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3 moves the San Francisco 49ers must make to return to Super Bowl contention

The San Francisco 49ers fell short of their preseason expectations, losing to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday.

For San Francisco, it was a wild playoff run after the team started the regular year at 3-5. Two big road wins against the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers in the playoffs added another layer to this.

However, another 49ers season came to a conclusion in disappointing fashion. That included blowing a 17-7 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Jimmy Garoppolo was downright brutal in the final stanza. The 49ers’ defense struggled containing Matthew Stafford. Meanwhile, head coach Kyle Shanahan’s decision-making will again be called into question.

Where do the 49ers go from here after falling one game short of their second Super Bowl appearance in three seasons? Was that horrible Garoppolo interception his final pass in a 49ers uniform? Below, we look at three moves San Francisco must make this offseason in order to return to Super Bowl contention.

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San Francisco 49ers add starter-caliber cornerback to the mix

san francisco must sign cornerback in free agency
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

This was a major Achilles’ heel for San Francisco during the regular season. After losing Jason Verrett for the season in Week 1, the likes of Josh Norman and Co. failed to do anything of substance in the defensive backfield. All of these struggles came to light big time in the 49ers’ NFC Championship Game loss to Los Angeles. Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. caught a combined 20-of-25 targets for 255 yards and two touchdowns. That’s obviously not going to cut it.

Sure San Francisco has a nice building block in rookie Ambry Thomas. Prior to struggling in the NFC Championship Game, he came through big time. Outside of that, there’s not a lot to look at here. Emmanuel Moseley was overmatched. Slot corner K’Waun Williams is slated to become a free agent. The aforementioned Norman was a healthy scratch late in the season.

With an estimated $5.6 million to spend under the 2022 NFL salary cap, the 49ers will need to cut the fat somewhere (Garoppolo?) in order to add any free-agent cornerback of worth. But general manager John Lynch also has ways to make this work. The likes of Stephon Gilmore, Kyle Fuller, Xavier Rhodes and even J.C. Jackson have to be considered options here.

Related: Top 2022 NFL free agents

San Francisco 49ers re-sign key free agents

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at San Francisco 49ers
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

This is no small thing. The 49ers actually have a whopping 21 players set to hit the unrestricted free-agent market come March. Given their salary cap situation, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to retain a majority of them. With that said, there needs to be a focus on a few players if the 49ers want to maintain their status as a contender moving forward.

  • Laken Tomlinson, guard
  • D.J. Jones, defensive tackle
  • K’Waun Williams, cornerback
  • Arden Key, EDGE

All four of these players had important roles as San Francisco turned a 3-5 start into a 9-3 finish to the season. Primarily, being able to retain both Tomlinson and Williams is going to be key. Tomlinson has morphed into a Pro Bowl-caliber guard since being acquired from the Detroit Lions ahead of the 2017 season. Williams is among the best slot corners in the NFL. Both will have big markets. San Francisco must find a way to pony up.

Related: Ideal Jimmy Garoppolo trade scenarios

San Francisco 49ers trade Jimmy Garoppolo, roll with Trey Lance

san francisco 49ers trade jimmy garoppolo
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

We can focus on San Francisco’s need to extend stars Deebo Samuel and Nick Bosa. It looks like this will come to fruition at some point during the offseason. But when we’re talking about contending in 2022, it’s all about a quarterback change in Northern California.

Garoppolo might be 4-2 in his postseason career as a starter. He also boasts a 35-16 record in 51 starts with the 49ers. That’s fine and dandy. It’s also a bit misleading given just how much he’s struggled in crunch time during the playoffs.

The time is now for San Francisco to bite the proverbial bullet and move on to Trey Lance under center. The team used three first-round picks and a third-rounder to select the North Dakota State product in the 2021 NFL Draft. The keys to their kingdom must be given to him.

This also makes sense from both a financial and roster-building standpoint. Garoppolo is slated to count $26.9 million against the cap in 2022. Lance? A mere $7.75 million. There’s also this thing called acquiring draft picks in a trade. Even after his brutal performance in the NFC Championship Game, some team is going to overpay for Jimmy GQ. That’s for sure.

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