In the Building Blocks series, writers from Inside the Pylon will discuss the current roster of those teams on the outside looking in of playoff contention in 2017. In a roundtable format, the writers will talk about what players currently look like keepers for the long term, with the potential for being key contributors to the next successful run for the team. To provide some quantifiable structure, we will treat it like an expansion draft model where 10 players can be protected. These pieces are meant to deliver hope to those who have none left for 2017. The NFL is a league filled with parity and any team’s fortune can turn with a little luck and the right building blocks in place.
Previous Building Block pieces: Cleveland Browns
49ers Front Office: Andrew Jordan, Derek Benson, Jeff Feyerer, Dan Hatman
Jeff Feyerer: The 49ers are sitting at 1-10, and to say we expected things to go this way would be incredibly bland, simple and missing the whole point. Head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch were signed to six-year contracts for one reason: Ownership wants to give them the time to build it right.
Unlike the Browns “Building Blocks” piece, there is some disagreement within the “mock” 49ers organization here at Inside the Pylon as to who the ten players are that we would hang on to.
Agreed Upon Nine (in alphabetical order): DL Arik Armstead, OT Trent Brown, DL DeForest Buckner, LB Reuben Foster, QB Jimmy Garoppolo, RB Carlos Hyde, TE George Kittle, DL Solomon Thomas, CB Ahkello Witherspoon
As we were constructing our lists of ten building block players for the 49ers, a major trade went down that moved a new player directly to #1. So let’s start there:
QB Jimmy Garoppolo
Jeff Feyerer: Everyone knew that future of the San Francisco 49ers at the quarterback position wasn’t on the roster two weeks ago. Despite C.J. Beathard operating admirably for a player with limitations and a relatively patchwork supporting cast, he probably is nothing more than a development roll-of-the-dice at this point. Once the price for Garoppolo went down to a 2nd round pick, it gave the 49ers the chance to snag a player that’s been waiting for this opportunity for a long time and has already shown signs he could be a terrific player.
By including him in my ten, setting aside the fact there is a certain weight we must give to retaining a quarterback in this exercise, I clearly think he has the potential to be the 49ers quarterback for years to come. Do you guys have the same high hopes and what are some reservations, if any, you have?
Andrew: The price tag for Garoppolo relieves some of my reservations about this move. There’s a lot of talk about how the Kyle Shanahan offense is verbiage heavy and I actually think getting him mid season helps in this case. The 49ers can treat the end of 2017 as a sort of demo to see up close how Jimmy runs his offense, and how quickly he can pick up new elements. While he will not have the longest leash, I think he will get a pass for any performance above abysmal in 2017 while the offense will likely still be labeled as, “in flux.” A second round pick got Kyle Shanahan (ideally) a quarterback who will have an extra half of a season to pick up his playbook than a 2018 rookie would have, plus a year to settle into things, and then a year to show us he can put it all together.
Derek: I think the trade for Garoppolo is simply an experiment. He might not be the guy in the long term, although one could ask why did San Francisco trade a 2018 second-round pick to get him? It might just be talk, but he could get hit with the franchise tag and be traded to another team and the 49ers could get more than what they traded to get him. That’s my only doubt that I have. Although a small sample, we’ve seen what he is capable of.
Dan Hatman: It seems like everyone is stating that this move keeps SF alive in terms of adding another QB, which I’m always a fan of. Do you feel that Garappolo has to take the field and produce in order to keep him as a building block?
Jeff: I don’t. I believe, based on his pedigree, the small sample we’ve seen on the field, and the relative low cost to obtain him, he is the best bet moving forward at quarterback, independent of his production this season.
Derek: No. Right now he is the best option they have at quarterback. He’ll probably get at most, assuming he plays the rest of the games this season, five full games under his belt which could play into San Francisco’s favor in how much money they could give Garoppolo this offseason.
