The Seattle Seahawks are playing the San Francisco 49ers for the second time in three weeks this Sunday. Since we just did a Q and A with David Fucillo before the last matchup, it was important to focus on something different this time around. So I asked David about the future of the 49ers beyond this season and what the plan is for 2019, knowing that San Francisco is playing for the future at this point.
And no, I didn’t ask him if he knew who Michael Dickson is.
I sent him five Qs and in kind he sent me five corresponding As.
Q: What coaching changes do you expect on the 49ers during or after the season? Would you expect them to make dramatic changes in philosophy, or if they fire Robert Saleh, would they likely try to replace him with someone similar, like Kris Richard?
A: Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has been the guy many fans point to in anger. It is easy to pin any offensive struggles on the losses of Jimmy Garoppolo and Jerick McKinnon, but even without them, Kyle Shanahan has been able to keep things chugging along to a certain extent. But the defensive side of the ball has struggled to get going with any consistency. There have been some injuries, and of course the release of Reuben Foster, but regression for some players and lack of development for other players has been a problem.
All that being said, I don’t see Saleh getting fired. The 49ers are looking at a top five pick, with a real shot at the No. 1 overall pick. More on this next, but if they draft an edge rusher like Nick Bosa, Clelin Ferrell or Josh Allen, or add a cornerback like Greedy Williams, they will have the kind of playmaker that has been missing for much of the defense. DeForest Buckner is a beast and Richard Sherman has bounced back well from his torn Achilles, but the team did not address the pass rush in particular. If they add an edge rusher and then struggled again next year, I could see Saleh getting canned. But for now, he’s not going anywhere.
The one potential change is quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello. NFL Network reporter Tom Pelissero tweeted that Scangarello is on the radar for OC positions this offseason. With position coaches, it’s never easy figuring out what the specifics of their job include. Scangarello likely is involved in game-planning, but Kyle Shanahan is the main play-caller on offense. That being said, Scangarello is in his second year, which means he’s been working with Nick Mullens since the 49ers signed him as a UDFA last year. Mullens has plenty of flaws, but he’s done solid work through five starts, and that reflects well on Scangarello. I’m not sure who Shanahan would have in mind as a quarterbacks coach, but I could see him looking for a quarterback he’s worked with in the past that is looking to get into coaching.
Q: Is there any chance the 49ers don’t draft a defensive lineman with their first pick? If so, who would you be looking at instead?
A: The 49ers currently hold the #1 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, but plenty can change between them, the Cardinals, and the Raiders. If the 49ers end up picking first, Ohio State edge rusher Nick Bosa is the guy most expect the 49ers to take. Even with the top pick, the 49ers would likely give Clemson edge rusher Clelin Ferrell and Kentucky edge rusher Josh Allen a look in the pre-draft process, but I would be surprised if it was anybody but Bosa at No. 1. The other option is a trade down with a QB needy team, but that would have to be a huge package of picks.
If the 49ers end up picking second or third and Bosa is off the board, things get a little more interesting. Ferrell and Allen might be on their radar, but they also would probably give LSU cornerback Greedy Williams and Alabama safety Deionte Thompson a look. Some have suggested finding a big receiving playmaker, but with some of the big time defensive talent in this year’s draft, I would be surprised if they went with the offensive side of the ball. But again, a trade is also a very real possibility if the right offer comes along.
Q: The 49ers are going to have no problem with cap space, so what positions would you think they’d be spending at in March? Do you have two or three FA targets already in discussion?
A: The 49ers need edge rusher help, but even if they have a shot at Nick Bosa, it would not surprise me to see them add additional depth in free agency. Dee Ford and Trey Flowers are two options that are likely to hit the open market. DeMarcus Lawrence and and Jadeveon Clowney seem unlikely to hit the market, and my guess is Frank Clark would be the same. But edge rusher is an area of need and I have to think it’ll prove costly this offseason.
I’ve seen quite a few people suggest the team take a run at Earl Thomas this offseason. The team has quite a few young safeties, but they have yet to find a clear answer at free safety. 2017 seventh round pick Adrian Colbert emerged as a very solid starter last season. In 2018, he got off to an inconsistent start, and then went on IR. He’s the front-runner there, but will compete with D.J. Reed and Antone Exum. I’d prefer to stay young for the most part, but if the 49ers want to push Colbert and think they’re close enough to playoff contention next year, adding a veteran like Thomas to pair with strong safety Jaquiski Tartt or Marcell Harris, then maybe they make the move. Of course, maybe they also make plays for a Tyrann Mathieu or Lamarcus Joyner. They’ve got the money to make a splash.
