SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As the San Francisco 49ers picked up the pieces from another season they believed ended one game too early, they looked back at 2022 with conflicting emotions.
There was pride in claiming the NFC West crown. There was also profound sadness that the upcoming offseason would tear into a roster that has largely remained intact for the past four seasons.
“It was an unbelievable season and I think we have a lot to be proud of and a lot to build on and I think there’s gonna be a lot of the same guys back, so that’s exciting,” end Nick Bosa said. “But it’s obviously never the same group, which is what makes the NFL tough.”
Indeed, the 49ers head towards the start of the 2023 league year on March 15 with another lengthy list of free agents, including a handful of key starters and contributors who figure to be difficult to retain. The Niners have 20 players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents and three more (linebacker Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, defensive tackle Kevin Givens and offensive lineman Colton McKivitz) slated to be restricted free agents.
With between $8-9 million in salary cap space, the Niners will have to be selective in how they spend. They will do some contract restructuring to create additional cap space but usually wait to make such moves until they are needed.
Right tackle Mike McGlinchey headlines the list of Niners free agents. The No. 9 overall pick in the 2018 draft, McGlinchey has been an elite run blocker for five seasons and although he’s had some rough pass-protection moments, he’s steadily improved. With talented, durable tackles hard to find, McGlinchey figures to land one of the most lucrative contracts of any free agent.
And while McGlinchey would prefer to stay in San Francisco, he recognizes the opportunity to land a significant pay day.
“That certainly will have a lot to do with it,” McGlinchey said. “I am not an idiot and understand what my value is and I think they do too. And I hope the rest of the league will when the time comes … It’s a pretty cool deal. We’ll see how it goes.”
The Niners would like to retain McGlinchey but know his price tag will likely go beyond what they can pay, like guard Laken Tomlinson last year. With plenty of teams seeking reliable offensive tackles, McGlinchey figures to land something in the range of $15-17 million per season.
All of which means the Niners are bracing for McGlinchey’s departure.
“He’s a really good football player,” general manager John Lynch said. “There’s a couple elite (right tackles), the Lane Johnsons of the world, he’s right behind them. And so when you got [left tackle] Trent (Williams) and the way our team’s understood the reality, that’s just a tough, tough deal for us. And so it stinks. Could he miss his market? Sure. And then would we be interested? Of course we would. But I don’t see that happening.”
Aside from McGlinchey, the Niner most likely to land a big-money deal is quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. After a five-plus year run filled with ups and downs, the Niners have made it clear they don’t intend to bring Garoppolo back. Injuries to quarterbacks Brock Purdy (elbow) and Trey Lance (ankle) combined with Garoppolo’s history of returning to the team when it’s least expected have some questioning whether the Niners and Garoppolo will really part ways this time.
But this divorce is imminent for multiple reasons. For one, Garoppolo is likely to draw significant interest from teams in need of a starter or bridge quarterback. With so many other needs, the Niners aren’t eager to invest much in another signal caller unless Purdy misses more time than expected.
Even if Garoppolo’s market doesn’t take off, the 49ers are hesitant to reunite with a quarterback who hasn’t been able to stay healthy. Garoppolo has missed 32 games since 2016 with various injuries and only started a full season once (2019). For a team with championship aspirations, tying their future to Garoppolo yet again, even as a backup, would be a risk not worth taking.
“Jimmy has been tremendous for us,” Lynch said. “We admire his toughness. We admire the teammate that he was … I do believe that it’s probably run its course but I think we leave with nothing but fond memories of Jimmy and Jimmy’s going to go play good football for someone.”
Defensive back Jimmie Ward, the team’s longest-tenured player, is also headed towards the open market. Coach Kyle Shanahan has maintained that Ward is one of his favorite players on the roster and the team would again like to have Ward back. Ward can play free safety and nickel cornerback but prefers safety.
At 31, Ward’s market is a bit harder to figure. It’s possible he could return if a big deal doesn’t materialize, but versatile defensive backs like him don’t often struggle to find a new home. Ward could have obvious landing spots with the Jets and Houston Texans, both of whom employ former Niners defensive coordinators as head coaches.
Linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair is another valuable free agent likely to go elsewhere and would make sense as a priority for DeMeco Ryans and the Texans. The Niners paid weak side linebacker Dre Greenlaw during the season and already have Fred Warner on a pricy long-term contract. Which is why Al-Shaair is likely to head to another franchise. Defensive linemen Charles Omenihu and Samson Ebukam might have also played their way out of San Francisco’s price range.
The Niners also figure to be parting ways with free-agent kicker Robbie Gould. Since signing in 2017, Gould has been so trustworthy that Shanahan hasn’t had to think about that position much. At 40, Gould has never missed an extra point or field goal in 68 postseason attempts. The 49ers have previously been willing to pay for that peace of mind but Gould told ESPN’s Adam Schefter this week that he would explore free agency and kick elsewhere in 2023.
Lynch said the 49ers would be closely evaluating the kicker in this year’s draft with an eye towards replacing Gould.
Elsewhere on the roster, center Jake Brendel, cornerback Emmanuel Moseley, safety Tashaun Gipson Sr. and offensive lineman Daniel Brunskill are also among the Niners’ top priorities.
Brendel played well in his first season as a starter, which could draw attention from other teams. But he’s a good fit for the Niners and a one-season sample size might mean he needs to prove himself further before a more sizable payday.
Moseley would almost certainly be headed elsewhere on a big contract had he not torn his left ACL in a Week 5 win against the Carolina Panthers. That injury puts his status in flux and likely means he lands a short-term deal to prove he’s healthy before he cashes in. Assuming the price is reasonable (think $5-8 million), San Francisco is the most logical place for him to do that.
Gipson was a surprise starter after signing in training camp but played well enough for the Niners to keep him on the field after Ward returned from injury. Lynch said Gipson, 32, would like to continue to play and the Niners would like to have him back.
Brunskill has proven a valuable and versatile lineman capable of playing anywhere along the line. He’s the ideal sixth man for any offensive line but that flexibility could earn him a contract the Niners can’t afford. If his price doesn’t get too high or Brendel leaves, he, too, could be back.