Defensive line, O-line, secondary, even QB: Where 49ers could add free agents

Sheldon Rankins could be a defensive lineman in the 49ers' price range that help them keep their front line strong. Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Before the start of free agency last year, the San Francisco 49ers came to a difficult decision. After falling just short of another Super Bowl appearance, the Niners looked at their list of internal free agents, compared it to their biggest roster needs and concluded they were going to have to let multiple key players walk so they could make a significant investment at a premium position.

So the Niners watched veteran defensive tackle D.J. Jones and guard Laken Tomlinson depart for lucrative contracts elsewhere, not because the Niners didn't want them but because they knew if they wouldn't have been able to upgrade at cornerback if they paid them. The trade-off resulted in cornerback Charvarius Ward, who was the team's best corner for most of the season and improved San Francisco's biggest weakness.

With the start of the 2023 league year looming -- the early negotiating window opens Monday and the league year begins Wednesday -- the 49ers find themselves in a similar situation. They have between $8 million and $9 million in salary cap space but have the flexibility to create more. They also have key free agents such as right tackle Mike McGlinchey, free safety Jimmie Ward, kicker Robbie Gould and linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair set to land big contracts on the open market.

Which raises the question: Are the Niners going to follow a similar blueprint where they let important players leave, take one major bite of the free-agent apple and then supplement with cheaper veterans?

"Every year it's a little different," general manager John Lynch said. "Sometimes restraint makes you have a plan. We had been fairly aggressive for a bunch of years and knew we had kind of backed up. I think we were 20th in cash spend last year. So, we knew exactly what we needed and we probably had one big splash and we decided that we wanted to be a corner."

It wouldn't be a surprise if San Francisco followed a similar plan, perhaps with a slight modification or two. The biggest question -- if the 49ers do make a large investment in one player, where will they do it? An argument could be made to spend on McGlinchey or another offensive tackle. The Niners have some in-house options capable of replacing McGlinchey but also need to get better across the line.

Whether he's viewed as a free safety or nickel cornerback, Ward's potential departure would create a big need. The Niners could bring veteran Tashaun Gipson Sr. back at free safety and hope to develop in-house options at nickel while drafting a free safety of the future.

But if Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan are going big-game hunting, don't be surprised if they use resources at the position group they've traditionally valued above the others: Defensive line.

For a team that regularly carries 10 defensive linemen in season, the Niners have work to do replenish the depth chart. They have only four defensive linemen -- ends Nick Bosa and Drake Jackson and tackles Javon Kinlaw and Arik Armstead -- who played snaps in 2022 under contract for 2023. A fifth, tackle Kalia Davis, did not play because of injury and a sixth, tackle Kevin Givens, is a restricted free agent. Suffice to say, they'll need to add multiple pieces on the line, which might mean a handful of mid-tier additions instead of one big swing. Much will depend on how much they believe in the development of young players like Jackson.

Among the top names available in free agency are tackles Javon Hargrave, Dre'Mont Jones and David Onyemata and ends Yannick Ngakoue, Jadeveon Clowney and Marcus Davenport. More cost-effective options who profile similar to past Niners additions include tackle Sheldon Rankins, end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo or even a reunion with do-everything lineman Arden Key.

"We'll always put a focus on the D-line," Lynch said. "The quality of player and then the quantity. Some of that has to come from player development ... The nice thing is we've got a good track record sometimes, you know? You'd love to go add a cornerstone for five years in there. ... You get a guy like Bosa or you pay through your ears. We've got to be creative and come up with some other ways."

Of course, most of the offseason intrigue will once again center on quarterback. With Brock Purdy (elbow) and Trey Lance (ankle) coming back from injury, the Niners have a lot of uncertainty at the position. If all goes according to plan, both will be back for the start of the season but without that guaranteed and an offseason program to navigate, they will have to make at least one addition.

What would that quarterback look like?

"The best available that can fit into the structure of our team and the salary cap and all that, but the best one available," Shanahan said.

With so many other needs, the Niners would prefer not to spend big money at quarterback. But if they get the sense Purdy is going to be out when the season begins, they might have to adjust. Selling a veteran such as Jacoby Brissett, Andy Dalton, Baker Mayfield or, if he's released, Matt Ryan, on coming to San Francisco on a cheap contract to be the No. 3 option might be a tall order. But the selling point comes from a ready-made offense that could help rehab value for any signal caller who gets the chance to step in and play.

Should the Niners look to spend on a cheaper replacement if McGlinchey leaves, some of the other tackle options are Kaleb McGary, Jawaan Taylor and Isaiah Wynn. If they look to invest in the secondary, a couple names to watch are cornerback Cameron Sutton and safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson. With Gould expected to depart, the Niners also need a kicker with Matt Prater and Matt Gay among the best available veterans. Depending on what happens with some of their own free agents, the Niners will also need help in the interior offensive line, linebacker and tight end.

"It is daunting sometimes looking at all those black boxes on the depth chart and we've got to fill all those," Lynch said. "But we always figure it out."