The San Francisco 49ers were so close. Even after head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch traded up to select North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance in the 2021 NFL Draft, the team stuck with veteran signal-caller Jimmy Garoppolo and came one drive away from reaching the Super Bowl for the second time in three years.
Now, in fairness to reality, the 49ers arguably won in spite of Garoppolo throughout the playoffs, and he could be on the way out. The five-time Super Bowl champions could potentially use 2022 as the beginning of the Lance era, one that will determine if Lynch and Shanahan are remembered as local heroes or as men who fell just short of the ultimate goal.
On the eve of the new league year, now feels like the perfect time to analyze players who Shanahan, Lynch, and the 49ers should pursue in free agency. For this list, we tried focusing on the 49ers’ most significant needs and eyeing players who best fit those holes. This list only includes players who are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in March; restricted free agents, cap casualties, and little-known draft prospects who are likely to go undrafted were all ineligible.
Based on consideration of the aforementioned prerequisites, the best potential free agents for the 49ers rank as follows:
6. Marcus Mariota, QB, Las Vegas Raiders
If the 49ers don’t bring Garoppolo back, the team will need a new quarterback to either serve as the backup or compete with Lance for the starting job. Sometimes, things are that simple. Assuming San Francisco doesn’t wind up with Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady via trade and instead officially begins the Lance era, the five-time Super Bowl champions should strongly consider signing Mariota, the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner.
Although Mariota has only thrown 30 passes in the last two seasons, he’s an experienced dual-threat quarterback who fits the 49ers’ scheme and needs. The roadblock here will be if a quarterback-needy team such as the Carolina Panthers or Pittsburgh Steelers are willing to offer the Oregon product significant money to be the starter.
If the 49ers look elsewhere for a mobile backup quarterback, we suggest looking into the Miami Dolphins’ Jacoby Brissett or the Seattle Seahawks’ Geno Smith. However, it is worth noting Smith could face league discipline after Seattle police arrested him in January on suspicion of DUI.
5. Sheldon Richardson, DL, Minnesota Vikings
Once upon a time, Richardson won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors after totaling 3.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss in 2013. A year later, he earned Pro Bowl honors after recording eight sacks for the dismal New York Jets. Nearly a decade later, he’s coming off a 2.5-sack, six-tackle for loss season with the Minnesota Vikings.
At this stage in his career, the 31-year-old Richardson is a solid pass-rushing option who might work best as a rotational option. He only played 57% of the Vikings’ defensive snaps in 2021 and will turn 32 in November. Although the Missouri product isn’t the sexiest name, the 49ers aren’t in a position where they need to pay the big bucks for a defensive lineman.
4. Stephon Gilmore, CB, Carolina Panthers
Although Gilmore only ranks fourth on this list, don’t take that to mean the 49ers don’t need the five-time Pro Bowl selection. In fact, San Francisco should do everything in its power to bring the Clemson product into the mix, assuming he intends to return for his age-32 season. Gilmore snagged two interceptions in eight games and three starts with the Carolina Panthers last year. The 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year would bring extensive experience to the 49ers’ secondary.
Between Richard Sherman and Josh Norman, the 49ers haven’t been afraid to add older cornerbacks during Shanahan’s tenure as head coach. If Gilmore is interested in playing on the West Coast, the veteran defender makes perfect sense to follow in their footsteps.
3. Connor Williams, G, Dallas Cowboys
A second-round pick in 2018, Williams never properly lived up to expectations in Dallas. However, despite Cowboys fans’ vocal criticism and the team benching him at one point in the 2021 campaign, he finished the year with a 76.4 grade on Pro Football Focus. The 49ers’ current starting left guard, Laken Tomlinson, only ended the year at 76.0.
In layman’s terms, Williams is an excellent candidate for a one-year, prove-it deal in San Francisco. He can reset his value ahead of the 2023 offseason, only months before he’ll turn 26 years old. Williams could be an adequate replacement if the 49ers lose Tomlinson, a Pro Bowl selection who could sign a significant contract in free agency.
2. Will Hernandez, G, New York Giants
Hernandez had a horrific 2021 season, only finishing the year with a 55.9 PFF grade after switching from left guard to the right side. The UTEP product, like Williams, will likely need to sign a one-year, prove-it deal before hitting the market again in 2023.
For the sake of simplicity, Hernandez is the backup option to Williams, who might be the backup option to Tomlinson. However, Hernandez gets the slight nod above Williams because he has experience playing both left and right guard in the NFL.
1. J.C. Jackson, CB, New England Patriots
All of the above players, even the offensive linemen, are relatively small fish in the grand scheme of things. The 49ers don’t require a major splash in free agency; any significant move would likely come via trade, and it would involve a quarterback who would replace Garoppolo and Lance.
But, if the 49ers do decide to make a splash, then J.C. Jackson is their man.
After going undrafted in 2018, Jackson snagged 25 interceptions in four seasons with the Patriots. He earned second-team All-Pro honors and made his first Pro Bowl (although that isn’t saying much) last season. He won’t turn 27 until Nov. 17 and is expected to be a popular name on the free-agent market if he doesn’t re-sign with New England ahead of the new league year.
The 49ers are already entering the sixth year of the Shanahan/Lynch partnership, and they only have a single Super Bowl appearance to show for it. Jackson is the type of player who can put an already extremely dangerous NFC team over the top and drastically increase their chances of partying with the Lombardi Trophy next February.