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49ers' large free-agent class about laying the foundation

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- To understand the San Francisco 49ers' approach to this free-agent period, there's an easy analogy right here in the heart of the Silicon Valley.

Under the guidance of new general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan, both of whom come armed with six-year contracts that indicate they'll be given plenty of time to execute their plan, the 49ers know they aren't going to be able to pull off a miraculous one-year turnaround. Instead, they're taking the long view.

Which is why it's easy to think of the current 49ers like an incubator for a bunch of tech startups. In the opening days of free agency, the Niners were among the most active teams in the league, signing a whopping 11 players. None of those signings broke the bank, but many of them came with experience in and knowledge of Shanahan's offensive scheme or coordinator Robert Saleh's defensive system.

With a few possible exceptions, most of those additions probably won't play integral roles if and when the 49ers become full-fledged contenders again. But that isn't really the point. The point seems to be to find players who can help build the culture for the younger players who will be the central focus of the rebuild for the long term.

In the process of those signings, the 49ers kept plenty of salary-cap flexibility. As of Tuesday, they still had $73.9 million in cap space, which is the most in the league -- to make bigger splashes (cough, Kirk Cousins, cough) in the coming years when they're closer to being competitive.

"We saw guys on film that we loved the film, but there's more to it as we've discussed," Lynch said. "We've got guys of high character on and off the field. And Kyle does a great job; when we're watching film, one phrase he uses a lot is 'What it takes.' What it takes to win championships and all of these guys fit in that mold."

"I think we were very strategic setting out with where we felt we needed to improve our team. But then, let's not do it just with any player. Let's find if there's people out there that fit what we're looking for. And I've described, I think that's one thing we've done extremely well is get a great definition, have it clearly defined what we're looking for at each position and the type of person. That's what we did from the outset. And so I think while there's a lot of numbers, we didn't reach for anything. We found guys that fit it; if not, we'll wait. So I think while the numbers are big and we're really happy about that, we felt like we found guys that we were excited about being here. Not just getting guys because we needed guys."

At the center of that approach was adding players whom Shanahan trusts and believes in. It's common practice around the league for new coaches and general managers to bring in players and assistant coaches they know. It can become something of a crutch, especially for first-time coaches, but it also can be beneficial if that coach knows what he's getting.

"The advantage to having been with someone is you know what type of guy they are," Shanahan said.

In the case of the 49ers, players such as receivers Pierre Garcon and Aldrick Robinson, quarterback Brian Hoyer and tight end Logan Paulsen have enjoyed some of their best seasons while playing for Shanahan. Linebacker Malcolm Smith played for Saleh in Seattle. While all will be counted on to contribute on the field and help the Niners improve upon their two wins of a season ago, their responsibilities will go beyond that.

"I don't mind help setting the tone," Garcon said. "That’s what I want to do, too, I have got a lot to prove to myself and for the team and for Kyle, I’ve got to make everybody look good for bringing me here. So I definitely want to set the tone, set the bar high and just make the plays that we’re supposed to make and win games and keep moving forward."

According to Garcon, Shanahan's offense is complicated, but it's not so complicated that young players will necessarily struggle to learn it. Still, the time will come soon enough that the 49ers will lean on a variety of young players to take the reins and play bigger roles. If players familiar with Shanahan can help expedite that process, all the better.

It's a sentiment Hoyer echoed and expanded upon, especially considering the nature of his position.

"It's kind of funny, when you talk about the analogy of riding a bike once you get back on it, I know that in this brain somewhere all of that stuff is filed and stored," Hoyer said. "I'll go back and grab all my old Cleveland stuff and go back and start breaking it down so that way when we start up in April, I can come in and try to help as many people as I can."

Of course, the 49ers' approach will ultimately come down to how well they draft and develop more so than their spending in free agency. For now, at least the plan is clear and the first step is complete.

"Everything with us starts with what we see on tape and all these guys I respect the heck out of them as football players," Shanahan said. "It starts there, but the tape isn't where it ends. We want to bring in here high-character people in this building that do things the right way and are football players. We're very confident in all these guys. It's going to be part of the process of us winning games. We know it's going to be hard work. It's not going to be easy, but it's going to be worth it and bringing these guys in is going to help us do that."