Unlike when coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch took over in 2017, the 49ers do not have a clean slate when it comes to constructing their roster for 2021.

San Francisco’s shot-callers are entering the fifth seasons of their tenures and have some work to do with roughly 30 players slated to hit unrestricted free agency while the salary cap is expected to shrink significantly after the pandemic rocked the world in 2020. Free agents will be free to sign with new teams when the 2021 league year begins March 17.

So here we’ll take a look at a possible free agent wish list for Shanahan and Lynch on the defensive side of the ball. Some positions (like defensive end and cornerback) are more expensive than others, which means we’ll have to factor the future of left tackle Trent Williams, who could become the latest tackle to receive a mega contract.

Williams, of course, the 49ers’ biggest priority this offseason. Signing him would likely take a significant chunk of their remaining $13 million in cap space (as of this writing, before the team made any cost-cutting moves). So we bunched the expensive options with the less expensive options, depending on whether Williams is brought back on a contract that could put him in the neighborhood of $20 million per year.

Keep in mind there is a ton of unknown heading into this unprecedented offseason. The salary cap hasn’t gone down in well over a decade and the financial crunch could mean the lesser-known free agents get squeezed into taking below-market deals. There also could be a wave of players that take less expensive one-year contracts to allow them to hit the market again next spring when the salary cap is back to normal levels. So there’s a chance a high level player could come on a discount if they want to play for a contender.

Let’s take a brief look at each position and offer up some names to keep an eye on.

Defensive end

If Williams leaves:

Shaquil Barrett (Buccaneers)

Yannick Ngakoue (Ravens)

Carl Lawson (Bengals)

Leonard Floyd (Rams)

Dee Ford’s status is the big wild card when looking at the 49ers’ defensive end situation. He has guarantees for injury remaining on his contract, meaning the team might have a hard time releasing him if his back injury remains problematic after he missed 15 games last season, and in 2019 he played just 22 percent of the snaps. It’s clear the 49ers could use another defensive end because they can’t count on Ford nor do they want to play Arik Armstead outside for a full season, as they had to in 2020.

Barrett and Ngakwoue only make sense for San Francisco if Williams goes to another team. Signing one of those players, at $15 million to $18 million per season, would alleviate the team’s need to draft a pass rusher early, thus allowing them to take a tackle or cornerback in Round 1. Barrett had four sacks and eight quarterback hits in the NFC title game and Super Bowl, while Ngakoue is arguably the best speed pass rusher available. Lawson is steady and technical, while Floyd is coming off 10.5 sacks for the Rams last season after underwhelming previously in Chicago. Floyd would likely cost substantially less than the other guys at the top of the market.

If Williams stays:

Trey Hendrickson (Saints)

Justin Houston (Colts)

Markus Golden (Cardinals)

Melvin Ingram (Chargers)

Romeo Okwara (Lions)

Jadeveon Clowney (Titans)

Ryan Kerrigan (Washington)

Olivier Vernon (Browns)

Takk McKinley (Raiders)

Kerry Hyder (49ers)

Ronald Blair III (49ers)

The length of this list goes to show how many pass rushers could be available this spring, especially given the cap crunch. The normally-lucrative defensive end market could see a number of guys take one-year contracts, like pending free agent Kerry Hyder did last offseason before leading the 49ers in sacks with Nick Bosa and Ford injured.

This list features a few players who might be one-year wonders (Hendrickson, Okwara) and other veterans with long track records (Ingram, Kerrigan). The 49ers might make sense for those guys who want to play with a contending team on a short-term deal.


If Williams leaves:

Chidobe Awuzie (Cowboys)

Shaquill Griffin (Seahawks)

William Jackson (Bengals)

Quinton Dunbar (Seahawks)

Mike Hilton (Steelers)

Richard Sherman has said he’s on his way out of San Francisco, which makes cornerback one of the most pressing needs. Here are a few expensive options that could command eight figures annually, which the 49ers would have a better shot at affording if they don’t bring back Williams.

Awuzie is a former college teammate of Ahkello Witherspoon and was taken a round earlier and had a more consistent career in Dallas than Witherspoon’s with San Francisco. Griffin and Dunbar both make sense from a schematic standpoint given their traits and time in Seattle, while Hilton could be an option to replace K’Waun Williams in the slot, should he end up leaving for say, Robert Saleh’s New York Jets. Jackson might be one of the more underrated players in this free agent class.

If Williams stays:

Jason Verrett (49ers)

Neiko Thorpe (Seahawks)

Levi Wallace (Bills)

Terrance Mitchell (Browns)

There seemed to be momentum towards the end of the season for Verrett returning after playing at a Pro Bowl level in 2020. But injury questions will persist as long as he’s playing, which makes it tough to give him a lucrative contract. Wallace has the long arms (nearly 33 inches) and allowed just 58 percent of passes completed when in coverage last season. Mitchell, a Sacramento native, started all 16 games for Cleveland last season and has been in the league for seven seasons. He’ll turn 29 in May. The options here aren’t flawless, which makes it important the 49ers add at least one corner in the draft.


Jaquiski Tartt (49ers)

Shawn Williams (Bengals)

Duron Harmon (Lions)

The 49ers signed free safety Jimmie Ward to a three-year, $28.5 million contract last spring and are expected to shift Tarvarius Moore to strong safety full time. Moore is entering the final year of his four-year rookie contract. How the team deploys the secondary under new coordinator DeMeco Ryans and new passing game coordinator/secondary coach Cory Undlin remains to be seen. But it’s likely the team continues to shift away from the single-high safety look it used predominately under Saleh to a more-versatile, two-safety approach. Tartt could be back on a cheap deal if the safety market remains as depressed as it’s been in recent seasons. But his injury issues have caused him to miss 26 games over the last four seasons. Harmon worked under Undlin with Detroit and could help the transition.


Raekwon McMillan (Raiders)

Anthony Walker Jr. (Colts)

Jarrad Davis (Lions)

Kamu Grugier-Hill (Dolphins)

The 49ers seem set at linebacker with Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw manning the middle, while Warner appears likely to get a market-setting contract at some point this offseason (likely the summer, as George Kittle did in 2020). So don’t expect San Francisco to make a splashy signing here. McMillan is a former second-round pick of the Dolphins who lasted just two seasons before getting traded to the Raiders. Davis was a former first-round pick, who Undlin should also be familiar with, who might be had cheaply to play “Sam” linebacker or fill in for injury. Grugier-Hill could be a featured special teams player. Otherwise, expect the 49ers to hope Azeez Al-Shaair continues to develop in his third season.

Defensive tackle

D.J. Jones (49ers)

Adam Butler (Patriots)

Davon Godchaux (Dolphins)

Morgan Fox (Rams)

The 49ers made two major investments along the interior of the defensive line last offseason by signing Arik Armstead to a long-term deal and using a first-round pick on Javon Kinlaw. So don’t expect them to dip too deep in their pockets here, which is why Jones coming back on a short-team deal makes sense. The 49ers are likely expecting Kevin Givens to compete for a more prominent role after flashing against the run throughout 2020 while Armstead should be expected to play more on the inside this season if the team adds options at defensive end.

Chris Biderman has covered the 49ers since 2013 and began covering the team for The Sacramento Bee in August 2018. He previously spent time with the Associated Press and USA TODAY Sports Media Group. A Santa Rosa native, he graduated with a degree in journalism from The Ohio State University.

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