Salute Magazine’s Exit Interview series examines the status of each NFL team heading into the offseason, along with their free agents, team needs and more. Click here for the rest of the exit interviews. Up next: the San Francisco 49ers.
The 49ers can split their 2017 season into two distinct sections: pre-Jimmy Garoppolo and post-Jimmy Garoppolo. Pre-Jimmy: a record of 1-10. Post-Jimmy: 5-0.
The move to acquire Garoppolo at the trade deadline from the New England Patriots for a second-round pick was a shrewd move on the part of general manager John Lynch, and it appears to have been a work of genius. Once he started his first game in week 12, the 49ers suddenly became a dominant football team.
That’s especially shocking considering how poor they were before then with Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard at the helm. Many expected the 49ers to tank this season for a high draft pick, but once Garoppolo stepped in, there was no need to. They handled teams with elite defenses like the Jacksonville Jaguars and Los Angeles Rams with ease.
First-year head coach Kyle Shanahan deserves credit as well for scheming around Garoppolo to perfection. The offense ended up finishing 12th in the league despite the bad start, though the defense, just 24th in the league, still needs to improve.
But the 49ers are very young, and the fire they showed down the stretch will be instrumental for them heading into 2018. They’ll have a top-ten draft pick to go along with the most cap space in the league, so Lynch has every opportunity to add to what they already have.
First things first though? Re-sign Garoppolo.
Current number of draft picks: 9 (#9 or 10 in the first round; will be determined via coin flip at the NFL Combine)
Cap space: $114-119 million
Notable free agents
Jimmy Garoppolo, QB: It was startling to see just how much of a different team the 49ers were with Garoppolo under center. In six games of action, he threw for 1,560 yards and 7 touchdowns. Extrapolate over a full season, and he’d have over 4,000 yards and 19 TDs.
He did throw 5 interceptions during that time too, which needs to be corrected, but Garoppolo also showed immense upside as a franchise QB. Given how much money the 49ers have to spend, they should have no trouble reaching a deal with him before he actually hits the open market.
Carlos Hyde, RB: Hyde has proven to be a talented player in his four seasons of play in the NFL, but something is holding him back from true stardom. He led the 49ers in rushing with 938 yards and 8 TDs this season while also leading them in receptions with 59 for 350 yards. That’s strong production for a running back in today’s game.
But the 49ers haven’t treated him like a long-term starter. They brought in a lot of competition for him during training camp, partially due to his injury history and fumbling troubles in 2016. There were reported issues with him in the locker room as well. With all this in mind, it’s no wonder that Hyde’s name was floated around trade rumors.
Still, Hyde seemed to answer all the criticisms about him this season. He played in all 16 games for the first time in his career and didn’t lose a fumble either. Will that be enough for San Fran to want to keep him? Perhaps, but other teams may target him in free agency as well.
Eric Reid, S: Reid had a hot start to his career in 2013, making the Pro Bowl and starting every game as a rookie. Since then, he’s had an up-and-down tenure with the 49ers, marked by injury and inconsistent play. It didn’t help that the team brought in other players to take snaps from him.
He started to look like his rookie self in 2017, finishing third on the team in total tackles with 66 while leading the safety group in snaps. A lot of his time was spent in a hybrid-linebacker role though. The 49ers have plenty of other reliable safeties, especially Jaquiski Tartt and Adrian Colbert, so it might be better for Reid to head elsewhere.
Brandon Fusco, G: Fusco was a generally steady blocker at guard in 2013 and 2014 for the Minnesota Vikings, who rewarded with a five-year extension. However, his performance took a turn for the worse during the next two seasons, partially due to injury, resulting in the Vikings cutting him last February.
The 49ers brought Fusco in on a one-year deal, and he responded well, earning a grade of 76 from Pro Football Focus, good for 21st in the league, up from an average of 46.1 in 2015 and 2016. With the amount of money San Fran has, they could chase after a top option instead, but bringing Fusco back is a good alternative as well.
RB: With Hyde hitting free agency and not likely to return, the 49ers will be left with just Matt Breida and a host of backs with no experience. Adding someone like Saquon Barkley in the first round would be ideal, but he may be gone by the time they’re next to pick. Luckily, this year’s running back class is deep, so there will be a plethora of options to go with.
CB: Ahkello Witherspoon was pretty effective as a rookie, and slot corner K’Waun Williams played decently as well. However, the starter across from Witherspoon, Dontae Johnson, is a free agent and was below average anyway. The 49ers could be the first team to take a corner in this year’s draft.
LB: While Reuben Foster was excellent in his rookie season, the other two linebacker spots left a lot to be desired. Brock Coyle, who actually played the most snaps of the group, is a free agent anyway.
G: Fusco and Laken Tomlinson ended up doing well at the two guard spots this year. The former will be hitting free agency, and the 49ers might not want to turn to Zane Beadles or former first-round pick Joshua Garnett again.
DE/DT: The 49ers rotated a lot at all four defensive line positions and as such had excellent depth in 2017. Two of the defensive ends, Tank Carradine and Aaron Lynch, are both free agents though, while Earl Mitchell could probably be upgraded at defensive tackle.
T: San Fran is set at left tackle until longtime veteran Joe Staley retires, which could be soon. Right tackle Trent Brown had a surprisingly decent season as well. However, top backup Garry Gilliam is a free agent, and the team should start considering a long-term successor to Staley soon.
WR/TE: The core of the current offensive weapons on the roster look pretty solid this season. Pierre Garcon is always reliable, Marquise Goodwin had a breakout season and the intermediate trio of Trent Taylor, Garrett Celek and George Kittle all had their moments. Adding one more weapon for Garoppolo could expand the offense though.
QB: As mentioned earlier, Garoppolo is expected to resign as soon as possible, but if he leaves for whatever reason (not likely), finding a new QB obviously becomes priority #1. Bringing in competition for Beathard at the backup position should be considered as well.
Best player/building block
Reuben Foster, LB: Talk about proving doubters wrong. Despite injury and character concerns that caused him to drop to a late first-round draft pick, Foster was outstanding in his rookie season with the 49ers, placing second on the team with 72 tackles despite missing six games due to injury.
In addition, PFF gave him a 90.7 grade at linebacker, fourth in the entire league and second among rookies behind Buffalo Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White. San Fran may have an absolute gem on their hands.
DeForest Buckner, DT: It’s rare to see a top-ten draft pick fly under the radar, but that’s what’s happened with Buckner in his two seasons with the 49ers. That’s a shame because he deserves to be seen as one of the best defensive linemen in the league.
Buckner was fourth on the team with 61 total tackles, and while he was tied for second with just 3 sacks, his interior pass rush allowed many other players on the defense to pick up QB takedowns. PFF had him tied for 6th among interior defenders with a 90.4 grade, third in pass rush productivity at 89.6. There are few defensive tackles in football who are as balanced as he is.
AFC East: New York Jets
AFC North: Cleveland Browns
AFC West: Denver Broncos
NFC East: New York Giants
NFC North: Chicago Bears
NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers