NFL Free Agency: 10 Under-the-Radar Players the 49ers Should Sign

The San Francisco 49ers won’t have to worry about cap space in 2017, which makes it possible to bring aboard a large crop of NFL free agents. But instead of the big deals, let’s look at some lesser-known free agents the Niners should target this offseason.

October 23, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Russell Shepard (89) scores a touchdown against San Francisco 49ers cornerback Rashard Robinson (33) during the second quarter at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

We all know the story with the San Francisco 49ers this offseason. They have a tremendously bad roster but a great deal of salary cap space and a good number of NFL Draft picks to make some upgrades.

Let’s focus on the former for a moment.

According to Over the Cap, the Niners should be close to $82 million in total cap space — combined with the 2016 rollover — to hit free agency this offseason.

That’s a lot, even in today’s ever-rising NFL-contract standards.

One might easily be attracted to the idea of going out and luring in the beset free agents on the market. Yes, San Francisco could go ahead and do this. And perhaps they will, even if it means overpaying a few players.

Still, going after top-tier guys who have just finished contract years isn’t always the best idea. Instead, the lesser-known transactions can be just as effective. Remember former 49ers linebacker Dan Skuta? Hardly anyone heard of the former special teamer before he came to San Francisco in 2013.

And he turned out to be a solid addition for two years.

Let’s think along those lines — the under-the-radar types who can help turn things around in San Francisco.

Here are 10 of them.

Dec 4, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Buffalo Bills wide receiver Justin Hunter (17) catches a pass in front of Oakland Raiders strong safety T.J. Carrie (38) in the first quarter at Oakland Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

No. 10: Wide Receiver Justin Hunter

2016 Cap Hit: $905,882

The Niners are in of a complete overhaul of the roster, but few areas are as apparent as wide receiver.

Aside from No. 1 wideout Torrey Smith, who is coming off a career-low year, San Francisco has relatively few likable options at the position.

Enter current Buffalo Bills wide receiver Justin Hunter.

Hunter has been a bit of a bust since being selected in Round 2 of the 2013 NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans. But he did have some moments with the Bills, including one against the 49ers, this season and totaled four touchdown receptions in limited action.

At 6-foot-4 and 196 pounds, Hunter is a good-sized red-zone threat — a type of player San Francisco will need going forward.

And six of his 12 career touchdowns have come within opponents’ 20-yard lines.

He’d immediately be an upgrade over free-agent-to-be Quinton Patton.

Dec 4, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Washington Redskins center John Sullivan (56) against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Redskins 31-23. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

No. 9: Center John Sullivan

2016 Cap Hit: $728,824

Who knows if incumbent 49ers center Daniel Kilgore (leg) is ready to go by Week 1 of the 2017 season. And fans sure aren’t clamoring for backup center Marcus Martin to be back next year.

The Niners need depth along the offensive line, and going with a veteran presence isn’t a bad idea.

Especially if he comes on the cheap.

Current Washington Redskins center John Sullivan was a regular starter for the Minnesota Vikings, dating back to 2009, before signing with Washington last offseason. He was relegated to backup duties this year, and that’s primarily what he should do with the 49ers if signed.

Contractually, the 31-year-old lineman wouldn’t cost much. And it’s likely this would be his last NFL deal.

But a veteran O-line presence to back up Kilgore would be a major plus for this unit in 2017.

Dec 18, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders tackle Menelik Watson (71) walks off the field after a 19-16 win over the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

No. 8: Offensive Tackle Menelik Watson

2016 Cap Hit: $1,525,635

Fans shouldn’t have too high of hopes on second-year pro tackles John Theus and Fahn Cooper emerging into legitimate starters along San Francisco’s offensive line in coming years.

And while the team has veteran left tackle Joe Staley and up-and-coming right tackle Trent Brown, the 49ers could also stand to add a swing tackle to back up either player, especially Staley.

Oakland Raiders tackle Menelik Watson only started five games this year, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see general manager Reggie McKenzie push him out the door this offseason.

As a starter, he’s not a bad option. But he fits even more into the swing-tackle role on San Francisco’s depth chart.

Oct 23, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Russell Shepard (89) scores a touchdown against San Francisco 49ers cornerback Rashard Robinson (33) during the second quarter at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

No. 7: Wide Receiver Russell Shepard

2016 Cap Hit: $1,671,000

Remember what we said about wide receiver?

Yeah, it’s that bad. And the 49ers wouldn’t be dumb to go out and sign a couple of second- or third-tier wide receivers this offseason to add to the competition.

One such option could be current Tampa Bay Buccaneers wideout Russell Shepard.

The former undrafted free agent enjoyed his best season this year — albeit just 23 catches for 341 yards and two touchdowns. But the 6-foot-1 receiving target could be a nice complement to No. 1 receiver Torrey Smith on the outside.

While he’ll never be a true No. 1 or even No. 2 target, he at least adds some solid depth to a Niners team truly lacking it at this position.

Dec 4, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Jacquizz Rodgers (32) runs the ball during the second half against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. Tampa Bay won 28-21. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

No. 6: Running Back Jacquizz Rodgers

2016 Cap Hit: $564,706

The 49ers are going to need to add some depth behind No. 1 running back Carlos Hyde this offseason.

