SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As they enter a pivotal offseason for the future of the franchise, the San Francisco 49ers face plenty of challenges when it comes to their roster.
The new league year starts Wednesday and the legal negotiating window opens Monday, as the Niners aim to regroup and prove last year’s 6-10 record was an injury-fueled fluke.
To that end, here’s a look at the four boxes the Niners must check in the coming weeks.
What happens with Trent Williams — ranked by ESPN as the No. 1 free agent on this year’s market — will play a major role in shaping how the offseason shakes out. The Niners remain confident that Williams will be back and he’s recently expressed similar faith in a return. It won’t come cheap but it’s a necessity, as other contenders such as the Indianapolis Colts and the Kansas City Chiefs are lurking.
The markets for cornerbacks Verrett and K’Wuan Williams should vary a bit but don’t be surprised if Williams gets a deal from someone like the New York Jets that pays him among the top nickel corners in the league. That makes Verrett a better bet to stay, though projecting his market is difficult because of his lengthy injury history.
Even with the Juszczyk deal done, keeping all four seems unlikely. If the Niners can re-sign Trent Williams and at least one of the other two beyond Juszczyk, they should still have enough cap space to pursue help elsewhere and set themselves up to draft for value over need come April.
Bolster the quarterback depth chart
Much has been made about what the Niners are planning to do at the game’s most important position but so far, they seem committed to keeping incumbent starter Jimmy Garoppolo and adding behind him. Backups Nick Mullens (restricted) and C.J. Beathard are set for free agency and there’s a good chance neither will return.
While we can’t completely rule out the Niners moving on from Garoppolo, the more pressing matter for now is how they improve behind him so if he does stay and again struggles with injuries the Niners won’t have another lost season.
For now, the Niners have Garoppolo, Josh Rosen and Josh Johnson under contract. If Garoppolo remains, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Niners added a veteran in free agency or trade and drafted a developmental prospect.
Multiple reports have indicated the Niners have interest in New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold. A trade for Darnold wouldn’t likely be to replace Garoppolo but to bring in a starting caliber backup who could push him. Still, that would only be a match if the price for Darnold isn’t too exorbitant because he can be a free agent after next season.
Alternatively, the Niners could touch base with some of the many veteran quarterbacks who are slated to hit the market. Jacoby Brissett, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Andy Dalton and Tyrod Taylor are among the options who would make sense in free agency with Mitchell Trubisky another intriguing possibility with upside if the price is right. Gardner Minshew could be a cheaper alternative available for trade.
Stay in the mix with more of their own free agents
While Trent Williams, K’Waun Williams and Verrett as well as the already-sgined Juszczyk are the top targets to retain in free agency, the Niners have plenty of others who they wouldn’t mind keeping around if the price is right.
The 49ers don’t have the cap space to sign all of those guys at true market value but the market is probably going to be more tepid than usual for the middle class of players, which means there could be a chance to keep some of these players at bargain prices on one-year deals.
Find free-agent bargains
Of course, the potential bargains who could be available aren’t limited to former Niners hitting the market. With so many teams scrambling to get under a salary cap that dropped 8%, good players are flooding the market and not all of them will be able to get the type of contracts they would in a normal offseason. One-year deals might be more abundant than ever.
Coleman became one of the highest-paid slot corners in the league just two years ago but the Detroit Lions parted ways with him in a cost-cutting move. He played for new 49ers secondary coach Cory Undlin in the Motor City and would be a logical possible fallback plan if K’Waun Williams departs.
Sanders spent a chunk of the 2019 season with the 49ers and it proved a mutually beneficial pairing before Sanders left as a free agent. A year later, he’s available again after the New Orleans Saints released him to create cap space. Should Bourne leave and Sanders’ price come in somewhere in the $3-4 million range, a reunion with the Niners would make sense and allow him to work out of the slot alongside outside wideouts Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk.
Bargain also doesn’t have to mean cheap. It could be players who simply aren’t getting the type of price they expected at the top of the market. It’s why you heard the Niners connected to and nearly landing names like running back Le’Veon Bell and tight end Austin Hooper in recent years.