Opinion: The 49ers Pathway to Super Bowl Hopes


Karthik Iyer

After a breathtaking run to the Super Bowl in the 2019-2020 season, big expectations were placed upon the San Francisco 49ers for the following season. But like most things in 2020, their season went completely off the rails. The 49ers comfortably paced the league in man games lost, a metric that accounts for both the quantity and quality of players lost by a team during the season. This, along with shoddy quarterback play and playing down to significantly worse competition, resulted in the 49ers finishing a rather disappointing 6-10. All eyes now look towards the offseason, where the Niners are facing an unprecedented number of free agents, while having to hand out extensions to key pieces, all under the threat of a decreasing salary cap. In other words, the situation is not friendly, and the team brass will have to be strategic in the moves it makes over the next five months.

The biggest decision for the 49ers is, unsurprisingly, at the most important position in football. The unreliable health and overall (in)effectiveness of incumbent Jimmy Garoppolo means that there are more questions than answers at the quarterback position. There are a number of directions that the team could proceed in, with the most likely being that they draft a developmental quarterback in the later rounds of the NFL Draft as a long-term successor. However, Garoppolo’s cap hit of $26.9 million means that they could be better off spending their money elsewhere. This leads to the second option, which is that Garoppolo is either traded or cut, and the 49ers draft one of the top quarterback prospects with their first pick in the draft. If Garoppolo is traded or cut, $24.1 million would be cleared from the books, and that money could be allocated elsewhere. It is unclear which prospect they would take, or even have a shot of drafting, at their current position, but a trade-up for a prospect such as Justin Fields or Zach Wilson would not be surprising.

Quarterback isn’t the only pressing need for San Francisco this offseason. Before they can add players, they need to re-sign and extend core pieces. Trent Williams, an All-Pro caliber offensive lineman acquired from Washington during last year’s draft, is a free agent and will command north of $20 million per year in the open market. Fred Warner, team MVP and arguably the best linebacker in football, was the team’s third round pick in 2018 and is due for an extension. His new contract will have an average annual value of at least $18 million. The secondary is a mess, with Richard Sherman, K’Waun Williams, Jaquiski Tartt, Jason Verett, and a resurgent Akhello Witherspoon all unrestricted free agents. Emmanuel Moseley, an undrafted gem out of Tennessee, is a restricted free agent. Sherman and Tartt will most likely not be re-signed, and even if the latter three are, the team lacks a true star that could partner with Verrett on the boundary, as Witherspoon and Moseley are better served as depth options. 

That second cornerback, along with other needs, will have to be found at the NFL draft. The 49ers main positions of need are an interior offensive lineman (preferably two), cornerback, quarterback (if Garoppolo is gone), safety, defensive end, and wide receiver. The first two are the most critical, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see those positions addressed with their first two selections. There are many websites that do a brilliant job of evaluating players and compiling easily digestible rankings, but I thought that I would give my two cents. At interior offensive line, I think the clear choice is Ohio State right guard Wyatt Davis. The grandson of Hall of Famer Willie Davis, Wyatt is the perfect fit for the 49ers’ outside zone running scheme. He would seamlessly fit into the starting lineup, and with a volatile draft stock could even be available in the second round. Other options I like include Tyler Linderbaum of Iowa and Jack Anderson of Texas Tech. At cornerback, there is a defined top two of Caleb Farley of Virginia Tech and Patrick Surtain II of Alabama. After them, the order is more fluid, with Jaycee Horn (South Carolina), Derion Kendrick (Clemson), Tyson Campbell (Georgia), and Asante Samuel Jr. (Florida State), and Eric Stokes and Shaun Wade (Ohio State) all vying for the third cornerback spot. My money is on Campbell, but the draft at its core is a crapshoot, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of the others go on to great careers. 

As for the other positions listed, there will be great players available in the later rounds, as there are every year, and the organization has showcased an eye for spotting late-round steals. So, what will the 49ers do this offseason? Will there be a new face of the franchise? Will the team draft a long snapper? It’s hard to tell, but I can’t wait to find out.