Want to win the offseason? 49ers must find difference-making talent

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- While the San Francisco 49ers and general manager John Lynch are keeping their phone lines open and would be happy to land another franchise cornerstone, like quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, at next week's trade deadline, chances are, such a deal won't fall in their laps two years in a row.

At 1-6, the 49ers have nine games to play this season and, as coach Kyle Shanahan is quick to remind, they will do what they can to try to find more wins. But Shanahan and the Niners are also committed to taking the long view.

"Our record right now doesn't impact the big picture to me," Shanahan said. "It's tough to deal with, it's frustrating. We're all working extremely hard and want much better results. But, just because the record doesn't show that isn't going to make you doubt yourself and go rip up your plans and do something totally new. We knew when we came here it was going to take some time and we want that to be as fast as possible, there's no doubt about that. But, you also don't want to make stupid decisions because of that.

"We're trying to be smart in everything we do. We're not trying to just do this a quick, easy fix way. We're trying to build this thing to last and to do that, it does take some time."

In the second year of a massive rebuild, everything became more difficult to judge once Garoppolo suffered a season-ending knee injury. His absence has also helped reveal the roster's biggest warts.

With that in mind, let's take an early glance at what the Niners' 2019 offseason blueprint should look like.

    • Since Shanahan and Lynch took over, the 49ers are 7-16. Exactly half of those losses have been decided by one possession and the Niners have won three games decided by eight points or fewer. When a big touchdown, interception, forced fumble or sack is needed, the Niners are rarely the team coming up with it. All of which is to say the Niners' greatest need is more blue-chip, difference-making talents, preferably at a handful of positions we'll get to in a moment. Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner looks like the only healthy player who currently fits this description and the hope is Garoppolo can become that when he returns to full strength. Tight end George Kittle is also on his way to that status but, like Garoppolo, needs a bigger sample size before he can be added to that group. Aside from that, the roster has some solid players but none who cause opposing coordinators to lose sleep at night. Other young pieces could develop into that, but that remains to be seen.

    • Ideally, the Niners will be able to find top-tier talent at positions that can significantly alter the game. As of now, the Niners have no bigger positional need than edge rusher. San Francisco attempted to trade for Khalil Mack, but Oakland opted for Chicago's pitch over a similar haul from San Francisco. Heading into 2019, the 49ers would be wise to add multiple players capable of pressuring the quarterback from the outside. The Niners haven't had a defender post more than 6.5 sacks since 2013 or reach double digits since 2012. The bad news is elite edge rushers almost never come available in free agency. The good news is this year's draft looks like it could be brimming with talent, with Ohio State's Nick Bosa, Florida State's Brian Burns, Clemson's Clelin Ferrell and Mississippi State's Montez Sweat among the names drawing early first-round buzz. Obviously, landing the best of that bunch would be the best-case scenario for the 49ers, but even if they don't have a top-three pick, there should be capable players available a little later. Drafting a dynamic "Leo" defensive end and signing a solid Sam linebacker who could provide some pass-rush pop would be a step in the right direction and offer the bonus of allowing Buckner more freedom to do damage.

  • One of the Niners' most important players over the final part of the season is rookie wideout Dante Pettis. A second-round pick this year, Pettis could brighten the team's future at a position that currently looks a bit murky long-term. Through seven weeks, Niners receivers rank 29th in yards (798) and receptions (64). Marquise Goodwin is the team's most dangerous receiver, but injury issues have slowed him this season and in the past. Veteran Pierre Garcon is not the impact player he once was and his future with the team beyond this season is up for debate as he's due to count $8.4 million against the cap in 2019. If Pettis can return from his knee injury and prove capable of being a starter moving forward, it could alleviate a lot of concerns moving forward. Regardless, the 49ers will need to add at this position. The list of potential free agents is uninspiring, which means a good solution would be using another fairly early draft pick as well as signing an undervalued player with upside like Goodwin was two years ago.

  • Over the past season and a half, the 49ers have 11 interceptions and 59 pass breakups, which ranks 31st and 29th in the NFL during that time. Just five of those interceptions and 25 of those pass breakups have come courtesy of a cornerback. The Niners have invested in the position either with valuable draft picks such as a third-rounder for Ahkello Witherspoon or in free agency with Richard Sherman. Sherman has been a strong addition when healthy, but Witherspoon has struggled after a promising rookie season. Undoubtedly, the 49ers are going to need help here as Jimmie Ward heads toward free agency. The level of need will depend on if Witherspoon can get back on track over the final part of the season. But, much like with edge rusher, both a solid addition on the open market and spending a relatively high draft pick on a corner would create needed competition and depth.