Andrew: As long as he does not look lost out there, Garoppolo will remain a building block. So much will have to happen behind the scenes for him to take the field effectively. Running an offense off of a handful of weeks of study is not ideal and killing his confidence by throwing him into the fire too soon will have been a waste of a second round pick and potential franchise quarterback. He won’t have to produce but he will have to lead.
DL Solomon Thomas, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead
Jeff Feyerer: You’d be hard pressed to find another NFL team with as much developmental upside on their defensive line as the 49ers have. None of the three have reached the age of 24 yet (Armstead will in November, Thomas turns 22 in December) and all look the part with tremendous length and strength.
Buckner was my #1 player on the board in the 2016 NFL Draft. I loved his athleticism, pass rush potential, strength and ultimately the flexibility to play in both a 3-4 and a 4-3. He’s starting to show that promise in his second season. Thomas has had hiccups in his first season and he’s still refining his pass rush moves, but he has flashed enough to make one believe he’s going to live up to the #3 pick potential. Armstead, who’s out for the season with a broken hand, was the rawest of the three coming out of college and has yet to put it all together, but what he brings to the table along with the dearth of talent at other spots on the roster, made it all the more enticing to keep him in my group of 10.
Were you guys close to leaving any of these guys off the board and what ultimately sold it for you?
Derek: I couldn’t think of a scenario for any of these defensive lineman to be off my list. Buckner is a big body on the inside and will command double teams. Also how they align him with Thomas or Armstead on the same side of the defensive line could pose a problem, giving them one-on-one opportunities to compress the pocket and get to the quarterback. Frankly, I think all three do a good job in the run game, showing ability to control their gap using their strength and length, pushing their man into the backfield. Often, they like to use Solomon to attack the inside by either lining him up already on the inside or have him coming through on a stunt. He’s been used to drop back into a zone, I would think to take advantage of his athleticism. Him and Armstead have shown pretty good effort / pursuit to the ball carrier to finish the play. I’ve seen Armstead have some success with his club move while rushing the passer.
Andrew: I too was a massive fan of Buckner coming out of college, and I believe the versatility, coupled with his talent that makes him the most valuable of the three defensive linemen we’ve included here. His run stopping as a 3-4 end in college was always impressive and that translated to the pro game where he’s also made great strides as a pass rusher. The issue with Thomas just seems to be getting everything to click at the same time. The game against Houston was a great sign for his future. I think his ultimate position with the 49ers is as their LEO but the ability to move him to the interior on occasion will help the team take advantage of any weaknesses on an opposing offensive line. Armstead was the second to last defensive player I added to my list but the current strategy the organization has employed gives me hope that they will take time to develop him and exercise their 5th year option for 2019. He still lacks a second pass rush move, but if they can coach him up and elevate him to a top tier run stopper, Armstead could stay on a list like this when it is time to negotiate a new deal.
Dan Hatman: I agree that all 3 have the tools to be building blocks moving forward. The question will be resource allocation. All 3 were taken with premium picks and even though they will complete their contracts in different years, I am hard pressed to see where all 3 can be locked up to expensive long term deals as other positions will need capital as well. Thoughts?
Jeff: A great point Dan and a topic I love discussing. Given the parameters of this experiment, I don’t see the value in keeping any of the other players the 49ers currently have as a substitution for one this group. If they dedicate an ample amount of long-term resources to this position, which they would have to do to keep all three given the current trajectory of their careers, they have to make sacrifices elsewhere and lean in to the idea that their defense will be built around the defensive line. Thus, they would need to structure their defensive game plan knowing they will be playing primarily with low-cost or young options in the back seven. But I think because they don’t have to make the decision right now, it is a risk worth taking to keep all three and assess the situation over the next two seasons.
Derek: I am estimating that Armstead will command the least amount of money given his injury situation. That statement is not saying much but if given a new contract, it could be structured in a way where it can benefit the team (doesn’t always work like that, though). He has a club option in 2019, which is beneficial, giving the team another year to evaluate him and determine his future in San Francisco.
