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Barber: 49ers have been slow in free agency, for good reason

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There has been some news out of Santa Clara the past couple days, or wherever it is the 49ers’ business operations are emanating from lately. The team has reached agreements with linebacker Joe Walker (a move it confirmed in a press release Tuesday), defensive end Kerry Hyder and, according to a San Francisco Chronicle report Tuesday, wide receiver Travis Benjamin. All were 2020 free agents.

The 49ers’ fortunes this season (I’m being optimistic about an NFL season) are unlikely to hinge on these three players. Walker did start 11 games for the Cardinals last year, making 65 tackles. But it will be tough for him to crack his new team’s starting lineup at linebacker, a position of strength for San Francisco. Hyder has started just two games since getting his NFL start in 2014. Benjamin, who is 30, had a total of 18 catches over the past two seasons. All three look like rotational/depth guys.

And yet they qualified as significant events around here, because until then the 49ers had not brought in a single outside player for 2020. They were, in fact, the last of the NFL’s 32 teams to add a piece.

I don’t follow the rest of the league as closely as our Bay Area teams and, outside of headline players like Tom Brady and DeAndre Hopkins, I have only a faint idea of who is signing where. So Tuesday morning, I scoured two thorough team-by-team “free agency tracker” lists. One was on NFL.com, the other part of Pro Football Focus’ early offseason grades.

Neither of the two sites had posted the Walker/Hyder/Benjamin deals yet, so the only players appearing on the 49ers list were members of the fold who had re-signed with the team — defensive ends Arik Armstead and Ronald Blair, and safety Jimmie Ward. Meanwhile, every one of the NFL’s other teams, all 31 of them, had acquired at least one player via trade or free agency.

Granted, some of them had only dabbled. The Super Bowl-champion Chiefs, for example, had brought in only cornerback Antonio Hamilton. Many teams, though, had cannonballed into free agency, writing (or at least promising) massive checks to newcomers. Consider the Raiders, who by Tuesday morning had already locked in Marcus Mariota, Nelson Agholor, Cory Littleton, Nick Kwiatkoski, Eli Apple, Carl Nassib, Jason Witten, Jeff Heath, Maliek Collins and Eric Kush.

That’s a lot of influx! And Oakland, er, Las Vegas, wasn’t alone. Other teams were treating free agency like an unsupervised plate of porch candy on Halloween.

The 49ers’ approach: “Nah, we’re good.”

It’s an obvious statement at this point but, yeah, it’s insane to think how much everything has changed for the 49ers in a year.

Flash back to last spring. The 49ers, coming off a 4-12 rotten egg of a season, picked up a couple of major pieces in edge rusher Dee Ford and linebacker Kwon Alexander, and some solid accessories such as running back Tevin Coleman, cornerback Jason Verrett and center Ben Garland. And the consensus was that the Niners hadn’t done enough.

A year ago, there were holes up and down the roster, and major question marks in the starting lineup. After a Super Bowl run that stunned everyone, from CEO Jed York on down, the picture is like a reverse image. This year, the 49ers feel they know exactly what they have, and they are content with it. The minor acquisitions of Monday/Tuesday don’t alter that perception.

The craziest thing isn’t that the 49ers are exuding so much confidence. It’s that they’re probably justified in that flex. Most of their important players are under 30. Some are under 25. Nick Bosa and Dre Greenlaw are 22. Fred Warner is 23. Emmanuel Moseley turns 24 on Wednesday. San Francisco has an elite coach in the fourth year of a six-year contract and, as far as we can tell thus far, strong locker room cohesiveness. You can see the thinking behind the inaction.

Which isn’t to say the rest of us can’t judge what they have and haven’t done in March.

So far, I can’t find much to sneer at. The big-ticket items are Armstead and Ward. Armstead’s deal reportedly includes $48.5 million in guarantees and could max out at $85 million over five years, while Ward’s is worth up to $28.5 million over three years. That’s a lot of money for guys with significant injury histories. But both played so well in 2019 (Pro Bowl- level, if you ask me) that I can see why the 49ers chose to be optimistic.

The Niners’ most controversial move to this point hasn’t been an addition, but a subtraction. They traded defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, one of the best and most popular players on the team, to the Indianapolis Colts for a first-round draft pick.

The decision to keep Armstead and unload Buckner looked like a curious one at first glance. They were probably equals last season; Armstead made more big plays, while nobody is steadier than Buckner. They’re roughly the same age. But Buckner is a much safer bet for future success. He’s a rock, a quiet worker who excels at every aspect of the D-tackle position. Armstead’s performance over the past few years has been less consistent, and he missed 18 games in 2016-17.

The difference is that Armstead was about to hit free agency. The 49ers’ choices were to sign him to a long-term deal, let him walk or franchise tag him. In other words, they weren’t going to be compensated for losing the big defensive end. Buckner, on the other hand, was under team control for one more year. And I’m guessing he was more highly prized by other teams.

As it turns out, the 49ers got more than a little something for Buckner. They snagged the No. 13 overall pick in the draft from the Colts, who immediately signed him to a four-year contract extension. The compensation gap was too big to ignore. It made Armstead the logical choice.

Despite all of these nifty moves, the 49ers are in no position to relax. Barring freak injury, they’re a strong contender for 2020, it’s true. But a lot broke right for them last year. It’s not like they don’t have weaknesses. The offensive line isn’t great at pass blocking. The receiving corps remains a work in progress. The secondary is good, not great.

Man, that No. 13 pick will really help, though. Now the 49ers need a few more strategic signings to seal the open spaces. It’s really down to tinkering for Kyle Shanahan and his crew — an amazing thing to say about a team that was floundering a year ago.

The 2020 49ers? They’re good, good enough to be cautious in free agency.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5218 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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