SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- We're still a few months away from the start of NFL free agency and all that the offseason entails, but we already know this much: The San Francisco 49ers are again positioned to be major players in those proceedings, should they choose to be.
The Niners will enter the 2018 offseason armed with roughly $100 million in salary-cap space (after they roll over the remainder of this year's cap again) and boast four choices in the first three rounds of the NFL draft.
What's more, the 49ers are now in an even more advantageous position because they have quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in place. Garoppolo has started only two games for San Francisco, but he has already shown many of the traits of a franchise quarterback and figures to only get better as the Niners build around him and he continues to get comfortable in coach Kyle Shanahan's offensive scheme.
Of course, Garoppolo's status sits at the top of the Niners' offseason checklist, given that he is set to be an unrestricted free agent. But there's little to no chance that the Niners won't have that situation resolved one way or another before he could hit the open market. The franchise tag has always been the most likely outcome, but if Garoppolo continues to exceed expectations, it's not out of the question that the Niners will engage his representatives in long-term contract discussions at some point before the new league year in March.
Regardless, the safe bet is that Garoppolo will be a 49er in 2018 and the team will spend this offseason seeking ways to improve the squad around him. As a bonus, having a quarterback in place should also make the Niners more appealing to free agents looking for teams headed in the right direction (and that also happen to be flush with cash, of course).
With all of that in mind, here's a look at the Niners' top needs with three games to go and a few names at each position to keep an eye on. Remember, some of the top names listed here will never get the chance to sign elsewhere as they are tagged or sign extensions.
For now, the Niners seem to be set at tackle with Joe Staley on the left side and Trent Brown on the right. They'll have to begin planning for the future there soon enough, but that is probably best addressed through the draft. The more pressing need is on the interior, where center Daniel Kilgore and guard Brandon Fusco are aging veterans set to become unrestricted free agents.
The 49ers hope that players such as Joshua Garnett, Erik Magnuson and Laken Tomlinson can ascend and handle at least one guard spot, but that still leaves a pressing need inside. Offensive linemen have become increasingly difficult to find in the draft, leaving talented veterans to land big paydays. The Niners would likely have to cough up big deals to land the best linemen on the market. It would be a worthwhile investment if they can find the right fit, though.
Among those who could be of interest are Giants guard Justin Pugh and center Weston Richburg, Carolina guard Andrew Norwell, Dallas guard Jonathan Cooper and Houston guard Xavier Su'a-Filo. Norwell, who might not be the ideal fit in terms of athleticism, has the mean streak and ability to be a worthwhile investment.
The 49ers have no shortage of capable interior rushers, with the likes of DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas. What they need is someone who can bend the edge and force quarterbacks to step into the waiting arms of those interior rushers. Unfortunately, those types of players rarely come available in free agency.
Another year of Elvis Dumervil in a situational role would be fine, but the 49ers need to find someone who is suited to play their Leo role (the weakside defensive end who is typically the best pass-rusher) on a more regular basis. Dallas' DeMarcus Lawrence would be the prize of this free-agent class if he hits the market, but it seems like a long shot at best that the Cowboys let him see what's out there. Detroit's Ziggy Ansah seems more likely to test the market, and though he isn't the ideal fit, he might be the best one available. New Orleans' Alex Okafor might be a good, cost-effective option with some upside.
The Niners could also opt to go the draft route here, though using yet another top pick on a defensive lineman probably wouldn't be a huge hit with the fan base.
The Niners will get top wideout Pierre Garcon back from the neck injury that ended his season in early November, and with Garcon, Marquise Goodwin and rookie Trent Taylor under contract, the 49ers have a solid group to build from. What that group could really use to put it over the top is a No. 1 receiver with some size who can work on the outside and be a dynamic threat in the red zone. Alshon Jeffery would have been intriguing, but he already re-signed with Philadelphia.
That leaves the likes of the Rams' Sammy Watkins (who would be a great fit because he's physical and fast), Green Bay's Davante Adams, Jacksonville's Allen Robinson and Miami's Jarvis Landry as players who could be available. Still, none necessarily qualifies as a true No. 1 wideout, though Shanahan's offense and Garoppolo could raise the stock of players who have previously untapped potential. Watkins looks like the best option, but it's hard to imagine the Rams letting him walk without at least a transition tag.
The Niners should have invested in this position last offseason, but they simply didn't have the chance to address everything in one offseason. Now, this has to be a priority, and doing it in free agency would make a lot of sense. Dontae Johnson is headed toward free agency, leaving rookie Ahkello Witherspoon to handle one outside spot and K'Waun Williams to remain in the nickel.
Theoretically, the 49ers could move free safety Jimmie Ward back to cornerback to increase depth there, but he isn't an ideal scheme fit at corner. The better move would be to spend some money on a top corner, and it seems there will be some pretty solid options available. New England's Malcolm Butler, the Rams' Trumaine Johnson, Philadelphia's Patrick Robinson and Chicago's Kyle Fuller are just some of the names who could be worth a look.
Johnson might be particularly intriguing, considering his size and potential fit in Robert Saleh's defense.