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Exit Interview: San Francisco 49ers

Following their Week 13 loss to the Seahawks, the Niners are officially out of playoff contention. What should they do this offseason to prepare for the return of Jimmy Garoppolo?

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It’s that time of year, when some NFL teams have started looking toward next season. As each club is eliminated, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today it’s the San Francisco 49ers, who saw their playoff dreams mathematically snuffed in Week 13.

What Went Right

The moment Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL this season was lost for the 49ers. But they still found some bright spots on offense, specifically in second-year players tight end George Kittle and running back Matt Breida. Kittle has produced all season, regardless of who was under center, and looks like a future superstar. Breida is averaging a whopping 5.6 yards per carry, which has added an electric element to San Francisco’s backfield. He’s injury prone, and he’ll be out this week against Denver with an injured ankle, but Breida will be a nice piece for Garoppolo to have when he returns next season. The offensive line has been solid, with left tackle Joe Staley playing like his Pro Bowl self, and 2018 first-round pick Mike McGlinchey, who’s held the starting right tackle spot all year, looking like a lineman worth building around. There is a lot of work to be done, but the Niners have good, young offensive pieces in place.

Defensively, San Francisco has had fewer standouts, but Richard Sherman has been worth the three-year deal the 49ers signed him to this offseason. He’s averaging 20.4 snaps between receptions against him, per Pro Football Focus, which is the second-highest mark in the NFL. Defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, in his third year out of Oregon, has recorded a career-high 9.0 sacks and should be a solid edge rusher for the future.

What Went Wrong

Everything. The team ranks 29th in offensive DVOA, 23rd in defensive DVOA, and 28th in special teams DVOA—basically, the Niners have been bad everywhere.

But, for a team with a coach that is supposed to be an offensive mastermind, the offense has been particularly disappointing. Even after accounting for the shuffling at quarterback, this unit hasn’t produced, and that starts with the team’s outside receivers. Marquise Goodwin leads all San Francisco wideouts with 339 receiving yards in eight games (he’s missed the past two games to deal with an undisclosed personal matter). Pierre Garcon was supposed to be the team’s other primary pass catcher, but he’s recorded just 286 receiving yards in eight games while battling a knee injury. Second-round rookie Dante Pettis has 206 yards in the last two weeks, but he can’t be considered a reliable option after just two solid outings.

Kyle Shanahan deserves a mulligan after the Garoppolo injury, but if this lack of success continues with Garoppolo back next year, it will begin to reflect on him. When Shanahan was hired ahead of the 2017 season, he was grouped with Sean McVay as young, offensively minded wunderkinds. But Shanahan has won just eight games with the Niners in two seasons, while McVay has piloted his Rams to 22 wins in that stretch. There is an obvious talent gap in personnel—McVay inherited Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, and Aaron Donald while Shanahan inherited … [squints] … Brian Hoyer, Carlos Hyde, and Elvis Dumervil. But as he enters Year 3, Shanahan will surely feel pressure to turn the hype surrounding him into wins.

Free Agency

The Niners won’t have too many decisions to make with their own players—nearly every guy on the roster is either locked into a deal that extends beyond this season or will likely be off the team by spring. Defensive back Jimmie Ward is a candidate for the latter option. Ward was put on injured reserve with a forearm fracture in late November (the latest in a string of injuries that have kept him off the field for much of his career), and given that he was playing on the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, the Niners may decide to let him walk. They can also move on from Garcon this offseason and save $6 million if they want added flexibility against the salary cap. And starting guard Michael Person, who was signed for pennies this offseason, is up for a new contract. But that’s about it.

Fortunately, the 49ers are in a rare position: They’ve already paid their quarterback but still have plenty of money left to spend on the rest of the roster. Despite handing Garoppolo $74 million guaranteed last season, San Francisco enters 2019 with an estimated $66.5 million in cap space, per Over the Cap.

Free agency comes after the draft, but the 49ers will have to determine their approach for both well in advance. One of San Francisco’s biggest positional needs is at edge rusher. The team ranks 20th in sack rate this season, and both the free agent and draft classes are stacked at that position. Should the Niners choose to explore the free agency route, they could make a big splash by pursuing Jadeveon Clowney, Demarcus Lawrence, or a number of other pass rushers. Even after breaking the bank for a big name, the 49ers would have enough cash left over to address the many other holes on the roster.

And yes, they could even make a run at Le’Veon Bell.

The Draft

With both the 49ers and Raiders holding league-worst 2-10 records, the first overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft will likely belong to one team in the Bay. The Raiders lost to the 49ers in Week 9, but head-to-head results don’t serve as the tiebreaker for draft position—that’s determined by strength of schedule, which is measured by totaling up the overall winning percentage of all opponents the team faced that season. The team with the softer schedule then gets the better selection.

The 49ers’ opponents this season (including ones they have yet to face) have a combined record of 100-90-2, while the Raiders’ opponents are 108-82-2. That gives San Francisco the inside track to claim the top overall pick, especially considering that the Niners will be significant underdogs in the rest of their games this season (they face the Broncos, Seahawks, Bears, and Rams in the next four weeks). A 2-14 finish is certainly within reach, and we could be mere weeks away from the Niners officially being on the clock.

Whether San Francisco gets the top pick or drops lower within the top five, the team’s draft possibilities are endless. Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa is the consensus top prospect in the draft and would greatly boost any pass rushing group in the league. But there are other defensive linemen available as well, including Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver, Michigan defensive end Rashan Gary, Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, and Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell. There will be plenty of avenues for the 49ers to shore up their defense.

San Francisco could also take advantage of the NFL’s thirst for quarterbacks. Though this draft class isn’t headlined by the kind of passing talents we saw last year, a team could fall in love with Oregon’s Justin Herbert (should he declare), Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, Duke’s Daniel Jones, Mizzou’s Drew Lock, or any other passer that could ascend draft boards by April. If the Niners aren’t enamored by any of the top prospects, they should be able to find a suitor for a trade down.