SANTA CLARA, Calif. — San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan were mostly mum on the topic of free agency this year, as they didn’t have to go through their usual media availability because there was no NFL combine.
The last time Lynch and Shanahan spoke publicly was Jan. 4, right after a strange and disappointing 6-10 season. But Lynch and Shanahan didn’t need to talk for everyone to know that left tackle Trent Williams was priority Nos. 1 through 100 when it came to their offseason.
Williams was not only the 49ers’ top free agent but the league’s and the Niners’ entire offseason hinged on his plans.
As it turned out, the chase to keep Williams was a bit longer and more arduous than San Francisco would have liked. Lynch and Shanahan had to sweat it out as teams such as the Kansas City Chiefs and Chicago Bears pursued Williams through the first two days of the early negotiating window.
In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, the 49ers finally got their man. Williams agreed to a six-year, $138.01 million contract to remain in San Francisco. In the process, he becomes the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history. For a player who made sure he could see what the market might hold for the rare elite left tackle, Williams maximized that value and then some.
To be sure, it’s a lot of money for a tackle who will be 33 when next season starts and who hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013. Still, there’s no doubt that when Williams is healthy, he’s a rare mix of size, strength and athleticism that simply can’t be replaced.
Had Williams left, it would have been a massive loss that drastically shifted the Niners’ plans. Left tackle would have joined center and guard on the list of needs on the offensive line alone and, based on the timing, any good fallback options that might have included the interior offensive line and/or outside pass-rushers would have already been gone by the time Williams made his decision.
What’s more, the 49ers almost certainly would have had to use the No. 12 pick in the draft on a left tackle, effectively removing them from the first-round quarterback conversation and allowing little flexibility, something no team wants when it comes to the NFL draft.
The 49ers knew all of that, too, which is why they were willing to go to heretofore unseen places to keep Williams. With Williams back in the fold, the 49ers have managed to keep three of their top four in-house free agents, as he returns along with fullback Kyle Juszczyk and cornerback Jason Verrett.
After agreeing to the deal, Williams wasted no time transitioning to de facto recruiter. Williams tagged free-agent center Alex Mack on his Instagram story announcing his return. Mack has Bay Area ties from his days at Cal and played for Shanahan with the Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons. That’s a deal that is expected to get done when the new league year begins.
In addition, other key Niners free agents such as nickel cornerback K’Waun Williams, defensive end Kerry Hyder Jr. and defensive tackle D.J. Jones are still available. That doesn’t guarantee any of them will be back with the Niners but with their top priorities taken care of, they can remain in the mix to bring those players back if a strong market doesn’t develop.
The 49ers also can turn their attention to their quarterback situation. While the expectation remains that incumbent Jimmy Garoppolo will be the starter in 2021, an experienced backup with some upside such as Mitchel Trubisky remains available and intriguing to San Francisco, depending on the price.
And, of course, the Niners are still on the periphery of the Deshaun Watson situation as the Houston Texans continue to hold on to him despite his trade request. It would take a massive deal for the Niners (or any team) to land Watson and it remains to be seen if and when the Texans will even trade him.
But with Williams back, the Niners are a more appealing place for any quarterback and, as his deal proved, they’re willing to go to extremes when it’s for a player they really want.