49ers focus on improving offensive skill positions

49ers focus on improving offensive skill positions

On the first day of the new league year, the 49ers reached contract agreements with nine unrestricted free agents, including seven offensive players and a kicker.

General manager John Lynch went from the “liberating” feeling of having no quarterbacks under contract to placing Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley on the depth chart.

While Colin Kaepernick remains available at a fraction of his previously scheduled $14.9 million salary, the 49ers prioritized signing two quarterbacks who opened last season as reserves to Jay Cutler with the Chicago Bears.

The past four seasons the 49ers have ranked 32nd, 29th, 30th and 30th in passing yards. Under new coach Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers seemed intent on adding players to help improve their passing game.

[RELATED: Report: Kirk Cousins says 'I'm going to be a 49er' eventually]

Neither Hoyer nor Barkley is likely be viewed as a long-term answer at quarterback, so the 49ers remain open to using the No. 2 overall pick on a quarterback such as Mitchell Trubisky or patiently waiting for Kirk Cousins to become available at a reasonable price. The 49ers' best option could be to wait after this season to obtain him at no compensation to Washington.

Cousins officially signed his exclusive franchise tender with Washington on Friday, according to his agent. With that formality, Cousins can now be traded. But Washington has shown no inclination to deal Cousins, who could walk a year from now as a free agent.

Here is a look at the players who saw action for the 49ers last season at the offensive skill positions, and how things look after the first day of free agency:

Quarterback
2016: Colin Kaepernick, Christian Ponder, Blaine Gabbert
2017: Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley
The 49ers must keep all their options open at quarterback, but it’s unclear whether they remain in the market for another veteran to add to the mix unless an obvious starter becomes available.

Hoyer was clearly the 49ers’ top target among the available quarterbacks. Shanahan worked with him for a season with the Cleveland Browns. Hoyer averaged 329.5 yards passing in his four full games with the Chicago Bears last season before sustaining a season-ending broken left arm.

The 49ers, meanwhile, averaged a league-worst 181.9 yards passing per game.

Barkley is now with his third team in his short career after beginning with Philadelphia Eagles during the Chip Kelly era. Barkley will enter training camp competing for a spot on the 53-man roster. Whether the 49ers keep two or three quarterbacks remains to be determined.

Running back
2016: Carlos Hyde, Shaun Draughn, DuJuan Harris, Raheem Mostart, Mike Davis
2017: Carlos Hyde, Kyle Juszczyk, Raheem Mostart, Mike Davis
The 49ers are certainly in the market to add to the running back position. Carlos Hyde remains a work in progress but the clear choice to be the team’s top runner.

“Right now, I see Carlos being our back,” Shanahan said at the NFL Scouting Combine. “We’ve studied a lot of the guys on tape. He’s the guy that’s got the most. Carlos is a guy who I was a fan of coming out of college. He had a real good career there. I looked at him hard when I was in Cleveland at the time and had a good feeling he was going to be a great back then. I don’t think he’s a finished product. I think there’s a lot more to his game and I look forward to us helping him bring that out.”

The 49ers now have a fullback with the addition of Juszczyk. He is a highly versatile player who can line up all across the formation to provide Shanahan with many options to find the best matchups. In the past two seasons with Baltimore, Juszczyk caught 78 passes for 587 yards. He earned a trip to the Pro Bowl in his final season with the Ravens.

Wide receiver
2016: Torrey Smith, Quinton Patton, Jeremy Kerley, Aaron Burbridge, Rod Streater, Chris Harper
2017: Pierre Garçon, Marquise Goodwin, Jeremy Kerley, Aldrick Robinson, Bruce Ellington, Aaron Burbridge, Chris Harper, Eric Rogers, DeAndre Smelter, DeAndre Carter, Rashad Ross
The 49ers released Smith this week and are obviously allowing Patton to leave as a free agent. After signing Kerley to a contract extension last week, the 49ers struck in free agency with the additions of Garçon, Goodwin and Robinson.

Here is what each of those players produced last season for their respective clubs:
Garçon (Washington): 16 games, 79 catches, 1,041 yards, 13.2 avg, 3 TDs
Kerley (49ers): 16 games, 64-667-10.4-3
Goodwin (Buffalo): 15 games, 29-431-14.9-3
Robinson (Atlanta): 16 games, 20-323-16.1-2

The 49ers should also look to add a potentially dynamic receiver within the first two days of the draft.

Tight end
2016: Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek, Blake Bell, Je’Ron Hamm, Jim Dray
2017: Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek, Logan Paulsen, Blake Bell, Je’Ron Hamm
In one of Trent Baalke’s final moves as general manager, the 49ers awarded McDonald with a contract extension that basically amounts to three years for $19.7 million.

The 49ers on Thursday added Paulsen, who is considered more of a blocking tight end. He can be kept in for pass protection or he can be a vital component in the run game. Paulsen’s best seasons as a pass-catcher came with (surprise!) Shanahan as the offensive coordinator in Washington. Paulsen combined to catch 53 passes for 575 yards and four TDs over the 2012 and ’13 seasons.

