NFL Free Agency: Predicting Best Moves for the 49ers in 2017

Heading into the 2017 offseason, the San Francisco 49ers own the second most cap space of any NFL team — $81 million. With a deluge of cash, the 49ers have the flexibility to be one of the most active players in NFL free agency.

Dec 20, 2014; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers team helmets on the sidelines during the game against the San Diego Chargers at Levi’s Stadium. Charges won 38-35 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

Currently, only the Cleveland Browns rank ahead of the San Francisco 49ers regarding the most cap space. That might change soon as well, when you factor in Browns linebacker Jamie Collins’ recent mega-deal and the impending free agency of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

San Francisco, per statistics from Over The Cap, currently has $81,046,264 million in cap space. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is set to make $14,500,000 million in base salary, with a potential of additional bonuses totaling $4,865,754 million. Taking away Kaepernick’s guaranteed money, the 49ers new cap room situation: $95,627,310 million.

With the dire state of the 49ers roster, this offseason presents an unique situation — lots, lots and lots of cash to spend on a roster that desperately needs stability and depth.

Here at Niner Noise, we have already looked at the possibility of the 49ers acquiring free-agent wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. That’s just the beginning of the rebuild this roster is yearning for.

Taking it a step further, let’s mock up the ideal 2017 free agency for the San Francisco 49ers based on market value estimates from Spotrac and Pro Football Focus’ (PFF) free-agency grades. The cap room we’ll be working with is $82,200,000 million (under the premise SF signs Jeffery) and as it is widely assumed Kaepernick will not be returning to 49ers next season. Player age will be a factor in this mock, as signing a 35-year-old veteran just is not feasible for a rebuild.

Oct 18, 2015; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Cincinnati Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler (68) during the game against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 18, 2015; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Cincinnati Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler (68) during the game against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

No.5: Guard Kevin Zeitler

PFF Grade: 87.1 (2nd ranked guard)

Spotrac: 5 years, $58,125,190 million — $11.6 million annually

While not the most snazzy pick, free-agent offensive lineman Kevin Zeitler would provide strength to an offensive line that PFF ranked near the bottom of the NFL (28th overall). It all begins in the trenches for football, and whoever can dictate the line of scrimmage holds a significant advantage over their opponent. Zeitler brings that to the table, grading out as the second-highest guard available in free agency.

That dominance at the line of the scrimmage was the catalyst for those once elite 49er teams from earlier in the decade — players like tackle Joe Staley, guard Alex Boone, tackle Anthony Davis, center Jonathan Goodwin and guard Mike Iupati were the backbone of the offense.

Whoever it is at quarterback for the 49ers come next season, they’re going to need protection. Whether it be in free agency or through the draft, that player is not going to get a chance to succeed with the 28th overall offensive line leading the way. Zeitler immediately grades out as the best 49ers lineman (Staley graded 81.2) and is at a very suitable age — 26 years old, about ready to enter his athletic prime. This signing may not come off as the most tantalizing, but just look at the success teams have when they invest in their line (ahem, Dallas Cowboys).

Cap space left: $70,600,000 million

Jan 22, 2017; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler (21) breaks up a pass intended for Pittsburgh Steelers tight end David Johnson (82) during the first quarter in the 2017 AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 22, 2017; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler (21) breaks up a pass intended for Pittsburgh Steelers tight end David Johnson (82) during the first quarter in the 2017 AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

No. 4: Cornerback Malcolm Butler

PFF Grade: 90.8

Spotrac: 5 years, $55,000,00 million — $11.0 million annually (based on similarly PFF graded players)

Last season the 49ers defense was atrocious, literally ranking at the bottom of the NFL in several key defensive categories: 30.0 points a game (32nd), 406.4 yards a game (32nd) and 165 rushing yards a game (32nd). Injuries to the front seven — most notably linebacker NaVorro Bowman and defensive linemen Erik Armstead and Glenn Dorsey — were most definitely a factor into the worst ranked rushing defense.

With having drafted defensive linemen in the past two drafts, Bowman and Armstead both returning and a handful of rushers coming into this draft (if SF chooses to go that route), NFL free agency might be a spot where the 49ers look to pluck a defensive back to help bolster their back end.

Having graded out at 90.8, restricted free-agent cornerback Malcolm Butler is the second-ranked defensive back and third overall player available this offseason, per PFF. Butler is no fluke either; the 2015 Super Bowl hero is the lead cornerback on the NFL’s No. 1 scoring defense as the Patriots head into Super Bowl LI. It goes without question that Butler would be the best cornerback on the 49ers roster and with his playoff experience, Butler can be provide insight few current 49ers can.

Cap room left: $59,600,000 million

Jan 15, 2017; Kansas City, MO, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) runs the ball as Kansas City Chiefs strong safety Eric Berry (29) defends during the second quarter in the AFC Divisional playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 15, 2017; Kansas City, MO, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell (26) runs the ball as Kansas City Chiefs strong safety Eric Berry (29) defends during the second quarter in the AFC Divisional playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

No. 3: Safety Eric Berry

PFF Grade: 87.8

Spotrac: 4 years, $36,590,487 million — $9.1 million annually

As mentioned previously, this 49ers roster is littered with holes. As teams sometimes use a BPA (best player available) philosophy to the NFL draft, the 49ers need to operate under a BPA policy for NFL free agency as well. A moniker of top-tier teams is having a defense that can exceptionally hold its own (i.e. 2013 Ravens, 2014 Seahawks, 2015 Patriots, 2016 Broncos). Adding free-agent safety Eric Berry helps bring the 49ers defense to a level needed to be competitive.

