Updated: Feb 22, 2021
The 2021 season will present the 49ers with many challenges. The team has over two dozen free agents who could leave the team, including 3 of their 4 starting defensive backs. The Quarterback situation for the team is a big point of concern, especially on 49ers Twitter. But in my mind, the most pressing issue facing the San Francisco 49ers is their need to shore up the offensive line and give Jimmy Garoppolo (or whoever ends up being the 2021 starting QB) the protection he will need to thrive in Kyle Shanahan's post-modern west coast offense. This is a familiar problem.
A season ago when the 49ers traded two picks for Trent Williams; John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan were lauded for upgrading at the position by bringing in Williams to replace a retiring Joe Staley, and I agree with the herd here. It was a good move! Bringing in Williams to replace Staley was a talent upgrade that made the 49ers' offensive line one of the best run-blocking units in the league for a second straight year. But to get Williams to spurn the Vikings and come to Santa Clara, the Niners also had to agree to waive their right to tag Trent Williams as a franchise player, and this set off the chain of events that have now come to pass. On St. Patrick's Day 2021, Trent Williams becomes an unrestricted free agent, and the 49ers should have known this was coming when they waived their right to place the franchise tag on him. Of course, Trent Williams is trying to get paid as much money as possible, and I begrudge him nothing for this. After all, he has maybe 5 years of his career left to generate generational wealth. Understanding all of this, I believe that the 49ers' most pressing concern before the draft is to bring back the soon-to-be 33-year-old Left Tackle, and sign him to a deal where he would retire from the league wearing red and gold.
But what if Lynch and Shanahan fail? What if Trent Williams moves on and takes a state-income-tax-free bag of cash from Trent Baalke and the Jacksonville Jaguars? What if Trent Williams is excited by whatever it is that Frank Reich is building in Indianapolis with Carson Wentz and Deforest Buckner? These are the questions that keep me up at night as an obsessive 49ers fan, and I have played out a few scenarios as they relate to the 49ers 2021 draft strategy with this Trent Williams situation in mind. This is wishful thinking, but given we are in the doldrums of the NFL offseason I find this line of thought more fun than anything else! (I guess I could read a book instead...)
Fantasy Scenario 1:
Trent Williams re-signs; the 49ers at 12 overall draft Rashawn Slater, Guard, Northwestern. No matter who is under center for the 49ers in 2021, the offensive line needs to be improved upon. Keeping Williams and drafting Slater to play Right Guard will go a long way to guarantee that whoever is throwing passes for the 49ers in 2021 has the time he needs to find Kittle over the middle or Brandon Aiyuk 15 yards down the field. And as years go on Slater could slide over to Right Tackle if Mike McGlinchey falls out of favor with the team.
Fantasy Scenario 2:
Trent Williams re-signs, Zach Wilson is taken with the #2 overall pick to the Jets; in this scenario, the San Francisco 49ers should trade up with the Miami Dolphins to get ahead of the Atlanta Falcons, and with the #3 pick, take quarterback Justin Fields, from The Ohio State University. Oh boy, lookie here, I've gone and done it! All of the folks who bought Jimmy Garoppolo jerseys in 2017 after he went 5-0 are gonna be lining up in front of my Waikiki apartment with pitchforks and torches in their hands ready to John Lynch me... Here's the thing, Jimmy Garoppolo is signed for only two more seasons, and I think it is quite likely one way or another that Garoppolo isn't going to be the 49ers starting QB in 2023. When Bill Walsh was the head coach of the 49ers, he made it a point to acquire new quarterback talent at least every other year. That's how the 49ers ended up with Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Steve Bono, all at the same time. It is most prudent for the 49ers to draft and develop someone who can mature into a franchise QB. Justin Fields has the size, the arm strength, and the modern athleticism to succeed in the NFL. Plus imagine how good 16 or so games spent with a clipboard in his hands standing behind Kyle Shanahan will do for his development. As for my concerns with the offensive line, the 49ers should sign Alex Mack at Center, and look to later rounds to bring in another interior offensive lineman to backup Daniel Brunskill at Right Guard, and work to keep Jimmy G upright and throwing passes in 2021.
Fantasy Scenario 3:
Trent Williams leaves (RED ALERT), Justin Fields is taken at #2 by the New York Jets (BATTLE STATIONS), Carolina trades up with Miami and drafts Zach Wilson with the #3 overall pick (OH MY GOD WE'RE SCREWED WHAT SHOULD THE 49ERS DO???); With the top three QBs off the board the 49ers should seize the opportunity and trade up to #4 with the Atlanta Falcons to get ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals and draft Penei Sewell, the Left Tackle from Oregon. I am not a college football film cruncher, but there is consensus on the Internet that Penei Sewell is a franchise left tackle, similarly to how everyone on the Internet believes Trent Williams to be one of the best Left Tackles in football. If Williams is gone, and we don't have the chance to trade up and draft Justin Fields, I think the best thing the 49ers can do is move up to replace Williams with Sewell just like how the 49ers replaced Joe Staley with Trent Williams. The team can still sign Alex Mack in free agency, and the above-mentioned Daniel Brunskill has proven to be a capable starter at Right Guard having his best games against Aaron Donald last year.
At the end of the day, 49ers fans need to face the fact that the Niners are not a quarterback away from another Super Bowl. That's not to say the Niners can't go all the way next season. But as fans, I think we need to calm ourselves down and take a deep look at the roster. While I don't think we are a franchise in rebuilding mode, the Covid season of 2020 was like a bulldozer that knocked out more than a few bricks from the foundation that Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch spent building up one piece at a time.
One final note, I will write a future piece very soon about my thoughts on Jimmy Garoppolo, and how I think the 49ers should handle that situation. But for now, these are the thoughts you get. So stay tuned folks!