SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- One advantage the San Francisco 49ers believed they had entering their search for a new head coach and general manager this offseason was that they were the only team with vacancies at both spots.
The Niners pointed to the combination of a completely clean slate along with a massive amount of salary cap space and the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft as appealing enough selling points to land them their preferred candidates for both positions. And while five other teams had head-coaching openings, none had the general-manager job available. Until now.
As Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay silently and belatedly evaluated his football leadership, he finally came to the conclusion late last week that change was in order. So he fired general manager Ryan Grigson. Suddenly, a general-manager hunt that offered no competition now had another team. And not just any team but one with a franchise quarterback in Andrew Luck already in place.
Now, as the list of potential candidates for the Colts job crystallizes, there's no shortage of carryover of names from the Niners' list. Colts exec Jimmy Raye III interviewed with the 49ers and is now considered the favorite for the job with Indianapolis. But the Colts also intend to speak with Seattle co directors of player personnel Trent Kirchner and Scott Fitterer and, perhaps most alarmingly for the 49ers, Minnesota assistant general manager George Paton.
Paton is one of two candidates the Niners have interviewed still standing in the hunt for their job. They've also talked to Arizona's Terry McDonough, but Paton has been the presumptive frontrunner and is expected to meet with the Niners again this week in Atlanta when they talk to Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan for a second time. Shanahan and Paton both met with the Niners previously on Jan. 6. But Paton is expected to interview with the Colts as well , meaning if the Niners want him, they might need to be as proactive as possible to make it happen.
It's also still possible the 49ers will bring in some new candidates they haven't met with before to discuss the general manager job as they look for the right fit to pair with Shanahan. San Francisco CEO Jed York has said all along that the primary goal of his search would be to find a coach and general manager who are on the same page and can work harmoniously to build the 49ers into a perennial contender without any of the internal power struggles that have plagued the organization in recent years.
“I think we need to be open and flexible to structure," York said at the outset of the search. "We need to make sure that the head coach and the general manager know each other, have a good understanding for each other. Doesn’t mean that they had to have worked together in the past, but they have to have a good respect for each other and a good understanding and know that they have similar visions and philosophies on building a football team. And, whatever structure is the best with the people that we’re interviewing is the structure that we’re going to go with.”
That structure has gained clarity insofar as the Niners have made Shanahan their primary target. The next step is finding the general manager who can help them check the boxes York established at the beginning of this process.