Which offseason free-agent departure will hurt 49ers the most?

San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Arik Armstead (91)
San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Arik Armstead (91) / Focus On Sport/GettyImages

The 49ers lost a handful of key players during the offseason, but two stand out as arguably the most critical of losses.

The San Francisco 49ers had to make a series of challenging decisions in order to keep the core of their squad together heading into 2024.

This included parting ways with a number of impact and role players who made substantial contributions to the Niners in one manner or another last season and before. And while San Francisco's net losses didn't include a massive exodus of its best talent, some players' departures are going to sting a bit more than others.

Which ones hurt the most, though?

Defensive tackle Arik Armstead

The biggest loss was defensive tackle Arik Armstead, whose stats don't justify the level of production and impact he had on the field.

As our friend Jose Sanchez pointed out over at Sports Illustrated, Armstead "was a force both against the run and pass." The 49ers' run defense took a major step backward when Armstead missed time because of a foot injury, one that prompted the Niners to ask him to take a pay cut.

Armstead refused, San Francisco released him and he inked a hefty deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars instead.

The 49ers hope to have mitigated his loss by signing defensive tackle Jordan Elliott, more of a run-stopping player, and then trading for defensive tackle Maliek Collins, more of an interior pass-rusher.

Armstead, when healthy, did both equally well. Plus, as Sanchez added, Armstead was a team captain and the longest-tenured member of the Niners up until his release.

That'll all sting.

Defensive end Clelin Ferrell

San Francisco lost a number of pass-rushers, too, including Randy Gregory, Chase Young and Clelin Ferrell.

While it doesn't seem as big a loss, Ferrell was arguably the most important of the bunch, starting all 17 regular-season games before an injury shut him down in the playoffs. And while he only recorded 3.5 sacks during his one-year 49ers tenure, he also was more than capable against the run, missing only one tackle during that same span.

As was the case with Armstead missing time, the Niners' run defense struggled in the postseason with Ferrell unavailable.

Like Collins replacing Armstead, San Francisco grabbed veteran edge Leonard Floyd to alleviate their free-agent pass-rushing losses, including Ferrell.

Unlike Ferrell, though, Floyd is not much of a run defender and will leave a void in that aspect of the defense's effectiveness.

Wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud

Special teams always gets overlooked until it becomes a problem, and the 49ers mostly negated that issue over the last two years when they had wide receiver and return specialist Ray-Ray McCloud on the roster.

When McCloud was out, the Niners entrusted then-rookie Ronnie Bell to handle duties in 2023. But his inconsistency and unsafe hands don't leave a lot of confidence in the thought of him performing those responsibilities moving forward.

With McCloud gone, San Francisco is back to having no credible return options on its roster. Sure, it could get creative by installing one of its star players in the return game, such as wide receiver Deebo Samuel or running back Christian McCaffrey, but that comes at the expense of increased injury risk.

Instead, the likelier scenario is for the 49ers to dish out more assets on a return specialist and hope that effort pans out.

Tight end Charlie Woerner

An under-the-radar free-agent loss, backup tight end Charlie Woerner won't convince many that he was vital to the Niners offense. After all, he caught just three passes for 32 yards last season while playing second fiddle to the All-Pro, George Kittle.

But San Francisco, a run-first team, still trusted Woerner to be on the field for nearly 30 percent of offensive snaps last season.

That's where his departure to the Atlanta Falcons will be felt.

Currently, the 49ers boast two other untested backups, Cameron Latu and Brayden Willis, while Jake Tonges is a roster hopeful. The fact the Niners tried (and failed) to sign Detroit Lions tight end Brock Wright suggests Woerner's loss was much more vital to the run game's success than it otherwise would appear to be.

Still, of all the names on the list, Armstead's loss probably will sting the most, and it'll create plenty of question marks between now and the start of the regular season.

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