A look at 49ers' free-agent options this offseason

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Let’s say, for starters, the 49ers have $70 million in cap space next season, the cap space they currently have.

That’s lots of space. If they want, they can re-sign all their free agents. But they probably don’t want to. When free agency starts on March 13, some players will leave one way or another, and the team will replace them with rookies or free agents from other teams.

Here are the top five free agents the 49ers must decide whether to re-sign, plus three free agents from other teams who could join the 49ers next season and help them.

Jimmie Ward, 27 years old, defensive back: The 49ers selected Ward with the 30th pick in the 2014 draft, and have paid him $15.7 million, including $8.5 million in 2018 when he played only nine games.

The 49ers haven’t gotten a big return on their investment.

Ward has missed 36 percent of their games since joining the team, has made four trips to the injured reserve list in five seasons and intercepted just two passes during his entire career.

In July, Ward will turn 28, yet he still has no permanent position. Last season, he started at cornerback, then moved to free safety and didn’t stand out playing either spot. He broke up no passes in 2018, and only one in 2017.

The 49ers can find a younger, cheaper, healthier defensive back in the draft, and let Ward sign elsewhere.

Mike Person, 30, guard: The 49ers gave Person a one-year, $915,000 contract last year to be their backup center. But when Joshua Garnett hurt his knee during training camp, Person became the starting right guard and kept the job all season.

Person struggled in pass protection. The 49ers gave up 125 quarterback hits — second most in the NFL. And the interior of the offensive line gave up most of those hits.

The 49ers probably won’t replace left guard Laken Tomlinson, who’s under contract through 2021, or center Weston Richburg, who’s under contract through 2022. To improve the interior pass protection, the 49ers may have to find an upgrade over Person.

The 49ers can draft Person’s replacement and let that rookie compete with Garnett, a former first-round pick who will be only 25 next season.

Raheem Mostert, 26, running back: Mostert is one of the best special-teams tacklers in the NFL, plus a solid backup running back. In 2018, he rushed 34 times and averaged a whopping 7.7 yards per carry — highest on the 49ers.

But he broke his arm and missed the final seven games. Mostert probably isn’t built to withstand the life of an NFL running back. He weighs just 197 pounds, and he’s fragile. He has rushed only 41 times in his career.

The 49ers’ top two running backs also are small and fragile. Jerick McKinnon tore his ACL before the regular season began, and Matt Breida played through injuries most of the time and missed two games.

The 49ers probably will re-sign Mostert and invite him to training camp, but would be smart to make him compete for a job with a bigger, more durable running back who can punch the ball into the end zone from the goal line. McKinnon, Breida and Mostert all get knocked back. They don’t dent the defense.

Robbie Gould, 36, kicker: Gould may be the best, most consistent player on the 49ers, and their biggest scoring threat.

The past two seasons, Gould has scored 40.3 percent of the 49ers total points, and 61.4 percent of their points in the red zone. He is the bulk of their red-zone offense, which ranked 32nd out of 32 teams in touchdown-scoring percentage in 2018.

The 49ers can’t get rid of Gould. He is money. The Chicago Bears must regret letting him leave in free agency after the 2015 season. Their current kicker, Cody Parkey, missed a field goal in the wild-card round of the playoffs this month and cost the Bears their season. They may compete with the 49ers to sign Gould.

Bradley Pinion, 24, punter: As a punter, Pinion has disappointed.

In 2018, he ranked 24th in net punt average and 19th in punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. But good punters are difficult to find. Ask the Oakland Raiders, who spent a fifth-round pick last year on punter Johnny Townsend, who struggled worse than Pinion in 2018. Townsend ranked 29th in net punt average.

Replacing Pinion may not be easy.

He also kicks the kickoffs because Gould’s leg isn’t strong enough to reach the end zone consistently. So, if the 49ers let Pinion go, they have to find someone who can replace him as a punter and as a kickoff specialist.

Seems easier just to re-sign Pinion.

That’s it for the 49ers’ free agents. Below are three from other teams the 49ers may try to sign.

Bradley Roby, 27, cornerback: One pick after the 49ers drafted Ward in 2014, the Broncos took Bradley Roby, the cornerback the 49ers should have taken instead.

Now, the 49ers can atone for their mistake.

Roby is a talented, young corner who has intercepted seven passes and broken up 60 in five seasons. Good numbers.

He’s 5-foot-11, which makes him shorter than 49ers defense coordinator Robert Saleh might prefer. Most of his cornerbacks are 6-3. But last Tuesday, the 49ers hired a new passing game coordinator for the defense — Joe Woods — who likes mid-sized cornerbacks like Roby. Plus, Woods comes from the Broncos and has coached Roby since 2015.

Perhaps Woods could convince Roby to sign with the 49ers.

Adam Humphries, 25, slot receiver: The 49ers’ offense ranked just 17th in third-down-conversion percentage in 2018, largely because their third-down receiver, Trent Taylor, didn’t play well. He caught just eight third-down passes all season after catching a team-high 29 as a rookie in 2017.

Taylor had back surgery after his rookie season and didn’t regain his quickness. It may never return. Back injuries are serious.

Luckily for the 49ers, they can find a better slot receiver on the free-agent market. Adam Humphries had 816 receiving yards in 2018 as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ No. 3 receiver. None of the 49ers’ receivers had more than 487 yards through the air.

Humphries is a catching machine with hands like Velcro. And he can make big plays. He isn’t just a third-down possession receiver. He could be for Jimmy Garoppolo what Julian Edelman is for Tom Brady.

Tyrell Williams, 26, wide receiver: The 49ers also need an outside receiver, one who can replace Pierre Garcon in the starting lineup next season.

The 49ers may release Garcon. He’ll be 33 in August. In two seasons with the 49ers, he has missed 16 games and caught just one touchdown pass. His backup, Kendrick Bourne, outperformed him in 2018 and has a brighter future.

Tyrell Williams is better than every wide receiver the 49ers have. He’s 6-foot-4, runs a 4.43 40-yard dash and gained 653 receiving yards in 2018 as the fourth option in the Los Angeles Chargers’ passing game.

Williams would be a solid second option behind Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle, the focal point of the 49ers’ offense.

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