The 49ers didn’t welcome aboard too many new faces in NFL free agency, but some of their transactions definitely put other players on notice entering 2023.
The San Francisco 49ers only added four net-new players in the opening wave of NFL free agency:
- DT Javon Hargrave
- EDGE Clelin Ferrell
- CB Isaiah Oliver
- QB Sam Darnold
True, there were a number of others who re-signed or were extended. But, for the most part, the Niners watched more starting-caliber players depart as opposed to welcoming in new faces who could assume first-string roles.
All said, the nature of competition is going to be pretty lively between now and Week 1 of the regular season, and it’s not hard to look at San Francisco’s transactions over the last few weeks without thinking about how they’ll impact other players on the roster.
Especially those who have been put “on notice” by some of the 49ers’ moves.
These four, in particular, have to be under a pretty decent-sized microscope after what the Niners did in NFL free agency.
49ers QB Trey Lance
He was supposed to be QB1 last year, but a broken ankle put an end to Trey Lance starting his own era in the Bay Area for at least another season.
Lance still has the edge over 2022 rookie phenom Brock Purdy, who is working his way back from offseason elbow injury and might not be ready by the time the regular season begins.
However, the addition of Darnold suggests that head coach Kyle Shanahan isn’t wholly committed to Lance being “the guy” without challenge or question. Sure, competition is good, but giving $3.5 million guaranteed to Darnold doesn’t indicate QB3 money behind Lance and Purdy.
Of the three, Lance has the least NFL-level experience and the most question marks entering 2023.
49ers CB Ambry Thomas
Late in 2021, then-rookie cornerback Ambry Thomas looked as if he’d be a strong candidate to start on the boundary for San Francisco. In the wake of losing nickel cornerback K’Waun Williams during the 2022 offseason, Thomas could also be a possibility to play inside.
Neither happened, though, and Thomas was relegated to an afterthought, seeing a mere 41 defensive snaps over the course of the regular season.
Fellow 2021 rookie Deommodore Lenoir assumed a bigger role as a boundary cornerback over the second half of 2022, and with the addition of Oliver to the defensive backfield, it doesn’t appear as if Thomas will have much of a role outside of being buried deep on the depth chart.
It has to be frustrating for the former third-round draft pick.
49ers OL Nick Zakelj
While nowhere near as severe as Thomas, and certainly not as high-profile as Lance, second-year offensive lineman Nick Zakelj can’t be overly thrilled with what the 49ers did in NFL free agency.
Sure, they let right tackle Mike McGlinchey walk, but it already appears as if Colton McKivitz will now be inserted into McGlinchey’s vacancy.
Zakelj, a day-three pick in the 2022 draft out of Fordham, was seemingly being groomed to take over a starting center job in case another veteran, Jake Brendel, opted to sign elsewhere.
Brendel didn’t, though, and it appears as if all five spots on the Niners’ offensive line are locked down in this order:
- LT Trent Williams
- LG Aaron Banks
- C Jake Brendel
- RG Spener Burford
- RT Colton McKivitz
It appears as if Zakelj is again relegated to backup duties, and San Francisco might seek to upgrade over him anyway.
49ers DT Javon Kinlaw
The 49ers’ biggest signing of NFL free agency, Hargrave, was an open indictment against fellow defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw.
Hargrave’s massive four-year deal immediately pens him in as a starter alongside another defensive tackle who’ll make big money in 2023, Arik Armstead.
Where does that leave Kinlaw?
Kinlaw has been disappointing since the Niners drafted him at No. 14 overall back in 2020. Largely hindered by knee issues, Kinlaw hasn’t seen the field adequately enough, and the overall production has netted a mere 1.5 sacks during his three years thus far.
It’s a solid guess that San Francisco won’t pick up Kinlaw’s fifth-year option, and year four of his rookie contract is still substantial enough.
But the 49ers have already made their claim that Kinlaw won’t be in their long-term plans.
Now, his NFL future is at stake.