Grant Cohn: 49ers panicked and botched free agency signings

Three top-tier players were targeted, but SF couldn't land even one of them.|

They signed a few solid players who fit their scheme. They protected themselves financially. They improved their roster.

There are legitimate reasons to like the moves the 49ers made in free agency. I understand if you do.

I don’t.

I like the overall direction the 49ers are heading - don’t get me wrong. I think they could be Super Bowl contenders in 2019 if they add a few top-shelf players. But, they’re not contenders yet. They’re not in win-now mode. And they should be.

They botched free agency. Here’s how.

No. 1. They didn’t get one top-shelf player.

They tried to get three - All-Pro cornerback Aqib Talib, All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell, and former New England Patriots running back Dion Lewis, who gained 1,110 yards from scrimmage and averaged 5 yards per carry as the Patriots’ featured back last season.

Those players would have been big-time additions.

But, Talib refused to play for the 49ers after they completed a trade for him. Norwell chose to sign with the Jacksonville Jaguars instead of the 49ers. And Lewis chose to sign with the Tennessee Titans.

So, the 49ers had to pick from the lower shelves.

They signed a cornerback coming off two Achilles surgeries since November (Richard Sherman), a center who missed 12 games last season with a concussion (Weston Richburg), and a running back who has never has been a full-time starter (Jerick McKinnon).

Other than maybe Jimmy Garoppolo, the 49ers have no special players on offense. Not on the line, and not at the skill positions, either.

The Niners haven’t given Garoppolo a go-to guy. Every quarterback needs one. Tom Brady has three - Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Brandin Cooks. Joe Montana had Dwight Clark, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig and Brent Jones. Great players.

Garoppolo has role players and Steady Eddies, including Marquise Goodwin, who still has lots to prove.

No. 2. They panicked when they didn’t get their first choices.

Especially with the offensive players.

Everyone knew the 49ers needed an interior offensive lineman and a running back. Those were glaring holes, and the 49ers had more than enough cap space to fill them. The Niners couldn’t come up empty handed.

So, when they didn’t land Norwell and Lewis, they went all in for their second choices. Paid too much for them. Made Richburg the highest-paid center and McKinnon the sixth-highest-paid running back in the NFL in terms of guaranteed money. Had no choice, because losing them might ruin the Niners chances of going to the playoffs.

They made desperation moves.

They should have overpaid the first choices - Norwell and Lewis. Those are players you go all in for.

No. 3. Paraag Marathe may have driven away Norwell and Lewis.

Almost every contract Marathe makes is “team friendly,” usually with a potential out for the club after a year or two.

Team-friendly deals work for mid-tier free agents who are old and declining, or young and haven’t proven much in the league. Like McKinnon, who has been a backup his whole career. In his deal, there’s a potential out after the first season, so the Niners can keep him if he plays well as their starting running back, and cut him with no penalty if he plays poorly in his expanded role.

McKinnon accepted the deal because he had no leverage. He needs the opportunity to start, even if it lasts only for one season.

Top-end free agents with starting experience don’t need to prove themselves on glorified one-year deals. They want long-term security. They want player-friendly contracts. Marathe rarely offers those.

The 49ers should replace Marathe if he can’t land the best free agents.

No. 4. McKinnon is small.

Smaller than I expected. I stood next to him on Thursday, and he looks like a slot receiver. I’m not sure he’s the kind of running back who can last 16 games as a starter.

And I know he’s not the kind of back who can slam it between the tackles and wear down a defense during the second half when the 49ers are winning and trying to run down the clock. Shanahan doesn’t have one of those slam backs, just as he didn’t have one in the Super Bowl when he blew a 25-point lead in the second half.

The 49ers have a feather-weight running game.

No. 5. Signing Sherman was too risky.

So risky, even Trent Baalke probably wouldn’t have signed him. And Baalke loved injured players.

Baalke had limits, though. He spent mid-round draft picks on young, injured players and red-shirted them. He never signed a 30-year-old, past-his-prime cornerback coming off two Achilles surgeries and gave him a starting job. People would have ridiculed Baalke for that.

But, that’s what John Lynch did with Sherman. Lynch also drafted Reuben Foster even though he acknowledged Foster needed “structure” the 49ers weren’t allowed to provide during the offseason. Lynch may be a bigger risk-taker than Baalke.

Forget the money the 49ers are paying Sherman. Money isn’t the problem. They’re paying him only $3 million guaranteed.

The problem is they think they’re getting the young Sherman. They’re counting on Sherman to start all 16 regular-season games next season – they said so during a press conference on Thursday.

They’re counting on Sherman even though 30 percent of NFL players who tear their Achilles never play again, and two-thirds of the players who do return never completely recover. They’re diminished.

Sherman can’t afford diminishment. He wasn’t fast even when he was young. How fast will he be next season, if he still can play?

Let’s say he still can play. Let’s say he makes a full recovery. The recovery process usually takes at least 12 months. Sherman will be 10 months removed from the first Achilles surgery and eight months removed from the second when the season starts. He could miss September and October, not to mention training camp and OTAs.

“I promise you we will have other players, backup players,” Shanahan said on Thursday.

Of course, but that’s not what the 49ers need. They need a starter who can play 16 games at a high level if Sherman can’t.

They don’t have that player yet.

They might get him in the draft, or they might get him next year. They have time. Their window of opportunity to win Super Bowls hasn’t even opened yet.

Too bad they didn’t kick it open this week.

Grant Cohn covers the 49ers for The Press Democrat and in Santa Rosa. You can reach him at

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