And while going via the NFL Draft makes sense, finding another target in NFL free agency is another wise option to explore.

San Francisco would benefit from having a change-of-pace back, and that’s exactly what Tampa bay Buccaneers tailback Jacquizz Rodgers would have to offer.

The 5-foot-7, 190-pound Rodgers split time in Tampa Bay’s backfield last season but still managed to average 4.3 yards per carry. And he’s capable of being a receiving threat too, with 169 receptions for 1,212 yards over his career.

Sep 11, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; A view of a Detroit Lions helmet on the sidelines during a game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Lions won 39-35. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

No. 5: Inside Linebacker Jonathan Bostic

2016 Cap Hit: $942,381

San Francisco’s inside linebacker corps’ depth was tested to the extreme this season, with linebackers NaVorro Bowman, Ray-Ray Armstrong and Nick Bellore all suffering season-ending injuries at various points in the season.

It’s highly unlikely fellow linebacker Michael Wilhoite returns to the 49ers next season, but adding some depth via NFL free agency would be a wise move.

Current Detroit Lions linebacker Jonathan Bostic missed all of 2016 with a foot injury, and that should drive down his price substantially.

While never tabbed as a regular starter, the former second-round pick of the 2013 NFL Draft does have the capability to double on special teams, which offers San Francisco some much-needed help within that unit as well.

Oct 26, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams drinks from a bottle of Gatorade against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Ravens 26-18. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

No. 4: Defensive Tackle Brandon Williams

2016 Cap Hit: $1,799,750

Everyone knows how bad the 49ers’ interior run defense was in 2016, and it led to a historically poor stat line that gave the Niners the worst run-stopping stats in the NFL last season.

A key loss before 2016 even began was nose tackle Ian Williams, whose ankle injury forced him to miss the entire year.

Who knows if Williams is back, but it’s pretty clear San Francisco can’t roll on with either defensive tackles Glenn Dorsey or Mike Purcell in starting roles.

Current Baltimore Ravens nose tackle Brandon Williams would be a smart pickup. The 27-year-old former third-round pick offers nothing in the pass rush. But against the run, he’s about as solid as it gets.

Assuming Ian Williams returns, and with his previous injury history, having a player like Brandon Williams in a reserve role makes perfect sense.

Sep 1, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; New York Jets defensive back Darryl Morris (26) in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. The Philadelphia Eagles won 14-6. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

No. 3: Cornerback Darryl Morris

2016 Cap Hit: $775,000

The Niners don’t have a major need within their secondary, so going the route of NFL free agency this offseason to add some reinforcements isn’t a huge priority.

Still, an ideal situation would be to have current nickel corner Jimmie Ward shift to his natural safety position and open up the slot position to another defensive back.

Indianapolis Colts cornerback Darryl Morris hasn’t exactly seen a ton of action since coming into the league as an undrafted free agent in 2013 with the 49ers. But this year, with an otherwise lackluster Colts secondary, Morris earned his stripes and even managed a 74.3 overall grade, per Pro Football Focus.

He might be a decent slot option, especially if redshirted third-round cornerback Will Redmond doesn’t pan out in 2017 and beyond.

Oct 16, 2016; Orchard Park, NY, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) is hit by Buffalo Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander (57) after throwing a pass during the second half at New Era Field. Buffalo beat San Francisco 45-16. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

No. 2: EDGE Lorenzo Alexander

2016 Cap Hit: $600,000

Veteran linebacker Lorenzo Alexander primarily made his name as a backup linebacker and special teams ace, dating back to when he entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2007.

For the right reasons, Alexander thrived in now-fired Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan’s defense and earned 12.5 sacks in only his second year as a full-time starter.

Don’t expect this kind of production on a regular basis from the 33-year-old Alexander though.

But as a situational pass-rusher, he certainly couldn’t be worse than what was seen from current 49ers veteran linebacker Ahmad Brooks.

Remember, teams need all the pass-rushing help they can get. And while Alexander figures to have earned a slightly higher pay raise this offseason, he won’t come anywhere close to breaking the bank.

Sep 11, 2016; Nashville, TN, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Shaun Hill (13) runs off the field after defeating the Tennessee Titans 25-16. during the second half at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

No. 1: Quarterback Shaun Hill

2016 Cap Hit: $3,250,000

OK, so the 49ers are likely going to target a rookie quarterback in the NFL Draft. Perhaps two.

Regardless, the Niners need a veteran presence at this position and someone who can act as a mentor for young, developing players looking to get acclimated to life at the NFL level.

Enter veteran QB Shaun Hill.

Hill’s tenure with four different teams, and primarily as a backup, defines a mentor-type role. The fact he’s stuck around the league all the way to being 36 years old speaks to this capacity.

This NFL free agency target could even start in 2017, provided the Niners don’t feel as if a rookie signal-caller is quite ready to go.

And that’s fine — have young guys learn from someone who has been around the league for a while. The best mentors don’t always have to be the best quarterbacks in NFL history.

Heck, the ones who had to press hard to just to make rosters are often the best teachers.

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