One other position that will be something to watch either in free agency or the draft is tight end. George Kittle is emerging as one of the two or three best tight ends in the league, but John Lynch has said the team would like to add a complementary piece. They could go for receiver help, but with some solid development among the youngsters there, I could see the team making a bit of a splash there. The free agent market is sorta meh, but that’s a position to watch for the 49ers.
Q: San Francisco fired Jim Harbaugh and kept Trent Baalke. They went with Jim Tomsula, then went with Chip Kelly. They kept Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith. They drafted certain players over other players who turned out better? Other than that last one being ambiguous (maybe you have a specific thing in mind there), what would you say is the one move over the last four years that really was the most damaging in seeing the Niners go from contenders to a losing football team?
A: Isn’t that the $10,000 question! I’ll skip over draft decisions because that’s a game that can go on forever and ever, and features too many hypotheticals to come up with a single firm answer.
I can’t point to the one exact action, other than to say Jed York’s lack of leadership in dealing with the decaying relationship between Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke. Regardless of which side one falls on, the relationship between Harbaugh and Baalke collapsed over the course of the four years they worked together, and that collapse directly led to the ensuing disaster before Jed York hired Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch.
Jim Harbaugh rubs people the wrong way, and I imagine it can get tiresome for most anybody. On the other side, Trent Baalke never came across as a people person. He was a grinder who would rather just be out scouting than dealing with some of the more delicate aspects of being a people manager. Mind you, this is a lot of speculation because even with all the leaks from the organization during the 2013 and 2014 offseasons and regular seasons, there was a lot of confusion as to what was going on.
I think Jim Harbaugh is a great football coach, but given how badly his relationship soured with Trent Baalke, I’m not surprised he was gone after 2014. Jed York and Trent Baalke’s plan after that is open to plenty of interpretation. It seems like Adam Gase was close to becoming the head coach before Jim Tomsula got the job. Gase has been complimentary of the 49ers in how it all played out, but given how many people assumed Tomsula would end up with the job, it did not reflect well. Tomsula is one of the best position coaches in the NFL, but he was a disaster as a head coach. He was there because he got along with Baalke.
The 49ers quickly realized Tomsula was in over his head, and so they fired him and brought in Chip Kelly. While I think Kelly could have succeeded in his second stint as head coach, it was not a good idea to come back so quickly to this 49ers job. The organization was circling the drain and it was effectively a shotgun marriage between Kelly and Baalke. Things continued south and Jed York finally dumped Baalke.
I don’t know what might have happened with a different approach in 2014, but how Jed York handled the Baalke-Harbaugh relationship over the course of 2013 and 2014 is exactly why things went south. It would appear he learned from that in the hiring of Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch. The relationship seems to be as healthy as you’ll find between coach and GM. Whether they find success on the field is another question entirely, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Q: Any chance they make a big move in the offseason in terms of getting rid of someone or adding someone, such as trading Solomon Thomas, adding a high profile QB, or firing Kyle Shanahan or John Lynch? Second tier moves might be releasing Richard Sherman or Arik Armstead, or Joe Staley retiring.
A: Other than potentially adding a big name edge rusher, I just don’t see anything of significance happening. I don’t expect the team to re-sign defensive back Jimmie Ward, but that’s on the lower tier of potential moves. Joe Staley very well could decide his body has had enough. He was thinking about retirement in 2017, but apparently had a good talk with Kyle Shanahan and got a few extra bucks in a contract restructuring. I don’t see him retiring yet.
The most likely “big moves” would be releasing one or more of a group of veterans that includes wide receiver Pierre Garçon, linebacker Malcolm Smith, and defensive tackle Earl Mitchell. I don’t see Richard Sherman going anywhere. An unexpected trade is always possible, but I don’t see something that I can point to as a very real possibility. This is a team making steady progress. They’ve got cap space and a high draft pick to make a splash, but with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jerick McKinnon returning next year, they don’t need to get too crazy this offseason.