Grant Cohn: Offseason proof 49ers are aiming for contention in 2019
The offseason moves make sense when you realize the 49ers don’t expect to make the playoffs next season. They conceded months ago.
If they expect to make the playoffs, they would have made major investments to their defense. It’s terrible. It gave up 24.7 points per game in 2017, not counting Week 17 when it faced the Rams backups.
No NFC team that gave up more than 21.2 points per game last season made the playoffs. The NFC is loaded with good clubs, and the Niners aren’t one of them yet. They need a defense. They’re incomplete. And they don’t care.
This year, the Niners cut their only quality edge-rusher — Elvis Dumervil — and signed just one new starter for the defense, 30-year-old cornerback Richard Sherman, who’s coming off two Achilles surgeries. He may not even play in 2018. The Niners don’t know what they’ll get from him.
But he doesn’t matter anyway.
The 49ers are focused on the future, when Sherman will be long gone. They didn’t address any immediate needs this offseason. They upgraded positions on their offense that already were good. Their offense ranked 12th out of 32 teams in 2017, but lacked a foundation of young players handpicked by head coach Kyle Shanahan.
The 49ers built that foundation this offseason. They signed four starters: quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, running back Jerick McKinnon, center Weston Richburg and guard Jonathan Cooper. Then, they drafted a fifth starter with their first-round pick — offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey.
Then, just to show how much they don’t care about next season, they drafted a backup wide receiver — Dante Pettis — in the second round, when they could have taken cornerback Josh Jackson or edge-rusher Uchenna Nwosu. Either of those two would have started immediately for the 49ers defense and improved it. They would have given the Niners a chance to make the playoffs next season.
Pettis won’t help the 49ers until 2019 at the earliest. They don’t care.
You might. You may feel frustrated the 49ers aren’t making a stronger push to contend, but try to see their logic.
They’re only one year removed from a total rebuild — they’re still under construction. Why rush the process just because they won five meaningless games in a row to end last season? That winning streak was a mirage. The Niners still had holes all over their roster.
Instead of patching up all those holes in one offseason, or trying to patch them and failing, the 49ers will take two offseasons to complete their roster. They’ll build the offense now, and the defense next year.
No rush. Everything in its proper time. Shanahan has a six-year contract — he can take as long as he wants. And the Rams have a super team — they will win the NFC West next season barring something extraordinary. And the competition for a wild-card berth will be brutal. The favorites are the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and Dallas Cowboys, three clubs with quality offenses and defenses, not just one or the other.
The 49ers probably wouldn’t make the playoffs next season even if they try.
Waiting a year has its advantages. The 49ers currently have three players on defense they drafted in the first round who still are mysteries to them: Jimmie Ward, Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas. Those three may or may not be part of the future. The 49ers will have a better sense next season of who they are, and which defensive positions the team needs to address most.
Ward is entering his fifth season on the team, and still doesn’t have a position, even though he’s the highest-paid player on the defense. He played safety last season. Now he’s playing corner. The Niners don’t know where he fits best in their new scheme, because he played only seven games in it last season.
Armstead played only six. He’s a bigger unknown. And Thomas was a total non-factor.
If those three continue to struggle next season, the Niners will know they need to replace them. And the Niners can find replacements in the 2019 draft.
Experts say that draft will contain the best class of D-linemen since 1985, when Hall of Famers Bruce Smith, Chris Doleman and Kevin Greene entered the league. CBS’s Chris Trapasso projects six D-linemen will get taken in the top-15 picks next year, and nine D-linemen will get taken in the first round. I’m sure the Niners already know which ones they like.
The 49ers are building for 2019. That’s when they think their window will open. For now, they’re peering through glass.
Grant Cohn covers the 49ers for The Press Democrat and Pressdemocrat.com in Santa Rosa. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.