Andrew: I agree that Armstead will be the lowest earner of the three. However, that and the order in which these contracts will expire will probably lead to all three getting second deals. Armstead will get it because you’ll have to keep all the talent you can as the rebuild begins to take shape and if Buckner and Thomas produce like we suspect they will, there would be no excuse for letting them walk.
LB Reuben Foster
Jeff Feyerer: One day soon, when Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have brought the 49ers organization back atop the NFL landscape, they will sit back and laugh how Foster dropped to them at the end of the 1st round. This guy was my #7 player overall in the 2017 draft class and is one of the best inside linebackers I’ve ever scouted. The instincts, athleticism, physicality and already developed linebacker skills made him a plug and play from day one. The early season injuries aren’t a concern for me because they don’t need him right now. They need to get him healthy. He had a terrific showing against Arizona and I expect Foster to be the face of this defense. Behind Garoppolo, this was the easiest selection for me. Do his injuries concern either of you in the long term?
Derek: To me, I feel there is a slight concern with his injuries. He was passed up by quite a bit of teams in the draft due to his injury history. He has dealt with ‘stingers’ in college due to his tackling (and had surgery on his shoulder before the NFL Combine) despite playing all of his games his junior and senior years, and so far the ankle injury that he is dealt with this season has kept him out for six games. You are right, that they don’t need Foster this season. I would actually just shut him down and move on to 2018, or if at all to use him sparingly this year.
Andrew: Long term, the injuries don’t worry me but the training staff will be working overtime with him to come up with any additional preventative measures they can take. He has looked the part in a short time, especially in regards to his speed and decisiveness. Getting coaches to work further with him on his tackling technique will be key because they have to protect his shoulder while keeping him the same player. The hits he delivers give him a mental edge on the competition so they have to fix the technique without affecting the style. I think he should play out the season to grow as comfortable in his role as possible. He has the chance to make this defense something special in a short amount of time.
OT Trent Brown
Jeff Feyerer: I had to take one offensive lineman so it helps that the best option is also the youngest with the most upside. Falling to the seventh round in 2015, the 49ers found themselves a good one in Brown. At 6’8’’ and 355 pounds, Brown is not only huge, but he’s starting to use his size effectively.
Were there any other lineman either of you considered or was Brown the easy choice?
Derek: I thought Brown was an easy choice. He played pretty well at the left tackle position in the Arizona game in Week 9. However, I also considered including guard Laken Tomlinson in the list. Tomlinson anchors pretty well and shows good athleticism to get to and fit on second level blocks, from what I’ve seen. I ultimately left him out, however, due to the talent on the defensive side of the ball.
Andrew: Brown was the only choice on the offensive line for me. He has been a solid fill in at LT with Staley out, and to get the type of money he wants, that’s where he is going to have to end up. If something long term cannot be worked out, the 49ers can franchise him this offseason. I think he might have a positional top 10 type of ceiling that could be reached in another year or so. Every offensive line needs a leader and Brown can be that guy for this group that will certainly see some new faces over the next couple of years.
Dan Hatman: Is this a case of the evaluators really liking Brown, or feeling forced to pick the best of the group? The surplus value Brown has provided thus far on his rookie contract has been great. Do you guys feel this is a $8M/year type performer moving forward?
Andrew: I believe there would be multiple suitors were Brown to hit the open market and that is enough reason to keep him. He likely gets franchised while the team takes 2018 to figure that out. If he can be an asset in keeping their new QB upright I think they will not have any other choice but to pay him something close to that figure.
Derek: As a seventh round pick, Brown’s performance the past year is a major bang-for-your-buck. He’ll be an UFA in 2019 which gives the team, at least for another year, a solid piece in the offensive line with that contract. I believe he is someone you must have to help protect your quarterback. Even Von Miller gave praise to him this past August. I’ve heard good things about him last year as a player to watch. I would feel comfortable paying him that amount.
