As expected, the San Francisco 49ers were extremely active in free agency.
Desperate to make improvements to a defense that largely struggled in 2018, the 49ers were not shy about spending big money on addressing their issues on that side of the ball, and also made what could be some useful additions on offense.
As attention shifts towards the draft, what can be gleaned from the moves the Niners have made this offseason?
Here we look at five takeaways from free agency for San Francisco.
49ers very willing to take injury risks
Following a 2018 season wrecked by injury, it has been a surprise to see San Francisco hand contracts to players with spotty injury history.
Creative structuring from 49ers cap wizard Paraag Marathe means their deals are front-loaded, but San Francisco still handed a four-year $54million contract to Kwon Alexander after he tore his ACL last year and a five-year $85.5m contract to Dee Ford after trading a 2020 second-rounder for him. Ford, though excellent in 2018 and previously 2016, had back surgery in 2017.
49ers 4 new multi-year deals:
Kwon Alexander’s 4 yr, $54M deal can be 1 yr, $14.5M
Tevin Coleman’s 2 yr, $8.5M deal can be 1 yr, $3.6M
Dee Ford’s 5 yr, $85.5M deal can be 1 yr, $21M
Kyle Nelson’s 4 yr $4.54M deal can be 1 yr, $1.3M
— Spotrac (@spotrac) March 16, 2019
The 49ers also took a low-risk gamble on cornerback Jason Verrett, whose career has been decimated by injuries, with those moves clear signs San Francisco was not scared off by what happened in 2018. After revamping their conditioning staff, the Niners will hope the bets they took on these players do not backfire and instead pay big dividends.
Playmakers a priority
Concerns over injury histories aside, there can be no doubt the 49ers have made a point of adding playmakers.
San Francisco’s 2018 defense forced just seven turnovers and only two interceptions. The hope will be that Alexander, who has six interceptions in his career, and Ford, who saw 11 of his pressures lead to turnovers last season, will drastically improve those numbers. Verrett, whose healthiest season in 2015 saw him record three picks, could also be a major contributor in that regard if he avoids injury.
The best thing about Dee Ford is not the fact that he gets to the quarterback … that’s nice. But it’s that he makes game changing plays when he does. An NFL leading 11 times off his pressures last season a turnover in some way was forced. That’s a crazy number.
— James Palmer (@JamesPalmerTV) March 13, 2019
Finding guys who can make key plays was also clearly a priority on offense. New running back Tevin Coleman’s five receiving touchdowns last year would have been tied for the lead among all 49ers and his four rushing scores were more than any San Francisco back managed in 2018.
Though more pass-catchers appear set to be added in the draft, hope of greater efficiency in the red zone – the Niners, per Team Rankings, scored a touchdown on just 41.18% of trips inside the 20 last year – clearly influenced the signing of big-bodied wideout Jordan Matthews to a one-year deal.
Shanahan looking for more mismatches
Coleman gives the 49ers another offensive playmaker and also a pleasing problem to have. San Francisco now has three starter-level backs in Coleman, Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida as well as key special teamer Raheem Mostert, who impressed as a runner before a broken arm ended his season, and must decide how to split their touches in 2019.
That may be difficult, but having three backs who all catch the ball well offers arguably the NFL’s most creative play-caller more possibilities to generate mismatches by getting Coleman and McKinnon one on one with linebackers.
Kyle Shanahan has already said he is willing to have four backs up on gameday and it wouldn’t exactly be a surprise to see the Niners line up with Breida, McKinnon, Coleman and dynamic fullback Kyle Juszczyk in the same formation next season.
Having four backs to split the load should also enable the 49ers to keep their backfield fresh after seeing it ravaged by injuries last year. A deep and versatile backfield has been key to the Patriots’ continued success and limiting the workload of each Niners runner with an eye on the playoffs would be a wise move for a team eyeing a postseason return.
But, primarily, moves like Coleman’s arrival are about making it easier on Jimmy Garoppolo by giving him more mismatches to exploit. To that end, expect the Niners to add another wideout and potentially a second tight end to pair with George Kittle come the draft.
Safety could be a draft-day focus
After much talk of the Niners paying big money to land Earl Thomas, the archetype for the single-high safety position that is so important in their Cover 3 scheme, San Francisco decided not to address that spot despite a deep free agent class.
They did re-sign the oft-injured Jimmie Ward to a one-year deal and, according to Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area, he is virtually assured to be the starting free safety if he remains healthy.
Yet it appears unlikely the 49ers would offer that kind of guarantee to a player who has consistently struggled to stay healthy, particularly after Adrian Colbert provided an upgrade on him after his 2017 season was ended prematurely.
With a great deal of talent at safety in this year’s draft class, the more plausible outcome is that the 49ers infuse competition at the position by adding a rookie into the mix to fight with Ward and Colbert for the starting role.
San Francisco close to elite front seven
Whatever you think of the money San Francisco gave to Alexander and Ford, it cannot be denied the 49ers’ front seven now looks extremely imposing.
In front of two extremely talented linebackers in Alexander and Fred Warner the 49ers have an interior rusher in DeForest Buckner and an edge presence in Ford who totaled 25 sacks between them in 2018. Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead are yet to reach their full potential but the Niners’ defensive line is a stacked group featuring valuable rotational pieces like Ronald Blair and D.J. Jones.
One dominant edge rusher will not be enough, though. For this front seven to reach elite status, a second is required. The dream scenario for the Niners would be Nick Bosa falling to them with the second overall pick. Should that come to pass, the 49ers will have no problem tormenting opposing quarterbacks and making their problems forcing turnovers a thing of the past.