Let’s start with the news of the day before we get to this week’s mailbag. The 49ers this week announced a notable step toward getting fans back at games for the upcoming season.
The organization created a medical advisory committee of prominent names in the field to “explore the best practices and health considerations that will underpin an eventual safe reopening of Levi’s Stadium.”
The panel will explore ideas for safety protocols and technology to allow fans, stadium employees and media to attend games safely. The panel includes: Dr. Robert “Bob” Wachter, chair of the Department of Medicine at UCSF, Lloyd Dean, CEO of CommonSpirit Health, parent of Dignity Health, Dr. Monica Gandhi, professor of medicine and associate division chief of the division of HIV, infectious diseases and global medicine at UCSF and Dr. Lillian Brown, assistant professor of medicine, division of HIV, infectious diseases and global medicine at UCSF.
Now, let’s get to the questions that have been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.
Chris asks: If Trent Williams leaves in free agency, do you see the Niners going after a veteran in free agency like Cam Robinson or do you see them using a top draft pick on an OT?
The 49ers are already deep in their free agency meetings and the personnel department will begin to shift their eyes toward the upcoming draft class shortly thereafter. At that point they would likely begin weighing all the options against one another.
Surely, tackle would rocket up the list of their most-pressing needs should Williams bounce. At that point, it would be up to coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch to decide if they liked any of the tackle prospects more than the idea of paying a free agent’s price.
Shanahan and Lynch would more than likely prefer to draft a tackle that would be younger and cheaper. Last season’s No. 12 overall pick, receiver Henry Ruggs III of the Raiders, will make an average of just over $4 million per season during his rookie contract. A starting left tackle would more than double that, depending on which player San Francisco went after.
There are a few different paths to take here. They could draft a tackle and then focus the financial savings on an expensive pass rusher like Shaq Barrett or Yannick Ngakoue. Or they could draft a pass rusher, like Michigan’s Kwity Paye, Miami’s Jaelan Phillips or Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari, then target a free agent like Alejandro Villanueva or Robinson to replace Williams.
The best course of action, in my opinion, is to bring Williams back and draft a pass rusher in Round 1, preferably after moving back to acquire more picks over the first two days to address other needs, like cornerback and the interior of the offensive line. It’s all why Williams is the team’s most important figure this offseason.
Edward asks: Given the number of needs across the roster, uncertainty at QB and a tough division, is 2021 a transitional year with the real focus on building for a new Super Bowl window in 2022-24?
I don’t think so. Shanahan and Lynch are too competitive after getting a taste of contention in 2019 to punt on a season, especially with an expensive roster with so many players needing to prove themselves.
And good luck telling George Kittle and Fred Warner to take it easy for a whole year. The 49ers were upset after losing the Super Bowl and are probably even more frustrated after injuries and the pandemic derailed their follow-up act in 2020.
There’s only one scenario in which that would change: if the team drafted a new franchise quarterback and traded away Garoppolo this offseason. That would force an organizational reset.
If that happened, the expectations surrounding the team would alter because it would be impossible to expect a Super Bowl run from a rookie quarterback. But I’m not expecting that to happen because so many teams drafting before the 49ers need quarterbacks, while the signs are pointing to Garoppolo coming back.
And even if the 49ers did draft a quarterback in Round 1, it would make the most sense to keep Garoppolo around as a possible bridge to let that prospect develop before becoming the starter in 2021.
Deitrich Riley asks: How many of our free agents do you realistically think we re-sign? I’m guessing three more.
I think there are three priorities: Williams, cornerback Jason Verrett and fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
And there are others I could see coming back on relative discounts and/or short-term deals because so few teams have money available given the depressed salary cap. Players like safety Jaquiski Tartt, defensive tackle D.J. Jones and center Ben Garland make sense as possible bargains to return on short-term deals with a chance to get back on the market next spring when the salary cap returns to normal levels.
Other guys that seem likely to head elsewhere: defensive end Kerry Hyder, slot corner K’Waun Williams and Richard Sherman, who spoke with us about his looming departure last month.
MJay asks: Hi Chris, with the constant QB headlines going on this offseason, which party do you think is spreading the narrative? Agents from other QBs knowing the 49ers could have interest in an upgrade ? Since Shanny and Lynch have come aboard, the franchise has been tight lipped.
I agree the franchise has been tight-lipped — especially compared to the previous regime. Shanahan and Lynch say a lot publicly, but critical info seeps out of the building far less often than circa 2014.
I think a lot of it is fan chatter. Social media has amplified strong opinions in a way that didn’t exist a few years ago and it’s harder than ever to sift through what’s being reported credibly and what isn’t. Plus, we live in an online world where controversy sells and NFL fans eat it up. Hence the success of debate shows, podcasts and the ability of sports radio to control narrative in local markets.
And we’ve all been stuck at home for months and months with more time to dive into the discussions and exacerbate them. Hopefully soon we can spend more time getting fresh air and avoiding our phones.
Jeo asks: If you were starting a superhero group with present or past 49ers players, which five are you including and what would their superpowers be and why?
Deion Sanders would make it for his speed and elusiveness. Richard Sherman would make it for strategy and leadership. Larry Allen would sign on to smash things like the Hulk. Frank Gore would make it for resiliency, pain tolerance and staying power, and Jimmy Garoppolo would get the nod to distract bystanders with his good looks.
Honorable mentions: Fred Beasley for his powers to convert short yardage runs, George Kittle to run through things like Juggernaut, Merton Hanks to use his long neck to look around corners and Bill Walsh to serve as the crew’s Professor X.
Maybe Trent Baalke can make the cut for his uncanny ability to find torn ACLs.
Matthew asks: Who is their QB to start the season?
As of now, I’m expecting the team to roll with Garoppolo while the only other plausible option would be trading for Deshaun Watson. But the likelihood of that seems very, very slim. Garoppolo could have his best supporting cast yet with Brandon Aiyuk entering Year 2 along with Deebo Samuel, Kittle and a healthier Raheem Mostert, plus whatever the team adds in the draft.
Remember, the 49ers were second in scoring and fourth in overall offense in 2019 while Garoppolo had glaring areas to improve. If he does get better and his supporting cast stays healthy, there are plenty of reasons to think San Francisco could have a top-five offense with Shanahan pulling the strings.
The obvious caveat: if Garoppolo can stay healthy.