SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- For San Francisco 49ers fans who have grown accustomed to hibernating during NFL free agency as their favorite team has mostly avoided making big moves over the past few years, it might be time to set the alarm clock for 4 p.m. ET on Thursday.
Armed with a Brinks truck full of salary cap space and needs all over the roster, Niners general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan figure to do far more than just dip their toes in the free-agent waters this offseason.
“Stay awake,” Lynch told reporters at the scouting combine last week. “We need players. We’ve got to get ourselves in a situation with certain pieces that we’ve made priorities, and certain type of guys so that we don’t go into this draft saying, ‘We have to have this.'”
If the work the 49ers already have put in adding players before the free-agent period actually begins is any indication, they figure to be extraordinarily busy in the coming days. The Niners signed cornerback K'Waun Williams, wide receiver DeAndre Carter and defensive tackle Earl Mitchell over the past couple of weeks, filling the need for a nose tackle with Mitchell and the need for more bodies on the roster with Williams and Carter.
The 49ers also re-signed wideout Jeremy Kerley, the team's leading receiver last year, to a three-year contract worth more than $10 million over the weekend.
It's safe to say the Niners' spending won't stop there. With quarterback Colin Kaepernick opting out of his contract, the NFLPA's salary cap report now shows San Francisco with 59 players under contract (with only the top 51 salaries counting against the cap right now) and $90,635,889 in salary cap space.
With that much room to operate, it's reasonable to think the Niners will continue to be active as the offseason goes on with a mix of returning players, big-ticket items, veterans with knowledge of the systems and bodies to help create competition and fill out the roster. Teams and player representatives can begin negotiating on Tuesday, though no trades or contracts with outside free agents can be made official until the new league year begins on Thursday.
Here's a quick rundown of some potential options:
In-house business: Bringing Kerley back was a good start, and there are a few other players already on the roster who could return after testing the market over the next few days. There aren't any who would qualify as pressing needs but someone such as kicker Phil Dawson or linebacker Gerald Hodges could still come back. Likewise, the Niners have three restricted free agents in running back DuJuan Harris, defensive back Marcus Cromartie and cornerback Chris Davis. It's unlikely they would use more than the lowest tender for any of them and probable that if any was to return it would be after going without a tender and testing the market first.
Solving the quarterback issue: Much has been made of the Niners' interest in Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins, but with the Redskins using the exclusive franchise tag on Cousins they are in total control of what happens next. It's not out of the question the Niners and Washington could work out a trade, but it still doesn't seem likely the 49ers would be willing to give up a king's ransom to get him when it's possible he could be available as a free agent next offseason. Lynch has made it clear the Niners will explore every possibility to acquire a quarterback, but if they don't go the trade route there are options in free agency who have ties to Shanahan and make sense for San Francisco. Atlanta's Matt Schaub and Chicago's Brian Hoyer have played for Shanahan in the past and wouldn't break the bank. Other names such as Jay Cutler, Mike Glennon and even Tony Romo have been connected to the 49ers at some level. The likeliest bet here is Schaub, but this position is clearly the team's top priority with no quarterbacks under contract for 2017.
Big-ticket possibilities: While Cousins is perceived as the primary big name the Niners will chase, his limited availability means the 49ers will allocate their resources elsewhere. With Shanahan and Lynch signing six-year deals, the Niners are well aware that this rebuild won't happen overnight. That means that while San Francisco is probably going to be in play for some of the bigger names on the market, they're unlikely to go on a wild spending spree in hopes of a quick fix. Still, it's reasonable to expect the 49ers to make a push for a big name or two who is still ascending and would have enough of a prime remaining to be a productive player three or four years from now when the rebuild is further along. Reports have already linked the 49ers to Chicago receiver Alshon Jeffery, who is only 26. But Jeffery is going to come at a hefty price tag and his history of missing games is surely a concern. Cleveland's Terrelle Pryor is another intriguing player at wideout though veteran Pierre Garcon is also worth watching. Garcon worked with Shanahan in Washington, and the Niners will have interest. Monday's release of Torrey Smith means wide receiver will be a top priority. Outside of receiver, other names to watch include Houston cornerback A.J. Bouye, Buffalo cornerback Stephon Gilmore, Green Bay pass-rusher Nick Perry, New England pass-rusher Jabaal Sheard and New England linebacker Dont'a Hightower.
Coaching connections: It's common practice for a new coaching staff to bring in familiar players to help install systems and a locker-room culture. It will be no different in San Francisco. Some particular names to watch for the 49ers include Schaub, fullback Patrick DiMarco, tight end Jacob Tamme, wide receiver Aldrick Robinson and offensive lineman Tom Compton. Don't be surprised if some Niners' additions come with a history with members of the coaching staff.