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49ers mailbag: Who's in line to replace Saleh? How real is the Watson buzz?

Sacramento Bee logoSacramento Bee 2 days ago Chris Biderman, The Sacramento Bee

Jan. 13—The 49ers offseason is officially in its second week with Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch bracing for the likely departure of defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, and potentially other high-ranking assistants on the coaching staff and/or members of the front office.

Saleh, as of Wednesday morning, was a finalist for the New York Jets head coaching job and is expected to travel to the East Coast this week for an in-person interview. ESPN reported Saleh has also been requested to interview with the Philadelphia Eagles, joining the Falcons, Chargers, Lions and Jaguars in teams that have shown interest.

That seems like a logical place to start with this week's 49ers mailbag. To your questions!

@mrbill619 asks: Who is on the short list to replace Saleh?

Linebackers coach DeMeco Ryans is likely the top internal candidate. He's highly regarded by his players and other members of the coaching staff. He's done an excellent job developing his players. Fred Warner quickly evolved into an All-Pro in three seasons with Ryans as his coach, Dre Greenlaw was an impact player as a rookie fifth-round draft pick in 2019 and Azeez Al-Shaair has gone from undrafted to possible starter in 2021.

"It's only as a matter of time before DeMeco is a coordinator in this league," Shanahan said last week. "It's a matter of time before DeMeco will be a head coach."

Two other possible candidates appear to be headed elsewhere. Saleh's old mentor with the Seattle Seahawks, Gus Bradley, is reportedly on his way to be the coordinator of the Las Vegas Raiders. Bradley was in the running for the 49ers job in 2017 before the team hired Saleh. Former Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, whom Shanahan worked for before coming to San Francisco, is going to be the next defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys.

Raheem Morris would also be a sensible option. He replaced Quinn midway through last season and worked with Shanahan and multiple stops. They first worked together on the Buccaneers' staff in 2004 when Morris was an assistant secondary coach and Shanahan was cutting his teeth as a quality control coach. They later rejoined on Washington's staff when Morris was made the secondary coach from 2012 to 2014 under Mike Shanahan's regime.

Morris worked as Atlanta's defensive passing game coordinator and then receivers coach in 2015 and 2016, respectively, while Shanahan was the offensive coordinator. Landing a defensive coordinator job with San Francisco would be a solid consolation prize if he doesn't get a head coaching job. Morris has interviewed for head coaching vacancies for the Falcons and Jaguars.

@Mike_Horvat asks: I think center is an enormous concern, in my opinion. Are they banking on Weston Richburg's return or do they have a plan to draft/acquire one?

I agree with you. I think upgrading at center should be high up on the priority list this offseason, particularly since Lynch and Shanahan sound bent on avoiding the injury issues that plagued them in 2020.

Richburg tore his patellar tendon in his knee against the Saints in the epic game in December of 2019 and never made it back to the field in 2020. It was the second consecutive offseason he recovered from a significant injury. The previous year, he had to have a ligament connecting his quadriceps to his knee reattached after playing on the injury since Week 4 and only missing one game. He turns 30 in July.

Richburg didn't speak to the media all year, so it's hard to know where he's at mentally regarding the future of his career, and Lynch and Shanahan haven't said much about him publicly. This time last year, the team finalized a contract restructure for Richburg that lowered his 2020 cap hit while pushing guarantees into 2021 and 2022. Thus, there's more dead cap money should the team try to cut him (if he's healthy enough to pass a physical — his 2019 and 2020 salaries were guaranteed for injury).

Suffice to say, yes, I'd imagine the 49ers are hoping to upgrade the interior of their offensive line, which was a significant weak point throughout the season. Ben Garland, Richburg's primary replacement, could be back after missing most of 2020 with a calf injury which could allow Daniel Brunskill to move back to right guard (which could also afford to be upgraded).

@CameronBell asks: Next season's starting QB?

I think it'll be Jimmy Garoppolo, but I'm not quick to rule out the Deshaun Watson possibility. If he demands a trade, he'll more than likely get dealt. It doesn't happen in the NFL all that often but it did with Carson Palmer when he wanted out of Cincinnati in 2011.

Plus, Watson has a no-trade clause, which could allow him to pick his destination. It would be tough for Shanahan and Lynch not to pull the trigger if he says he wants to come to San Francisco, in my opinion. Three first-round picks for an elite 25-year-old quarterback is a fair price, particularly if you think Watson can be your starter for the next decade.

How steep is three first-rounders? The 49ers have drafted six players in Round 1 since Shanahan and Lynch took over. In order: Solomon Thomas, Reuben Foster, Mike McGlinchey, Nick Bosa, Javon Kinlaw and Brandon Aiyuk. That's roughly a 50% hit rate, depending on how you feel about McGlinchey (while noting Kinlaw and Aiyuk have only played one season). And if you have Watson as your starter, you're probably not going to be picking in the top-10 which would make it harder to find instant-impact players.

I don't think Matthew Stafford could be ruled out either, but it's impossible to know until Detroit has a general manager and head coach in place. Kirk Cousins and Matt Ryan seem like lateral moves from Garoppolo and not worth trading for when they could keep the status quo without giving up draft picks.

Shanahan told the team in its last meeting the plan is to compete for Super Bowls every season from here on out. Which, to me, indicates the team is not planning to draft a quarterback in the first round. I think BYU's Zach Wilson would be the best fit for Shanahan's offense but he's likely a top-three pick. It's hard to see the 49ers trading up to get him. The difference in trading for Watson versus moving up for a quarterback: Watson is a known commodity, while many first-round quarterbacks prove unsuccessful.

Could they go with North Dakota State's Trey Lance if he falls to No. 12? Potentially. But given he only played in 18 college games (and none in 2020), it's hard to imagine Shanahan going that route with the championship window open.

@AnthonyRMPerry asks: If the 49ers can't bring back Trent Williams, what do you think the next move is at left tackle?

I'd think they would draft one in the first round, but they could also try with another free agent. Perhaps Alejandro Villanueva of the Steelers? There aren't a ton of great options in free agency. Perhaps Shon Coleman, who opted out for 2020, would be in the mix, as would last year's fifth-round pick Colton McKivitz. But those would be dramatic downgrades from Williams, arguably the best left tackle in the NFL.

I think Williams wants to come back to San Francisco and the 49ers know how important he is to putting together another Super Bowl roster. He'll test the market, but I think he'll end up coming back on an eyebrow-raising contract.

@s_wissy asks: Thoughts on what the 49ers' plans are for Josh Rosen?

Nick Mullens needs Tommy John surgery which means he's far from a lock at being healthy in time for training camp (he's also a restricted free agent). C.J. Beathard is an unrestricted free agent leaving Garoppolo as the team's only quarterback under contract for 2021.

Which means there's plenty of opportunity for Rosen to win a backup job. I think he'll be in the mix all offseason. And like Garoppolo, Rosen got a chance to be in the same quarterback room as Tom Brady. Watching the best to ever do it up close has to be worth something.

But I don't think Rosen's presence would prevent the team from adding to the quarterback room early in the draft or free agency. The former 10th overall pick still has upside and beat Shanahan's team twice as a rookie in 2018. I'm not penciling him onto the roster come September, but I'd be surprised if he wasn't competing for a spot throughout training camp and the preseason, if we have a preseason, of course.

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