Five off-season fixes: San Francisco 49ers

With Super Bowl LI over, it’s time to turn our attention to the off-season. In this series, I’ll take a look at each of the teams who finished at the bottom of their division and prescribe five off-season fixes that should get them back in the mix next season. Let’s evaluate the NFC West’s San Francisco 49ers.

After another disappointing season, the 49ers fired head coach Chip Kelly and general manager Trent Baalke. In comes Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan as head coach and former Buccaneers safety John Lynch as general manager. Battling inexperience in a front office role, Lynch’s priority will be these five off-season fixes:

  1. Find a quarterback

Colin Kaepernick has said he will test the market, and Blaine Gabbert is not a starter. Based on Shanahan’s recent comments ahead of the Super Bowl, the 49ers could pursue New England’s Jimmy Garoppolo. Shanahan liked Garoppolo coming out of Eastern Illinois in 2014, when Shanahan was Cleveland’s offensive coordinator. Instead, the Browns drafted Johnny Manziel. If Shanahan doesn’t acquire Garoppolo, who will probably cost the 49ers the second overall pick in a trade, then expect him to use that pick to select a quarterback. North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky could be the best fit for Shanahan of the top prospects, but ideally Shanahan would like a more experienced player to run his complex system.

2. Make Carlos Hyde the centrepiece

Hyde burst onto the scene as San Francisco’s second round pick in 2014, but has never played a full season due to injury. Hyde rushed for 988 yards in 13 games this season and has shown huge potential when healthy. Shanahan is a noted running game guru, and will likely have both an inexperienced quarterback and no true number one receiver. So expect Hyde to become the focal point of Shanahan’s offense. Hyde could be poised for a Pro Bowl campaign if he can stay healthy.

3. Spend big in free agency

With a roster almost as devoid of talent as Cleveland’s, the 49ers do not have any players that must be retained. With the second most cap space in the league at just over $80 million (per Sportrac), the 49ers can pursue some veteran playmakers on the open market. Expect Shanahan to completely overhaul the offense. Pursuing players that have already played for Shanahan like Washington receiver Pierre Garcon or a deep threat like DeSean Jackson would be wise. Pairing Jackson with Torrey Smith would give Shanahan two potent deep targets to stretch defenses with. Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett, Cowboys guard Ronald Leary, or Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery could all be targets.

4. Draft for defense

Depending on whether the 49ers have to use the second overall pick to draft or trade for a quarterback, expect Lynch to focus on defense in early rounds. This is a deep draft for defensive backs, so finding a playmaking corner or a versatile linebacker in the second or third round should be a priority. Lynch could court players like LSU corner Tre’Davious White or Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Watt. Expect Shanahan to possibly model his defense on Dan Quinn’s model in Atlanta, focusing on speed and range. Linebackers like Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham or Florida’s Jarrad Davis could also fit that model.

5. Find depth at the skill positions

Shanahan’s offense in Atlanta dominated the league this season because he had so many talented players at his disposal. Even cast-offs from other teams like speedy receiver Taylor Gabriel (a former Brown) were key contributors. Expect Shanahan to follow the same mould in San Francisco. Using the second day of the draft to find skill position depth is a must, but using as much remaining cap space as possible to add veteran contributors would also be a good idea. The main weakness for teams with bad rosters is not a lack of star playmakers, but usually they lack quality across the depth chart. Shanahan and Lynch must address that issue this off-season.