Kicker
2016: Phil Dawson
2017: Robbie Gould
The 49ers have said their good-byes to Dawson, who had a strong four-year run with the organization and is remaining in the NFC West with the Arizona Cardinals. Dawson, 42, was named the winner of the Bill Walsh Award as the team MVP in 2015.

Gould, 35, appeared in just 10 games for the New York Giants last season. He made all 10 of his field-goal attempts but missed three of his 23 extra-point tries. Gould ranks seventh all-time with a field-goal accuracy percentage of 85.886.

McDonald toasts Shanahan for communication of trade talks

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McDonald toasts Shanahan for communication of trade talks

SANTA CLARA -- Tight end Vance McDonald became aware of a report the 49ers had engaged in trade talks involving him at his brother’s wedding in Austin, Texas.

But McDonald said he did not give it much thought because he had another immediate priority.

“I still had my best man’s speech to do,” McDonald said.

Later that evening during last month's draft, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan called McDonald to keep him in the loop. There was no trade, and McDonald returned to Santa Clara on Monday to continue participation in the 49ers’ offseason program.

“The first thing I told him was, ‘Man, there aren’t a lot of coaches that would do this,’” McDonald said of his talk with Shanahan. “He just wanted to fill me in.”

Nearly four weeks later, it is as if nothing ever happened.

“The only trade discussions we had was when another team asked us about Vance on draft day,” Shanahan said this week. “And after a team asked us about Vance then we asked other teams if they’d be interested in that same thing.”

McDonald said he completely understood why the 49ers would check with other teams around the league to see what they could acquire in a trade.

“Basically, it’s just like any other team in the NFL would do,” McDonald said. “If you’re a 2-14 team, obviously, there are a lot of things you can improve on, a lot of spots that need to be filled. There are a lot of things you need to improve upon in the offseason. So if teams are going to call and inquire about you, then obviously the next step is to … call around to every other team.

“So that’s exactly what happened to me. It isn’t like they don’t want me here. There was never a lack of communication on any level.”

Even before he knew his immediate future with the 49ers, McDonald said he tried to maintain the proper state of mind.

“I had the mindset this isn’t going to change anything,” McDonald said. “I’m going to end up where I end up and I’m just going to continue doing what I’m doing, which is do everything to be a better football player.”

McDonald enters the fifth year of his NFL career after signing a new deal in December that amounts to a three-year, $19.7 million extension. Three days later, the 49ers placed McDonald on injured reserve with a shoulder injury.

McDonald was on pace for his best season as a pass-catcher. In 11 games, he had 24 receptions for 391 yards and four touchdowns.

Now, he is competition for a spot in the 49ers’ offense, along with fifth-round draft pick George Kittle, undrafted rookie Cole Hikutini, and veterans Logan Paulsen, Garrett Celek and Blake Bell.

McDonald said he likes what Shanahan has brought to the 49ers, including added responsibilities of the tight end position.

“Last year, all we talked about was how fast our pace was,” McDonald said. “With Kyle, it’s insanely quick. He’s a very detailed guy. It’s interesting to hear him present information. You try to apply it and play with the same mindset that he has. It’s a task that we all enjoy doing.

“We (tight ends) are the end of the line. There’s communication with us and the wide receivers and running backs. We’re also in command with receiving corps. There are a lot of things on our plate. Hopefully, this doesn’t get back to the wide receivers, but we’re supposed to be smarter than them. It’s a fun job to have. We don’t try to rub it in too much.”

Chip Kelly returns to college football -- as analyst

Chip Kelly returns to college football -- as analyst

Chip Kelly is back in college football.

The former Oregon coach, who served as 49ers head coach last season, signed a multiyear deal as an ESPN analyst, the network announced Friday morning. He will work predominantly on pre-games, halftimes and in studio wraps each Saturday on ESPN2.

“Over the last 30 years, I have experienced football from one perspective – as a coach,” Kelly said in a statement. “Working in television will allow me to see the game from a different angle; simultaneously, I‘ll provide viewers an insight to the mindset of a coach and team while offering alternative views of various situations.

“Once I decided to make the move to TV, my familiarity with ESPN, combined with their high-quality production and vital role in college football, it was easily the best network suited for me.”

Kelly, 53, was fired on the evening of the 49ers’ season finale. The 49ers went 2-14 under Kelly and set the franchise record with 13 consecutive losses. Their only victories came against the Los Angeles Rams. Kelly also auditioned with FOX for the analyst job vacated when John Lynch became 49ers general manager, sources told NBC Sports Bay Area.

Kelly served as Oregon’s head coach from 2009 to ’12. His teams compiled a record of 46-7. Under Kelly, the Ducks advanced to the 2011 national championship game, losing to Auburn 22-19.

Kelly won the AP College Football Coach of the Year. He twice won the Pac-10 coach of the year. He left Oregon to become head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013. After his first two NFL teams went 10-6, Kelly was fired in 2015 with one game remaining in the season. The Eagles were 6-9 at the time of Kelly's firing.

“Chip is one of the most innovative football minds of our generation,” ESPN senior coordinating producer Lee Fitting said. “As a coach, he saw the game from a unique perspective, never afraid to take an unconventional approach. We want him to bring that mentality to our college football coverage each week, offering fans a varying viewpoint outside of the conventional thought process.”