Peter G. Aiken / Contributor
For the second straight year, the 49ers have been active in free agency. Coming off a 4-12 season, entering the third year of the John Lynch-Kyle Shanahan six-year plan, and replete with about $67 million in cap space, the pieces were aligned for the 49ers to stay aggressive.
Five days into the new league year, the 2019 49ers already look a bit different than the 2018 version.
The 49ers have added six new players, including Dee Ford, Kwon Alexander, Tevin Coleman, Jason Verrett, David Mayo, and Jordan Matthews. They applied the franchise tag to Robbie Gould. They re-signed Mark Nzeocha for three more years, Mike Person for three years, Antone Exum Jr. for one year, and Jimmie Ward for one year. They restructured Malcolm Smith’s deal to keep him through the 2019 season. The team used its restricted free agent tender on Raheem Mostert, retaining him for the upcoming season. Pierre Garcon, Earl Mitchell, Garry Gilliam, and Cassius Marsh have all been released. Brock Coyle retired after five NFL seasons.
As of today, the 49ers’ free agency spending counts for about $53 million against their 2019 cap. They still have around $34 million remaining in cap space this year, the seventh-most in the NFL, according to Spotrac. So, while the 49ers were aggressive, they weren’t frivolous, with DeForest Buckner and George Kittle eyeing massive contracts in the coming offseasons.
Let’s grade the six signings so far this offseason.
Signed Kwon Alexander — four years, $54 million
Fewer than two hours into the legal tampering period, the 49ers made Alexander the richest inside linebacker in NFL history, in terms of annual salary ($13.5 million). This wasn’t the splash signing many 49ers fans wanted, considering Alexander doesn’t address San Francisco’s subpar edge rush, and he is the team’s latest major investment at inside linebacker after years of striking out at the position.
Initially, it seemed the 49ers overpaid. Four years and $54 million to a player coming off a torn ACL and with a history of missing tackles?
But contract specialist Paraag Marathe structured this deal like many of the others. Alexander’s contract is front-loaded, with all of his guaranteed money ($14.25 million) coming in the first year. The 49ers can choose to let Alexander go after Year 1, should he underperform. They would owe Alexander just $3 million if that is the case. If he stays for the entirety of his deal, his base salary will be $11.25 million in 2020, $12.55 million in 2021, and $12.65 million in 2022. By structuring the deal this way, the 49ers are protected in case Alexander doesn’t meet expectations. If he does, he will be rewarded.
Now, the fit. Bobby Wagner has shown that premier linebacker play seriously elevates this Cover-3 zone defense. There haven’t been many Wagners in recent history, though Alexander fits that rangy, instinctual prototype that every front office covets in today’s NFL.
One thing is clear: throughout Alexander’s four NFL seasons, he has found the ball. Alexander’s 108 solo tackles led the NFL in 2016. He was named a Pro Bowl alternate in 2017 despite playing in just 12 games.
From 2015 to 2017, according to Pro Football Focus’ Jeff Deeney, Alexander missed a league-leading 70 tackles. Deeney added that Alexander’s missed tackle rate of 18 percent is the second-highest of any linebacker with at least 1,000 snaps from 2015 to 2018. He has also played in more than 12 games just once in four NFL seasons.
Elijah Lee showed some promise alongside Fred Warner in the final five games of the 2018 season. But upgrading at linebacker — after the Reuben Foster experiment went awry and Smith’s unfortunate string of injuries — was needed. Acquiring a talent like Alexander could pay off in a big way. If it doesn’t, the 49ers can move on with little ramifications.
Traded for Dee Ford — five years, $87.5 million
This was the move the 49ers needed to make. They traded their 2020 second-round pick for Ford, who has flashed high first-round value as of late.
Acquiring an edge rusher, especially a known presence in the NFL, was the No. 1 box to check this offseason. The 49ers tallied 14 sacks from their edge rushers in 2018. The team’s two interceptions and seven turnovers — all-time NFL lows — are largely traced to the lack of pressure.
Ford is coming off his best season in five NFL years. He led the league with 78 pressures and seven forced fumbles in 2018. He compiled 13 sacks, tied for ninth in the league. (We broke down Ford’s breakout season more extensively here.)