By no means is 49ers safety Antoine Bethea a sub-par player, but he’s 32 years old and past his athletic prime. Also, 23-year-old safety Jaquiski Tartt has shown some promise, but he’s not the defender right now that can make a huge impact on the game.

Well, Eric Berry is just that.

Berry is the highest ranked safety available on the market (tied with Johnathan Cyprien), and has been selected to five Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams. Known for his monstrous hits, Berry is a presence in the middle of the field the 49ers have missed dearly since the days of Donte Whitner and DaShon Goldson. A Berry-plus-Eric Reid pairing could help stabilize the 49ers defense.

Cap room left: $50,500,000 million

Sep 11, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals linebacker Chandler Jones (55) against New England Patriots offensive lineman Cameron Fleming (71) at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Cardinals 23-21. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 11, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals linebacker Chandler Jones (55) against New England Patriots offensive lineman Cameron Fleming (71) at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Cardinals 23-21. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

No. 2: Linebacker Chandler Jones

PFF Grade: 87.4

Spotrac: 5 years, $81,337,578 million — $16.2 million annually

Sensing a theme here are we?

Let’s face it, the 49ers defense was a laughingstock for the 2016 NFL season. I mean, the rushing defense was almost one of the worst in NFL history — third worst, according to El Dorado. The 49ers have attempted to solidify their run defense with their selections of defensive linemen in consecutive drafts (Erik Armstead in 2015 and DeForest Buckner in 2016), but ultimately have yet to see any substantive success yielded on the field.

Unrestricted free-agent linebacker Chandler Jones is at the top of this year’s free-agent class for rushers — graded out at 87.4, Jones is second only to linebacker Melvin Ingram. Jones is an impact player; from 2015-2016, Jones’ production compares with J.J. Watt’s, Justin Houston’s and Oliver Vernon’s prior to signing their deals. Signing Jones would be help take off some of the burden Bowman carries, and at the ripe age of 26, Jones is on the right side of the Father Time.

Cap room left: $34,300,000 million

Jan 29, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA; NFC quarterback Kirk Cousins of the Washington Redskins (8) throws the ball during the second half at Citrus Bowl.AFC defeated the NFC 20-13. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 29, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA; NFC quarterback Kirk Cousins of the Washington Redskins (8) throws the ball during the second half at Citrus Bowl.AFC defeated the NFC 20-13. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

No. 1: Quarterback Kirk Cousins

PFF Grade: 85.9

Spotrac: 4 years, $94,705,161 million — $23.6 million annually

The big one. Unrestricted free-agent quarterback Kirk Cousins is, by far, the best available quarterback on the open market (free agent Brian Hoyer, who is the second-rated PFF QB, graded out at 80.6). As much as I’ve harped about defense, the destiny of a team ultimately rests in the hands who’s ever under center.

Right now, the 49ers have no adequate solution to their quarterbacking woes and Cousins is coming off his best season as a signal caller. This season, essentially only Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady outplayed Cousins (and the latter three are all MVP candidates):

  • 4,917 passing yards (Washington Redskins single-season record, 3rd in the NFL)
  • 67.0 completion percentage (3rd in the NFL)
  • 307 passing yards/game (3rd in the NFL)
  • 97.2 quarterback rating (7th in the NFL)

The 2016 season ranks as the best season a Redskins quarterback has had. Per Pro Football Reference, Cousins owns the top two passing seasons in Washington Redskins team history.

This is a signing that very well could happen. Yes, the Redskins have options regarding Cousins. They can apply the franchise tag to Cousins in order to retain him — but that means Washington forking over $23,940,000 million the upcoming season. They can pay him even more, signing him to one of the most lucrative deals in NFL history (following in the footsteps of Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck and Ryan Tannehill). Or, they can let Cousins test NFL free agency.

Factoring in the impending hiring of Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan — who Cousins worked with in Washington — definitely makes the potential of Cousins in a 49ers uniform that more real. But the hiring of general manager John Lynch intensifies that potential of Cousins coming to the Bay Area. Lynch speaking on Cousins during a FOX broadcast in December (h/t Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post):

You know, there’s a lot of talk in Washington, should this be our guy moving forward, is he really [worth] a $20 million contract?” Lynch began. “You’ve got to take your head off the figure. I think that scares people. That’s the going rate, folks. You may not like it, but it’s the going rate for good quarterbacks. This guy is a really good quarterback. He’s earned the right, in my mind, to be the Redskins quarterback moving forward.

That’s a telling quote. Clearly, Lynch is sold on Cousins at quarterback. And with the cap space available, the 49ers have the ability to easily sign Cousins while not financially strapping themselves for the future.

Cap space left: $10,700,000 million

So, even after the signing of five notable free agents, the 49ers theoretically could afford all of them and still have cap space left over. That’s what makes this offseason unique — the abundance of cap space provides the 49ers the chance to be seriously aggressive in free agency, something that has not been seen in recent years from the organization.

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