49ers NFL free agency primer: Targets, timeline, returning players & everything you need to know

General Manager John Lynch of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Getty Images)
General Manager John Lynch of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Getty Images) /

The 49ers could see some notable names depart this year in NFL free agency, but there are plenty of likable targets out on the market, too.

The San Francisco 49ers are heading into a second consecutive offseason of just having missed the Super Bowl by one game, being eliminated in the NFC Championship game, this time by the Philadelphia Eagles as opposed to the Los Angeles Rams a year ago.

Last year, the Niners saw plenty of their notable contributors depart via NFL free agency, including nose tackle D.J. Jones, cornerback K’Waun Williams and running back Raheem Mostert.

Heading into 2023, there are likely going to be some other well-known names making their own respective departures from San Francisco.

Yet the 49ers stayed a Super-Bowl-caliber team, and that’ll be the expectation for general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan this offseason.

It’ll start with NFL free agency, which coincides with the beginning of the league’s new year this March.

So, with that as a backdrop, let’s educate you on all things NFL free agency for the Niners this offseason.

When does NFL free agency start?

Officially, San Francisco and the rest of the league will welcome in free agency on Wednesday, March 15 at 4 p.m. ET.

At that point, all contracts from 2022 expire, and those players unsigned in 2023 officially become free agents.

What’s the ‘legal tampering’ period?

Technically, it’s not tampering. The collective bargaining agreement allows teams the ability to negotiate with soon-to-be free agents beginning on Monday, March 13.

It’s why many free-agent deals are made immediately after the league new year begins, as they’ve been negotiated already.

How much salary-cap space do the 49ers have?

All teams have to have their top 51 contracts underneath the salary cap by that 4 p.m. ET deadline on March 15.

The 2023 salary cap is projected to be $224.8 million, according to NFL insiders and as shared by Over the Cap.

Meanwhile, the 49ers are currently listed by OTC as being an estimated $8.4 million underneath the salary cap, which is roughly in the middle of the pack when ranked against other teams. The Chicago Bears have the most cap space at $90.9 million, while the New Orleans Saints are in the red at $60.4 million over the cap.

It’s important to note these numbers are very fluid and will change regularly amid new deals, cuts and renegotiated contracts.

Who are the 49ers players hitting NFL free agency?

The Niners have some pretty notable names hitting the free-agent market, including veteran quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who seems highly unlikely to return with San Francisco looking to promote younger signal-callers like Trey Lance and Brock Purdy.

Garoppolo headlines the group of unrestricted free agents poised to hit the open market.

49ers unrestricted free agents

  • QB Jimmy Garoppolo
  • DB Jimmie Ward
  • EDGE Samson Ebukam
  • CB Emmanuel Moseley
  • OT Mike McGlinchey
  • LB Azeez Al-Shaair
  • K Robbie Gould
  • OL Daniel Brunskill
  • DT Hassan Ridgeway
  • DE Kerry Hyder
  • TE Tyler Kroft
  • DT Maurice Hurst
  • DB Tashaun Gipson
  • QB Josh Johnson
  • DE Jordan Willis
  • LS Taybor Pepper
  • TE Ross Dwelley
  • C Jake Brendel
  • CB Jason Verrett
  • DB Tarvarius Moore
  • DE Charles Omenihu

Unless they’ve been hit with a franchise or transition tag, unrestricted free agents can sign with any team as soon as the league’s new year begins.

49ers restricted free agents

  • LB Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles
  • DT Kevin Givens
  • OL Colton McKivitz

Teams have a bit more control over restricted free agents (RFAs), and the 49ers could apply a first-, second- or original-round tender for any or all of their RFAs. Each of those carries a fixed cost, though, and the team offering the tender will have to pay that amount unless other team wants to sign away the RFA while offering a corresponding NFL Draft pick for that round.

It’s why RFA transactions between teams are rare.

49ers exclusive-rights free agents

  • WR Jauan Jennings

Exclusive-rights free agents (ERFAs) technically aren’t free agents at all, and these players can only negotiate with the team holding their rights.

Which pending 49ers free agents will return to San Francisco?

Jennings, the ERFA, is all but guaranteed to return. Not only will he be retained on the cheap, but he also has proven to be a valuable third-down weapon and a willing blocker over the last two years.

Moseley, who suffered a torn ACL midway through last season, is also a re-sign target.

Gipson, who took over the starting free safety job from Jimmie Ward last season, has also expressed a desire to return to the Bay Area if he ops to not retire.

Which free agents should the 49ers target?

The Niners could potentially afford one or two big-name free agents, but they also have to earmark a substantial amount of cash for All-Pro pass-rusher Nick Bosa, who is poised to be the highest-paid non-quarterback in the league this offseason.

However, upgrading at right tackle might be a wise move, especially with McGlinchey poised to hit the open market.

Current Atlanta Falcons tackle Kaleb McGary is one name worth considering.

Bosa, meanwhile, led the league with 19.5 sacks, but no one else on San Francisco’s roster had more than five. With the 2023 NFL Draft a little thin on quality pass-rushers, it wouldn’t hurt the 49ers to try and find someone who can serve as a quality No. 2 option behind Bosa, especially with Ebukam also entering the free-agent market.

The Niners have had success with reclamation projects before, such as defensive ends Kerry Hyder and Arden Key, so perhaps going after someone like Current Las Vegas Raiders EDGE Clelin Ferrell on the cheap would help matters a lot.

Safety, cornerback and some wide receiver depth would be wise, too.

As with anything else regarding the red and gold, be sure to stay tuned to Niner Noise for all of San Francisco’s NFL free agency news and analysis.

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