The 49ers structured Ford’s deal to protect themselves, too. The guaranteed money is undoubtedly massive — Ford made $20.5 million upon signing with $45 million in injury protection. But the 49ers have options to retain or release Ford in the years following 2019. Ford’s $13.65 million in base salary for 2020 is only guaranteed if he stays with the team after April 1. If the 49ers release him, they would suffer just $6.4 million in dead money.
Think of Ford’s contract as a lucrative one-year deal. If he plays well, the 49ers’ edge-rush crisis is solved. If he doesn’t, the 49ers can move on after one season without suffering too much financially.
Ultimately, the 49ers added one of the premier EDGE options in the league while retaining all of its draft picks this year. That is a major win.
Signed Tevin Coleman — two years, $8.5 million
This was a bit surprising from most vantage points. Many fans didn’t think the 49ers would add another running back, especially another dual-threat player, at one of their deepest position groups. Even Shanahan admitted he didn’t expect Coleman to come this cheap.
This was an excellent addition for the price. Of the $8.5 million he could potentially make, $5.25 million is guaranteed, and $1.5 million is incentivized if he makes his first Pro Bowl or accumulates a certain number of rushing yards, which hasn’t been released. Coleman, 25, is coming off three straight seasons with 900-plus all-purpose yards, despite splitting carries the majority of that time.
Yes, Jerick McKinnon is a similar dual-threat back. Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert are speedsters. But Shanahan can never have too many playmakers, and he has long disputed the need for a “goal-line back.” He has openly talked about using McKinnon and Breida together in 2019. It’s likely the 49ers will deploy even more multi-back sets — they use their fullback, Kyle Juszczyk, more than any other team — with Coleman in the mix.
He also provides insurance as McKinnon recovers from a torn ACL. Coleman has missed one game throughout the past two years.
What’s not to like?
Signed Jason Verrett — one year, $3.6 million
This signing hardly affects San Francisco’s financial situation. Adding Verrett is a low-risk, high-reward move. He was a Pro Bowler in 2015, the only of his four NFL seasons he played in more six games. He had three interceptions and allowed a 60 percent success rate when targeted that year. But Verrett has appeared in 11 of potentially 50 games ever since due to knee and Achilles injuries.
The underrated part of this signing is the competition it fosters at right cornerback. Ahkello Witherspoon was never pushed for the starting role last training camp, and his play suffered. It wasn’t until his job was in jeopardy, around the midway point this past season, that he played well. Tarvarius Moore, entering his second season, will also compete with Witherspoon and Verrett.
The 49ers are still hopeful Witherspoon blossoms into a shutdown corner. That’s why the team didn’t spend big in free agency, choosing to take a flier on a player like Verrett, instead.
Signed David Mayo — two years, contract unknown
Mayo has taken a backup role throughout his four-year career with the Carolina Panthers. He started three games in 2018 and tallied 14 tackles with one pass defensed.
This signing was about adding depth to the linebacker corps alongside Alexander, Fred Warner, Lee, and Smith. Mayo is Coyle’s immediate replacement.
Signed Jordan Matthews — one year, contract unknown
This year’s free agent receiver class was thin and top-heavy. After Tyrell Williams, who signed a four-year, $44.3 million deal with the Raiders, there weren’t many young options who fit in the 49ers offense.
What’s important is that the 49ers added a proven receiver, only 26 years old, who can play multiple spots. Shanahan values versatility. That’s one reason why he loves Pettis, who can play either the X or Z position and occasionally move into the slot. Matthews is similar in that regard.
Matthews has faded into the background after a solid start to his career. He battled knee injuries throughout the past two seasons. In his first three NFL seasons, however, Matthews averaged 75 catches, 891 yards, and more than six touchdowns. For reference, the 49ers’ leading receiver in 2018 was Kendrick Bourne, with 487 yards, though Garcon, Pettis, and Marquise Goodwin were in and out of the lineup. Matthews will compete with Bourne at the starting “Z” spot with Garcon out of the mix.
The 49ers needed to add depth at the position. They will likely still add a receiver in a deep 2019 draft class.
The 49ers added a new player at every position of need aside from free safety. They have added potentially major difference-makers in Ford and Alexander, along with quality offensive additions in Coleman and Matthews.
There is a trend among most of the 49ers signings: they have been hampered by injuries, but they have performed at a high level for at least one season. Three signings — Ford, Alexander, and Verrett — are one-time Pro Bowlers.
Overall grade: B