TE George Kittle
Jeff Feyerer: It’s funny seeing Kittle’s name here, not because he’s not deserving, but if we were to pick out 49ers “Building Blocks” immediately after the draft, he likely wouldn’t have been in the Top 20. Kittle has exhibited already the tremendous potential he showed at Iowa. Unfortunately, due to the structure of the Iowa offense, he didn’t see as many passes as his talent should warrant. He’s a tremendous blend of blocker and pass catcher and ultimately gives the 49ers the offensive flexibility at the position to play him in-line or flexed out.
Derek: I felt that when they traded Vance McDonald to Pittsburgh in late August, it was a sign that the team had trust in Kittle (not only to get rid of McDonald’s contract), and he has been showing it on the field with different uses in pass protection and run blocking, as well as his ability to stretch the field vertically and horizontally. He could be a security blanket for their starting quarterback soon.
Andrew: In a draft that saw the 49ers make a lot of savvy moves, selecting Kittle looks like one of the smartest. He is the high motor guy, willing to do it all for a young team that will indeed be asking him for exactly that. I don’t believe he will affect games with his receiving like Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham, but teaming up a true #1 WR along with a speedster like Marquise Goodwin and a do-it-all threat like Kittle gives the front office, the coaching staff, and their QB a great starting point to build an offense.
Dan Hatman: Kittle’s body type and skill set are reflective on what we have come to see more and more at the position. That said, does his positional value and skill set really set him up as a building block for a playoff team?
Jeff: Maybe it’s the former tight end in me, but I believe they do. Having tight ends that can both block and catch affords offensive coordinators an immense amount of flexibility in play-calling and structure of the offense. I think finding a tight end that is simply above average in both skills is more important than mining for a transcendent superstar at the position.
Andrew: Adding on to what Jeff said, I think it gives the organization some flexibility in terms of building that other offensive tackle as well. With as many holes to fill as there are in this roster, having a TE that can assist in blocking can help hide a deficiency in that particular area.
Derek: Giving flexibility in what the offensive coordinator calls but also could stress the defense on what play is being run. You have a particular player coming in just to run block on a certain down and distance could give off a tell to the defense. This won’t happen in this case with Kittle on the field.
RB Carlos Hyde
Jeff Feyerer: We have a guy the current regime was reportedly looking to replace in our final ten. Not only were they looking to replace him, but he also plays a position that is arguably one of the most replaceable in the league. What sold you on Hyde being included?
Derek: I liked his vision inside the tackles, being able to find a small crease and get through it with his speed, he’s shown bits of the one-cut ability to get to that hole. He doesn’t get down easily, will lower his pads to get those extra yards upon contact and will slip through one-arm tackles. As far as pass protection, it looks like he’s got the mental aspect down on who to block and does just enough to keep the quarterback clean.
Andrew: With the injuries he has sustained in his career, Hyde will not be called on to be the workhouse back for this team, but the league has so few of those anyway. Having an established presence in the running game will allow Garoppolo to operate in an offense with some competencies as well. The won’t have to invest heavily in Hyde to keep him and he allows them not to drastically change their week to week game plan. They need as much consistency with any above average talent they have on the roster already and holding onto Hyde shouldn’t prevent them from adding another back through free agency or the draft.
Dan Hatman: To Jeff’s point, the resource allocation, especially come free agency for RBs is very tough. You really have to have the coaching staff behind the player to lock him in. Do you all feel Hyde has gained that support?
Andrew: The play to open up the game against the Giants is exactly what Hyde can do for this offense. He is a complete back, but not a perfect one so if the organization chooses to go elsewhere, they would probably be aiming for someone specific in free agency, if not selecting a running back fairly early on in the draft.
Derek: Much like what Shanahan had in Atlanta, Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman were both good running backs that specialized in certain areas (pass protection or outside runs, for example). In the meantime, Hyde is their starter until they find another running back and establish a role for each of them.
