San Francisco 49ers: Creating the Ideal Roster in 2017
The San Francisco 49ers are going to need a lot of roster help this offseason. While the Niners’ 2017 group will be far from perfect, let’s take a look at how the team can formulate the best roster possible given the current circumstances.
I’ve just been named the general manager of the San Francisco 49ers for the 2017 season.
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OK, not really. But what if it was true? How would I go about creating a roster for a franchise in dire need of talent on both sides of the ball?
Fortunately, it’s not too impossible of a rebuild process. The Niners are projected to have $78,199,673 in cap space this offseason, per Over the Cap. Being armed with the No. 2 overall pick — and as many as 11 total — in the NFL Draft also helps quite a bit too.
Granted, a rebuild isn’t going to happen overnight. In all likelihood, the Niners are going to be pretty bad in 2017.
Let’s just hope they won’t be as bad this year as 2016.
So I’ll create an ideal roster here based off what the 49ers have in both cap space, draft picks and some cornerstone players.
We’ll have to be somewhat realistic here. Not long ago, Niner Noise explored 10 big-name free agents the 49ers should target this offseason. They won’t land all of them, of course. But two or three high-profile guys aren’t out of the question.
And we have some good draft plans too.
Without worrying too much about backups — although we’ll mention some where applicable — here’s a breakdown of an ideal San Francisco roster in 2017.
Kicker: Adam Griffith, (UDFA, Alabama)
Punter: Bradley Pinion
Long-Snapper: Kyle Nelson
Kick Returner: JaCorey Shepherd
Punt Returner: Jeremy Kerley
Special teams rarely get a lot of love, but they are no less important.
Most of the list includes holdovers from 2016, and punter Bradley Pinion isn’t going to go anywhere even if he has been a downgrade to former Niners punter Andy Lee.
No one knows long-snapper Kyle Nelson’s name, and that’s a good thing.
And we’ll stick with both JaCorey Shepherd and Jeremy Kerley in the return game. Let’s worry about problems elsewhere, not here.
There is one change though. Gone is 41-year-old veteran Phil Dawson — if he doesn’t retire anyway — and he’s replaced with Alabama kicker Adam Griffin, whom the Niners pick up as an undrafted free agent in 2017.
Strong Safety: Jaquiski Tartt
Free Safety: Eric Reid
One could make the argument the 49ers would be better by dropping defensive back Jimmie Ward to his natural safety position.
It’s a good one. But let’s save that move for 2018. Not now. We’ll keep him at the nickel position this season.
Instead, the Niners keep Eric Reid in the free safety position but move third-year pro Jaquiski Tartt to a full-time starting job at strong safety, where he can drop down into the box and add some run support when needed.
This would mean San Francisco parts ways with veteran safety Antoine Bethea this offseason, which would save the team $5.75 million in cap space for 2017.
Tartt would enter a make-or-break year. If he plays well enough, Tartt stays and pairs up with Ward in 2018.
If not, well, there’s your answer on where San Francisco needs upgrades a year from now.
Right Cornerback: Rashard Robinson
Left Cornerback: Trumaine Johnson (free agency)
Nickel Cornerback: Jimmie Ward
It’s time for the 49ers to move on from cornerback Tramaine Brock, at least in a starting role.
San Francisco has a number of corners. But only a handful are worth looking at as long-term pieces.
Second-year pro Rashard Robinson is obviously one of them. So he easily gets a not as a starter on the outside. And we can bank on some notable improvement after his rookie year, as young defensive backs tend to go.
And there shouldn’t be much concern about slot corner Jimmie Ward retaining a similar role in 2017 either. He was one of San Francisco’s better defenders last season.
But the 49ers have to splurge big to add a true shutdown corner, and they do this by adding Los Angeles Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson in free agency.
Johnson posted an 81.0 overall grade, according to Pro Football Focus, in 2016. Adding him would also hinder San Francisco’s NFC West division rival too.
Let’s go with a four-year, $45 million contract for the 27-year-old free agent.
Inside Linebackers: NaVorro Bowman, Reuben Foster (Alabama, Round 1)
Outside Linebackers: Aaron Lynch, Melvin Ingram (free agency)
Let’s all hope linebacker NaVorro Bowman comes back healthy from his season-ending Achilles injury in 2016. But San Francisco clearly needs someone to pair with him.
Enter Alabama inside linebacker Reuben Foster.
The scenario is this — San Francisco trades down from the No. 2 overall pick to No. 5 with the Tennessee Titans, picking up a second first-round pick (No. 16 overall) as well. And the Niners use that fifth pick on Foster.
More on the 16th pick later. Let’s worry about the outside now.
Gone is veteran linebacker Ahmad Brooks, and the Niners save $7.8 million in cap space. Fellow linebacker Aaron Lynch stays in a starting role but is featured more as a strict pass-rusher.
And the 49ers go ahead and ink free-agent linebacker Melvin Ingram to a three-year, $30 million deal to wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines and to defend well against the run also.
Nose Tackle: Ian Williams (free agency)
Defensive Ends: DeForest Buckner, Quinton Dial
San Francisco welcomes back nose tackle Ian Williams, who was one of the Niners’ best run stoppers in 2015 before an ankle injury ended his 2016 campaign.
