Questions and Answers After Initial Free Agency
By Tom Jensen,2023-03-14
These are the questions on every 49ers fan's mind.
With the splash signing of defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, the 49ers made a statement on Day 1 of the legal tampering period. The initial moves raise some questions about what’s next.
1. What’s with $3.5 million for Sam Darnold? Does this mean Lance is getting traded?
It’s the cost of doing business at QB. Taylor Heinicke just signed for 2 years $20 million. The Niners are anticipating that the league will change the rules to allow for three quarterbacks on game day and acknowledging that they can’t keep their QBs upright. Lance will probably start the first few games -- he carries a hefty cap hit if he’s dealt, and can only be traded if the Niners get a 1 st round pick or very early 2 nd for him. A trade is unlikely.
2. What are they going to do at right tackle?
The 49ers believe in Colton McKivitz, he’s the starter. They can point to Jake Brendel as proof of “you doubted us before and look what happened.” However, this is also a team that wishes things into being regularly.
Unrealistic : Anything in free agency. The Niners didn’t match at $6 million on Emmanuel Moseley, so if that’s their current ceiling, no starting tackles can be signed.
Really Unrealistic : Trading draft picks for one of the 2 nd tier tackles that can start day one – Dawand Jones, Anton Harrison, and Darnell Wright. Some insist that the Niners can trade picks to get one of these players. Morgan Freeman voiceover: “They cannot.” All are gone by the mid-30s. The Niners can’t move up that high, two comp 3rds and a 2024 2 nd fall well short of No. 35 on the draft trade chart.
In addition, the league-wide supply of impact tackles is minimal, cheap rookie tackles that can start are immensely valuable. No one’s interested in a 49ers gift basket of late and future picks when starting rookie right tackles are found gold.
There is an exception, though. A few teams have called about Brandon Aiyuk, including the New York Giants with the No. 25 pick they’re projected to spend on USC’s Jordan Addison. The Giants would do it, but the Niners reportedly refuse to move Aiyuk. This is how the Niners can get to the 2 nd tier rookie tackles, in my view the only way. They don’t appear to be willing.
Optimistic : Trade up to the 3 rd tier tackles who might be able to start in-season – Cody Mauch, Matthew Bergeron, Jaelyn Duncan, and Blake Freeland. Mauch has T-Rex arms. Bergeron lacks the zone scheme athleticism. Duncan has the prototypical frame and arm length, and 6-8 Freeland is a great combo blocker in the running game, but they aren’t Day 1 starters. Will the Niners trade up for one? Probably not.
The CMC Path : This is so new people aren’t factoring it in but absolutely should. The Niners gave up a draft haul for Christian McCaffrey before the trade deadline. Who is this year’s Carolina? Do they have a young impact starting offensive tackle? The Niners have already added a 3 rd round comp pick in free agency, McGlinchey + Garoppolo – Hargrave = 3 rd , and have two more 3rds coming for DeMeco Ryans and Ran Carthon. In-season, they'd have the full cupboard of 2024 draft picks to deal. If it becomes evident that McKivitz is not enough at right tackle to win a ring, as everyone not employed by the Niners would predict, then a trade deadline move may be the solution.
Diamond in the rough: Every year there are linemen who fall through the cracks, a late pick may emerge and the Niners excel at that.
Realistic : The likely long-term solution is next year’s first-rounder. A lineman that can start at right tackle and move left when Trent Williams retires. Check out Notre Dame games this year. Blake Fisher is 6-6/327 with long arms, and he has both the power for the league and athleticism for the zone scheme. He’s projected late 1 st and the Niners love their Notre Dame offensive linemen.
3. What about corner? That was tough losing E-Man.
Deommodore Lenoir closed the season well, Sam Womack started it well. They are the answer, but maybe not in the expected way. Womack is more effective outside, he may be the starting corner with Lenoir moving back to the slot. Either way, the Niners lack depth and will need to invest multiple picks in the secondary.
4. To optimize Hargrave, they still need a speed edge. What do they do here?
The need for a speed edge becomes even more necessary with the Hargrave signing. The Niners need to replicate the Philly line of every player is a threat - if Hargrave is to approach last year’s numbers. It’s also common sense, speed edge, and an impact DT forces an offensive line to pick its poison.
The Niners are rumored to be interested in Za’Darius Smith, the resulting pressure would be exactly what John Lynch is looking for upfront. Whether Smith can be pried loose from Minnesota, we’ll find out. A popular alternative is Yannick Ngaouke, not just for his production, but as an edge known for his quick first step.
A one-year deal to elevate stats under Niners defensive line coach genius Kris Kocurek is probably the route here. Arden Key returning, Leonard Floyd, Robert Quinn, but this path requires patience.
The draft is deep at edge, the question is if an impact speed edge is available at No. 99, or with a short trade up. Byron Young of Tennessee ran 4.43, but as a result won’t fall to No. 99. Eastern Michigan’s Jose Ramirez is a popular and productive sleeper pick who led Indy at 3-cone and had 12 sacks this year.