Why 49ers’ NFL free agency strategy in 2023 will be successful

Javon Hargrave #97 of the Philadelphia Eagles (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Javon Hargrave #97 of the Philadelphia Eagles (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

The 49ers have lost considerable depth this NFL free agency, yet their work so far should be considered quite successful. Here’s why.

The San Francisco 49ers struck early in NFL free agency with their splash signing of former Eagles defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, but as time went by, there were far more departures than additions. They lost their formerly longest tenured player in safety Jimmie Ward, two of their top three defensive ends in Samson Ebukam and Charles Omenihu, former starting corner Emmanuel Moseley, and plenty others.

The story of the offseason, in many ways, has been a question about how San Francisco will survive the raiding of their depth.

Yet the Niners’ moves and non-moves in free agency should be viewed as a rousing success, in part because it is representative of a sound process that’ll allow San Francisco to remain competitive throughout its window.

How the 49ers get NFL free agency right

The relative pitfall of free agency in the NFL is how most “star” players will never reach the true open market. With the franchise tag and the relative incentives to re-sign a player, teams keep the A-level talent at home.

That usually means the players who are available to sign get over-paid due to the chance to grab players on the market and the natural bidding process.

That doesn’t mean, though, that real difference-makers can’t be found through free agency. Players like Charvarius “Mooney” Ward, who elevated the 49ers secondary, received high-end contracts and delivered high-end play.

The Niners under Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have seemingly operated under a very simple premise: give premium players premium contracts. The 49ers have arguably a top-three defensive end, linebacker, tight end, left tackle, and running back, not to mention a star wide receiver. And for each player, they’ve given a contract that matches that level when the time comes, regardless of positional value.

It happens that players like George Kittle and Fred Warner give enough surplus value that they can transcend the very idea of positional value.

A player like Hargrave fits that bill: an elite interior rusher who can be mentioned, for his pass-rushing prowess, among the likes of Aaron Donald and Chris Jones. The irony of his contract, as pointed out by DeForest Buckner, is that the one time the 49ers attempted to circumvent paying premium players premium prices, they traded away Buckner and have never been able to recover that interior presence.

Nevertheless, Hargrave’s signing was widely received by many pundits as being the move of free agency, as per ESPN (h/t 49ers Webzone)

The way the Niners construct a viable roster after paying for so many high end players is by allowing for other players, such as Ebukam or Omenihu, to leave in free agency to modest, but still-lucrative, deals. While Omenihu certainly played up to earn his new two-year $20 million contract with the Chiefs, he’s not the level of player  the 49ers can afford to keep on that kind of deal.

This type of prudent decision-making at the middle part of the roster allows San Francisco to avoid the major pitfall of overpaying in NFL free agency.

How 49ers’ process can go wrong

The 49ers’ roster-building plan does have its flaws, though. Football, as a game of sheer violence and attrition, relies upon depth more than any other sport. Not having a plethora of talented options in the wings at multiple positions can be the end of a team.

The quarterback conundrums the Niners have faced over the last few years an extreme example of the very issue.

This process also becomes a question of relative value for the 49ers, one that they may not always get right. Jimmie Ward received only $13 million over 2 years from the Texans despite being one of the best safeties in the NFL, and the Niners determined, given the amount of money they were spending on Hargrave, that they would not make the same offer. There are obviously multiple factors that go into this — Ward’s insistence at playing safety probably played a bigger role than anything else — but the basic roster questions still exist.

How 49ers manage to solve their own problem

The Niners get around the depth question in two shrewd ways.

Firstly, they target high-upside players in free agency that could be unlocked by the team. This is especially seen with their targets on the defensive line, hoping that defensive line coach Kris Korucek can make these players the best versions of themselves. A signing like Clelin Ferrell is a low-risk play for replacing some of the production.

The other strategy is to build through the draft.

With 11 picks in the draft although mostly in the later rounds, the 49ers will have the chance to rebuild their roster depth. It’s this type of churning that’ll allow them, given even a decent draft rate, to keep a perennial contender with so many high-level players on high-level contracts.

Next. 49ers fix free-agent losses in this 7-round mock NFL Draft. dark