He’s currently a free agent, but it shouldn’t be too hard to lure Williams back on a team-friendly deal this offseason. An important target though would be having a solid nose backup in case Williams, often injured, goes down at any point of this upcoming season.
On the ends, no one will complain about second-year player DeForest Buckner. His ascent has been fun to watch. And San Francisco would be wise to start building a front-seven defense around him.
Putting Quinton Dial into a starting role would mean third-year pro Arik Armstead would be a rotational player. But Dial is notably better against the run, which is where the 49ers’ defensive upgrades need to start.
Armstead would get his snaps, especially in obvious passing downs. But he hasn’t convinced enough to be an every-down player.
Center: Daniel Kilgore
Tackles: Joe Staley, Trent Brown
Guards: Kevin Zeitler (free agency), Joshua Garnett
The 49ers managed some notable improvement along their offensive line last year. But it wasn’t quite as good as one might think.
According to Football Outsiders, the Niners O-line ranked 30th in pass protection and dead last in run support. Yes, even this group needs some improvement.
Let’s lock down the easy choices — left tackle Joe Staley, right tackle Trent Brown and center Daniel Kilgore. They’re going to anchor the flanks and center.
It’s at guard where we have some questions.
Left guard Zane Beadles is a nice backup. But that’s about it. In theory, he could take over for second-year pro Joshua Garnett at right guard. Yet the Niners would be wise to let Garnett develop in 2017.
Instead, San Francisco dips into free agency and signs Cincinnati Bengals guard Kevin Zeitler to a three-year, $27 million deal.
Zeitler’s 87.1 overall Pro Football Focus grade ranked sixth among all qualified guards last season. And the Niners would have a strong side along the O-line once again.
Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek
OK, so there aren’t any changes here.
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This isn’t because the Niners don’t need an upgrade here, rather it’s just both players were signed to relatively lengthy extensions last year. So, for better or for worse, San Francisco is stuck with both tight ends Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek.
McDonald did have a career year in 2016 though. Perhaps the hope is he was just a late bloomer instead of an immediate impact after being drafted in Round 2 back in 2013.
If so, the 49ers were wise to lock McDonald up for the long run.
Celek is a decent No. 2 option, but this position isn’t perfect yet.
But, given the Niners’ needs across the board, tight end is a worry the 49ers can put off for at least another year.
Right Wide Receiver: Torrey Smith
Left Wide Receiver: Alshon Jeffery
Slot Receiver: Jeremy Kerley
Wide receiver Torrey Smith isn’t going anywhere in 2017. One can only hope he can bounce back nicely from a career-low season last year.
And a new offensive scheme in place should help him do that.
But he’ll need help. That help should come from the hands and skill set of current Chicago Bears wideout Alshon Jeffery, who will undoubtedly be one of the more sought-after free agents on the market this offseason.
Yet injury concerns and a four-game suspension could keep Jeffery’s price tag a little lower than initially expected. Still, a four-year, $48 million contract sounds like a nice number to lure in the 6-foot-3, 216-pound dynamic threat.
This will help Smith out a lot too.
And the Niners would be wise to re-sign Jeremy Kerley to cover slot duties after what turned out to be a career year in 2016.
The rest of San Francisco’s receiving corps? Guys like DeAndre Smelter and Aaron Burbridge? Well, it’s time for them to prove they belong on the roster.
Well, who else would it be?
Running back Carlos Hyde missed 1,000 yards rushing by just 12 measly yards last season. And one can only think what his rushing totals would be if opposing teams weren’t locking down on one of San Francisco’s lone playmakers.
The question isn’t whether Hyde is going to remain a bell cow next season. It’s more about backing him up.
San Francisco could take another flier on journeymen backs — like Shaun Draughn or DuJuan Harris — in 2017. But let’s look more towards the draft to add competition.
Enter Wisconsin tailback Corey Clement.
Clement, at 5-foot-11 and 227 pounds, isn’t quite the same kind of bruising runner Hyde is. But he’s still built like a tree stump and epitomizes the “hard to bring down” description.
Those efforts were enough to generate 1,375 rushing yards on 314 attempts and 15 touchdowns for the Badgers in 2016.
Wait, what? The starting quarterback of the 49ers in 2017 is none other than 37-year-old veteran Shaun Hill?
Yes, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Remember that second first-round pick we generated by trading down from No. 2 to No. 5 with the Tennessee Titans? Well, that gives San Francisco the 16th overall pick in the NFL Draft. And that’s where the Niners find a quarterback to groom.
And the selection is…
Deshaun Watson, quarterback out of Clemson (sorry, my Clemson scout told me he’d kill me if I didn’t make this selection).
But Watson has consistently proven doubters wrong, so let’s bank on him doing so again at the next level. And at No. 16, he’s nowhere near the reach as he would have been if San Francisco grabbed him at No. 2.
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Yet Watson needs a mentor. Just like Hall of Famer Joe Montana needed Steve DeBerg. Look it up if you don’t believe me.
That’s where Hill comes in. At his age, Hill has to be doing something right to stick around in the NFL for so long.
Sure, he’s a one- or two-year stopgap option and a backup at best. But teaching the nuances of a quarterback’s life at the NFL level are going to be just as important as developing a skill set.
Is it a perfect lineup? No. But the 49ers would be well on their way to a successful rebuild by taking this approach.