With a month still left until the 2021 NFL Draft, the 49ers put the rest of the NFC West on notice on Friday when general manager John Lynch rolled the dice by trading away three first-round picks and a third-round pick to trade up with the Dolphins to acquire the No. 3 overall pick.
It’s an expensive price to pay to move up only nine picks, but Lynch’s eye-catching move positions San Francisco to draft a successor for current starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Even with Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson expected to be the first two picks for Jacksonville and the New York Jets, Justin Fields, Trey Lance, and Mac Jones will be available to choose from in a deep quarterback class.
While some may view this trade as a move of desperation, Lynch may have felt he had no choice given how much stronger the rest of the NFC West has gotten over the past few months. It was just the latest power play by the 49ers in an attempt to keep up with the rest of the division in a developing arms race of Cold War-worthy proportions.
Before swinging the deal with Miami, Lynch had already given star left tackle Trent Williams a record-setting six-year, $138 million contract to protect the blind side of Garoppolo or whichever rookie finds himself under center moving forward. The team also signed former Pro Bowl center Alex Mack and linebacker Samson Ebukam and still has $19 million in cap space to work with.
But the 49ers have been far from the only NFC West squad making splashy moves to stay in the hunt. When one team has made headlines this offseason, it has seemed instantaneous that another one will jump in with a bigger splash of their own.
Frustrated by Jared Goff’s lack of progress, the Rams traded the former No. 1 overall pick to the Lions for Matthew Stafford shortly after being knocked out of the playoffs in January, believing they’ve upgraded substantially under center. While they lost some key contributors in free agency, including safety John Johnson and cornerback Troy Hill, they re-signed edge rusher Leonard Floyd and added a speedy weapon in Desean Jackson for their new signal caller to throw to.
As for the up-and-coming Cardinals, they made the offseason’s first major signing by luring future Hall of Fame defensive end J.J. Watt to the desert to re-join his former Texans teammate DeAndre Hopkins. In addition, they traded for All-Pro center Rodney Hudson to solidify their offensive line, signed receiver A.J. Green to give Kyler Murray another playmaker on the outside, and recently signed cornerback Malcolm Butler for secondary depth.
Meanwhile, amidst lingering Russell Wilson trade chatter, the Seahawks have quietly done their part to continue building around the star quarterback despite limited funds. Taking the quarterback’s pleas for better protection to heart, like the Cardinals, they took advantage of the Raiders offensive line fire sale and acquired veteran guard Gabe Jackson for a fifth-round pick. In addition, they re-signed Carlos Dunlap while also signing ex-49ers starter Kerry Hyder to fortify their pass rush among other moves.
As is the case each year, all four NFC West teams have lost talented players. There’s also been significant coaching turnover across the division.
Carrying a huge dead cap hit for Goff, the Rams had to let multiple starters walk. After just one season with the team, defensive coordinator Brandon Staley was named as the Chargers new head coach in January. They also lost assistant coaches Shane Waldron and Andy Dickerson, as they took over as the Seahawks new offensive coordinator and run game coordinator.
Along with losing prized defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and several other assistant coaches to the Jets, the 49ers will likely lose cornerback Richard Sherman and defensive end Solomon Thomas already signed with the Raiders.
The Cardinals couldn’t retain perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson or breakout edge rusher Haasan Reddick, who left for the Vikings and Panthers respectively. As for the Seahawks, they lost starting cornerback Shaquill Griffin and receiver David Moore in free agency and recently had to release defensive tackle Jarran Reed for cap relief.
But overall, all four teams have stocked up on both sides of the football and there’s still time to add a few more free agents before next month’s draft. Then, there will be the post-draft wave of free agency when players no longer count towards the compensatory pick formula. Once that phase passes, NFC West rosters will largely be set gearing up for what should be a gauntlet of a division in 2021.