Could the 49ers sneak into the playoffs next season?
It sounds ridiculous to suggest that a team that’s now 0-8 may develop into a playoff contender by next season, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Consider these factors:
They now have a quarterback…
Debate the merits of Jimmy Garoppolo all you want and whether he was a smart acquisition or not (I’m still not sure myself). However, I appreciate that San Francisco moved decisively and landed a QB that they think can be the answer for them. If they re-sign Jimmy G., there’s no QB battle. There’s no waffling. All their attention and all their eggs will be going into his basket.
An underrated aspect of them making the move now is that it will allow Jimmy Garoppolo an extra half season to get up to speed on Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Shanahan the Younger is a great offensive mind, but typically it’s taken a full year + for players to adjust to his system. In Shanahan Year 1, Matt Ryan was mediocre — 21 TDs, 16 int. By Year 2, he had mastered the offense and taken his game to MVP heights. By acquiring Garoppolo now, they’ve sped up his learning curve and thus sped up their rebuild.
They get to use their R1 pick any way they want now
If the 49ers ended up # 1 or # 2 in the draft and didn’t have a true QB on their roster, they’d be hard-pressed to pass on the “franchise quarterbacks” of the class. After all, we all see how much flak Cleveland’s getting for that themselves.
Now, the Niners can utilize that pick in any fashion they want. Penn State RB Saquon Barkley may be the best overall player in the draft class, but I personally don’t see Kyle Shanahan taking a RB in the top 3. Throughout the Shanahan’s career, they’ve relied on mid-to-lower picks at RB that fit their system and thrived as a result.
One area of need that the Niners can consider is the playmakers in this safety class. Both Florida State’s Derwin James and Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick are true blue chippers and top 5 talents. Usually, you don’t take a safety in the top 10, but DC Robert Saleh envisions a Seattle-style defense. Seattle, we may remember, built that great D on the bedrock of Earl Thomas, the # 14 pick back in 2014. With big Eric Reid transitioning to linebacker, the Niners could a stud safety right now.
Of course, the Niners would find the most value by trading back and collecting more picks. This QB class is debatable, but the “demand” side of the supply/demand equation is in their favor given the fact that 12+ teams need a QB of the future.
They can partake in a free agent frenzy
From what I understand, the 49ers may have an excess of $100 million in cap space this offseason.
Some younger rebuilding teams don’t invest in free agent, figuring that it isn’t time to enter “win now” mode. However, the opposite has applied to several rebuilding teams — most notably Oakland and Jacksonville. The Raiders and Jaguars supplemented their young core by grabbing some stud free agents. Kelechi Osemele, Malik Jackson, Calais Campbell, etc. Suddenly, the teams that were flushed with cap space with flushed with talent as well.
If the 49ers do want to spend heavily in free agency, they should target stars who still have tread left on their times. In terms of playmakers, I’d be curious about WR Sammy Watkins (24 years old) and WR Marqise Lee (25) as possible dynamic playmakers that Shanahan can utilize in creative ways. Underrated Tampa Bay TE Cameron Brate (26) may be available if the Bucs want to hand the reins to O.J. Howard.
In terms of adding talent on the offensive line, I’d look in an unusual place — the New York Giants. Their line is among the worst in the league, but arguably their two best linemen are slated for free agency: G/T Justin Pugh (27) and C Weston Richburg (26). If the Giants can’t afford to keep both, the Niners can swoop in and scoop up a starter.
Defensive line talent is always a good investment, even if the Niners have been drafting heavily there already. I would expect Dallas to franchise breakout DE DeMarcus Lawrence (25) but are some young interior linemen that would fit Saleh’s scheme well: Timmy Jernigan (25), Sheldon Richardson (26), and Bennie Logan (27).
Given all their holes, San Francisco can attack the market at a variety of positions. Given all their cash, they should succeed on that front and find themselves 2-3 good starters that should make their team take a deceive step up.