down pass-rushers. The 49ers should make every attempt to bring him back.

C Ben Garland ($805,000)
Garland filled in admirably when Weston Richburg went down with a torn patellar tendon in his right knee on Dec. 8. Garland already has shown what he can do as a backup, and the price figures to be right to bring him back.

DT Sheldon Day ($737,000)
Day was a starter down the stretch of the season after D.J. Jones was placed on IR with a severe high ankle sprain. Day might find a starting opportunity elsewhere in the league. If that’s the case, the 49ers will probably not be willing to pay the price to retain him.

TE Levine Toilolo ($895,000)
Toilolo ended up being a low-key important piece to the 49ers’ offense as an extra blocker. They will certainly be willing to bring him back on a deal worth the veteran minimum.

TE Garrett Celek ($2.5 million)
Celek announced his retirement last week after eight seasons with the 49ers. He underwent surgery in June to repair a herniated disk in his back and appeared in five games last season before going in injured reserve.

CB Dontae Johnson ($805,000)
Johnson had a good training camp, then was brought back to the team during the season when the club needed him due to injuries. He could be back this season, too.

OT Shon Coleman ($820,000)
Coleman was a third-round pick of the Cleveland Browns in 2016 whom the 49ers acquired for a seventh-round selection in 2018. He did not play in 2018, and he was slated to be the team’s swing tackle last season before he sustained a season-ending injury in the first preseason game.

DE Damontre Moore ($805,000)
Moore nearly made the team out of training camp, then was added to the roster after Blair’s injury. He sustained a fractured forearm in his second game and was lost for the season. It seems like it’s a low-risk move to bring him back on a one-year deal.

DT Earl Mitchell ($930,000)
Mitchell unretired to join the 49ers for the playoffs. After playing 19 snaps in the Super Bowl and registering a half-sack, Mitchell told Nick Wagoner of ESPN that this time he is retiring for good.

WR Jordan Matthews ($805,000)
Matthews was a veteran insurance policy who appeared in one game with the 49ers this season and did not catch a pass.

DE Anthony Zettel ($720,000)
Zettel appeared in the final regular-season game and all three playoff games as a backup defensive end.

CB Jason Verrett ($3 million)
The 49ers took what they figured was a low-risk gamble on Verrett, whose career has been plagued by injuries. He appeared in just one game before going on injured reserve for the remainder of the season.

[RELATED: 49ers' offseason should focus on these five moves]

Restricted free agents

Players can negotiate with any team. The 49ers can place tenders of original round, second round or first round on these players. Because none of the following players was acquired by 49ers through draft, the 49ers would receive no compensation with an original-round tender. Here are the team’s scheduled restricted free agents (with most-recent yearly salary in parenthesis):

WR Kendrick Bourne ($556,667)
If the 49ers place a same-round tender on Bourne, he could attract some attention as a free agent. The best course of action for the 49ers would be to sign him to a multi-year extension to ensure that they keep him around for a while. He had 30 catches for 358 yards and his five TD receptions were tied for the team-lead with George Kittle.

RB Matt Breida ($556,667)
Breida, the team’s leading rusher in 2018, ended up not playing much down the stretch of the regular season and playoffs, as Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman handled the duties at running back. In the Super Bowl, Jeff Wilson played five snaps of offense, and Breida did not play. If another team wants to sign Breida to a multi-year contract, he might not be back.

LB Elijah Lee ($645,000)
Lee did not make the club out of training camp, but he ended up serving roles on special teams and as a backup linebacker. Lee appears to be a player the 49ers would like to keep around.