Before adding talent via free agency or the 2019 NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers must first address the 12 players scheduled to become free agents when their contracts expire next month.
Armed with early draft picks and excess salary cap space, the San Francisco 49ers have what they need to make significant improvements to their roster over the offseason.
If you’re tired of hearing this year after year, only to watch the team hoard money that should be spent, then you’re going to enjoy the 49ers’ 2019 offseason.
After kicking off their tenure in San Francisco with a pair of disappointing seasons, general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan have a lot on the line in 2019. No one expected the 49ers to be rebuilt overnight, but if the team fails to show significant progress this season, the duo’s long-term future with the franchise will begin to be called into question.
Knowing this, Lynch and Shanahan will use every tool at their disposal to improve the roster over the offseason, including dipping into the 49ers’ annual salary cap surplus that has plagued the team since former head coach Jim Harbaugh‘s exit.
But before they can add talent, the 49ers’ front office needs to retain the team’s existing talent. Luckily, only 12 players on San Francisco’s roster have contracts set to expire in March. Not all of these players fit into the team’s plans for the future, but a number of impending free agents played prominent roles in 2018 and will be significant contributors going forward — if the 49ers can land them at the right price.
We kick off our top 5 list with a player who is sure to come at the right price for San Francisco:
5. 49ers LB Elijah Lee
As an exclusive-rights free agent (ERFA), inside linebacker Elijah Lee will be unable to negotiate with other teams during free agency, provided he’s tendered by the 49ers before the 2019 league year begins. Retaining Lee at the league minimum is a no-brainer for San Francisco, and would allow the team to part ways with fellow inside linebacker Malcolm Smith after two expensive and underwhelming seasons. Despite starting five games for the Niners last season, Lee is better suited for a backup role in 2019, so he shouldn’t expect a lengthy contract extension.
4. 49ers LB Mark Nzeocha
SAM linebacker Mark Nzeocha is another player who deserves a roster spot in 2019, but not necessarily the starting job he won in 2018. The 49ers are likely to look for a starting-caliber outside linebacker in either the draft or free agency, but Nzeocha would provide much-needed depth at the position. The veteran was also a core special-teamer for San Francisco last season, and nearly made the Pro Bowl thanks to the ballot-stuffing efforts of his fellow Germans. As an unrestricted free agent (UFA), Nzeocha will be able to negotiate freely with other teams if he hits free agency next month.
3. 49ers RB Raheem Mostert
Running back Raheem Mostert made the 49ers’ roster last season primarily based on his value on special teams. However, when injuries thrust him into a prominent role in San Francisco’s backfield, Mostert took full advantage of his opportunity to show off his breakaway speed on the offensive side of the ball.
Before landing on injured reserve from a Week 9 arm injury, Mostert averaged 7.7 yards per carry as a running back and served as the team’s top gunner on special teams. A return to the Bay Area is likely for Mostert, given his status as a restricted free agent (RFA). The 49ers will likely place a low-level tender on the former undrafted free agent, which allows them to match any offers from other teams, but provides San Francisco with no compensation if they choose to decline.
2. 49ers G Michael Person
Offensive lineman Michael Person turned out to be one of the 49ers’ best finds of free agency last season. San Francisco signed the versatile veteran to an inexpensive one-year deal, with the expectation he would compete for a backup job. Instead, Person provided the Niners with 16 quality starts, finishing the season as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked guard. After bouncing between six teams over his eight years in the league, this offseason will be the unrestricted free agent’s best — and perhaps last — opportunity to land a lucrative multi-year contract. Given his solid 2018 performance at right guard and his ability to play center, the 49ers want Person to return in 2019 but are unlikely to break the bank for the journeyman lineman.
1. 49ers K Robbie Gould
Chicago Bears kicker Cody Parkey‘s potential game-winning field goal try was a costly miss. Not only did the tipped kick cost Parkey any semblance of job security, and the Bears a trip to the next round of the playoffs, but the missed attempt may have cost the 49ers a whole lot of money. Three seasons after Chicago parted ways with their all-time leading scorer, Bears fans are begging for the return of 49ers kicker Robbie Gould, who connected on 82 of 85 field goal attempts since leaving the Windy City. The fact that Gould never truly left Chicago — where he continues to reside during the offseason — only increases the chance of a late-career reunion. However, retaining Gould will be a top priority for the 49ers, who relied on their clutch kicker in nearly all of their victories over the past two years. If they can’t reach a long-term deal over the next month, an $8 million franchise tag isn’t off the table for the kicker who’s been “Good as Gould” for the San Francisco 49ers during Lynch and Shanahan’s two seasons with the team.
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