Early look at free agents, priorities

LAS VEGAS — The morning after the 49ers’ heartbreaking overtime loss to the Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII, they were the favorites to win next year’s Lombardi Trophy. Crestfallen 49ers fans reeling from the previous night’s loss almost surely stumbled to their nearest sportsbook to place a bet on the 2024 49ers. There’s always next year.

The 49ers have a built a sturdy foundation behind head coach Kyle Shanahan and 24-year-old quarterback Brock Purdy, who’s only going to get better. And while there might not be many pressing offseason questions for San Francisco, there should be urgency – the Super Bowl window is open now, with Purdy still on his rookie deal and a core of star players still under contract.

Here’s what’s on Shanahan and general manager John Lynch’s plate for this spring.

Key unrestricted free agents 

Chase Young, DE

Young’s stint in San Francisco was up-and-down, but the edge rusher has a high pedigree and losing him to free agency would cost the 49ers a lot of capital given that they traded a 2024 third-round pick for him at the deadline. Young had a strong performance in the Super Bowl, and pairing him with Nick Bosa on the defensive line could make the most sense for the 49ers long-term.

Sam Darnold, QB 

Although Purdy stayed healthy all season following his elbow surgery, the 49ers know how important having a competent backup quarterback on the roster can be. Will Darnold want a cleaner path to a starting job, or is he content with staying in San Francisco?

Tashaun Gipson Sr., S

The veteran safety will turn 34 next fall, but is still a productive player. With Talanoa Hufanga returning from injury, the Niners could be comfortable handing the safety position over to him and rookie Ji’Ayir Brown.

Javon Kinlaw, DT

The 26-year-old played in all 20 of San Francisco’s games this year, providing a stable option in the middle of the defensive line. His 3.5 sacks, six quarterback hits and four tackles for loss were all career-highs for the fourth-year pro.

Jauan Jennings, WR 

He would’ve been remembered forever as a Super Bowl hero if the 49ers pulled it off, but is instead at risk of having a legendary performance forgotten. Jennings is much more than one game: He is respected by his peers and trusted on third downs. He’ll likely draw interest on the open market, like former secondary option Kendrick Bourne did.

Other notable pending unrestricted free agents: Ray-Ray McCloud, Clelin Ferrell, Brandon Allen, Oren Burks, Ross Dwelley, Matt Pryor, Charlie Woerner.

Cap situation 

Lynch and the 49ers have been able to build and maintain a roster full of All-Stars with nifty cap maneuvering, restructuring contracts into the future. That bill always comes due, and might sneak up on San Francisco quickly.

For 2024, the 49ers’ top 10 salary cap players — Trent Williams, Deebo Samuel, Arik Armstead, Fred Warner, George Kittle, Charvarius Ward, Javon Hargrave, Nick Bosa, Christian McCaffrey and Aiyuk — are projected to have a combined cap hit of roughly $210 million. The salary cap is projected to land between $240 and $245 million, per Sports Illustrated. Without further restructuring or unloading a big salary via trade, filling out the rest of the roster will be impossible.

Lynch has navigated the salary cap deftly before and this year was always part of the plan, so the front office should have it under control. Lynch & Co. earned the benefit of the doubt at this point.

Draft or player acquisition needs

Given the cap limitations outlined above, the 49ers probably won’t be too aggressive on the trade front. But they do have 11 picks in the 2024 NFL Draft to play with — starting with No. 31.

Those picks include their own in the first three rounds, plus a compensatory pick in the third, the Cowboys’ pick in the fourth and two more compensatory selections in the fifth.

Given how Steve Spagnuolo’s defense loaded the box and ramped up the blitzes against Purdy in the Super Bowl, it would be wise for San Francisco to target offensive line help in the draft. Ambry Thomas at cornerback was a weak spot, so a cornerback wouldn’t be a bad idea, either. Depending on Jennings’ free agency and the franchise’s plans for Brandon Aiyuk, drafting a wide receiver could also play. Since drafting Aiyuk in the second round of the 2020 draft, the only wideout San Francisco has taken in the top six rounds was Danny Gray (3rd round, 2022).

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