CB Ahkello Witherspoon
Jeff Feyerer: Coming into the season, the developmental curve for Witherspoon was thought to be steep. He didn’t play in high school until his senior year and he had limited experience until his junior year at Colorado, but was able to thrive using his 6’3’’ frame and playing alongside fellow draft picks Chidobe Awuzie and Tedric Thompson. He has flashed so much potential early on that the 49ers decided to deal starter Rashard Robinson and give Witherspoon more playing time. Can Witherspoon become a true #1 cornerback eventually or his inclusion simply a function of needing as many cover men as possible in today’s NFL?
Andrew: Witherspoon’s potential is easily the biggest thing going for him. Witherspoon getting more playing time, and subsequently dealing Robinson probably wouldn’t have happened if the team’s record were not where it is. But Witherspoon is a guy with premier length at the CB spot. His man coverage ability is impressive for a rookie, especially one that has as little playing experience as he does. How much can be put on his shoulders remains to be seen. But this was a player that had two other NFL talents around him in college. Stepping up to be the main guy in the NFL may take a couple years but seeing if he can is worth the wait.
Derek: I think it is pretty remarkable what he has done in his first year. He has shown me that mental toughness after committing a mistake, which is important for a top corner. I haven’t looked at him when he played in Colorado, but I’ve heard that his size and length were a plus, causing him to get selected in the third round. Barring a mishap, it will be interesting to see his development in these next two years.
The Debate: CB Dontae Johnson vs. S Eric Reid
Dan Hatman: I think we have to consider positional value in addition to skill set and production. If the players are equal than CB usually garners a higher market value. How do the players stack up relative to each other and does Reid’s move to ‘LB’ help or hurt his positional value?
Derek: I added Johnson because him and Witherspoon together could become a nice cornerback duo in the future. They stay with their man fairly often (which in turn can help out the defensive line), are long and provide good size. In my mind, they are trying to replicate the Seattle defense. The 49ers defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh, spent a few years there and won a Super Bowl with them. Reid’s move to the LB spot has helped him in that he is best at playing close the line of scrimmage. Looking within the division, you have Doug Baldwin and Paul Richardson in Seattle, and the weapons the Rams have with Robert Woods, Sammy Watkins and Cooper Kupp. In Arizona, John Brown and Jaron Brown are expected to be UFA in 2018, I would expect one of the two to return; Larry Fitzgerald’s future is up in the air, so possibly the Cardinals would look to lure a receiver in free agency (or trade, you never know) and / or spend a high draft pick on the position. That’s why I feel having Johnson on the roster would be more beneficial than having Reid.
Andrew: I believe Reid’s newfound positional versatility is what cements him as my final pick. So many teams are looking for talented athletes to bring in that they can then teach how to play football. The 49ers have that in a player that can now play two positions when called on to do so. Mark Barron revitalized his career making a similar switch. The Cleveland Browns Building Blocks series included Jabrill Peppers who is a talented football player, but cannot slot in perfectly to either safety spot. Coordinators can truly keep offenses confused when these types of players are implemented creatively.
To piggyback off of Derek’s comparison, if the 49ers are looking to make a warmer climate version of the Seahawks defense, Johnson is Byron Maxwell, which assumes Witherspoon becomes their Richard Sherman. You build around Sherman, while you’re happy to keep Maxwell as long as you can so long as it makes sense financially. I’m not opposed to the team keeping Johnson, but he just doesn’t fit the namesake of the series for me.
Jeff: I’ll be the deciding vote here and go with Reid because of the positional versatility. With the roster pretty barren in the way of long-term solutions, I’ll ride with the guy that affords the most flexibility for roster building. Plus, I feel a little better about a guy with a 1st round pedigree, not to justify a past regime’s selection, but because there is a reason he went that high. At 25 years old, Reid can still develop as this team grows.