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.