The 49ers were coming off a 2-14 season when they hired the combination of general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan in 2017. Three years later, they continue to build on a 13-3 season by advancing to play the Chiefs in Super Bowl 54.
San Francisco can’t be called an overnight rebuilding success, as the team didn’t make the playoffs in either of the first two seasons with Lynch or Shanahan. But knocking off Minnesota and Green Bay with Kansas City only standing in the way of an NFL championship was a product of their methodical personnel overhaul.
Lynch, a nine-time Pro Bowl safety who won Super Bowl 37 with Jon Gruden and the Buccaneers, followed the familiar blueprint of matching an offensive-minded coach with an elite defense on every level.
From free agency and NFL draft in 2017 through the 37-20 rout of the Packers in Sunday’s NFC championship game, here’s a quick look back on the 15 key moves that have the 49ers on the brink of their franchise’s sixth Super Bowl ring.
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1. 49ers trade for QB Jimmy Garoppolo
Garoppolo has lived up to being the team’s franchise quarterback, fully worth giving up a second-round pick for him at the 2017 October midseason trade deadline and then signing him a five-year, $137 million deal. Including playoffs, Garoppolo is now 21-5 as the 49ers’ starter, recovering well from last September’s torn ACL to have a stellar, super-efficient season spreading the ball around in a balanced, explosive offense.
Don’t confuse Garoppolo with a “caretaker” for San Francisco’s strengths with the running game and defense. He’s been an all-out playmaker, proven by his 102.0 rating and 8.4 yards per attempt. It’s easy to forget Lynch almost aggressively went after Kirk Cousins to become Shanahan’s quarterback. Landing Jimmy G instead has exceeded expectations.
2. 49ers sign CB Richard Sherman
The 49ers’ Super Bowl-caliber defense wouldn’t have been possible without the former Seahawk coming in to lead Robert Saleh’s secondary. Sherman was released by Seattle in March 2018 after a season cut short by a ruptured Achilles’. Sherman believed that he could be an elite corner and wanted to play for a potential contender. Lynch believed in Sherman enough to give him a three-year, $39 million contract.
At 31, when most corners fade as coverage assets, Sherman had one of his best shutdown-style seasons. He intercepted both Cousins and Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs. He’s raised the play of the team’s younger defensive backs. The 49ers absolutely stole a key member of their archrivals and you can bet it feels just as good for Sherman getting to his third Super Bowl with them.
3. 49ers draft DE Nick Bosa, WR Deebo Samuel, OLB Dre Greenlaw and P Mitch Wishnowsky
Consider this 2019 NFL Draft haul the finishing touch on Lynch’s paint-by-numbers masterpiece. Thanks to the rival Cardinals locking in on QB Kyler Murray, the 49ers were fortunate to land the elite edge pass-rushing talent of Bosa at No. 2 overall. He will be the runaway Defensive Rookie of the Year for making a ton of plays, adding plenty of energy to the entire defense and putting a strong line rotation over the top.
Samuel, with his quickness, toughness and speed, emerged as the 49ers’ go-to wideout in the second half. Greenlaw keeps improving on the second level. Wishnowsky has proven to be a solid punter but just as important as a kickoff man for one of the NFL’s best special teams units.
4. 49ers sign RB Tevin Coleman and re-sign RB Raheem Mostert
Lynch’s first big addition at the position was former Viking Jerick McKinnon, but his major knee injury quickly derailed his promise in Shanahan’s offense. Adding Coleman and extending Mostert for three years — both in March 2019 free agency — ended up being the right, necessary moves for San Francisco backfield.
Coleman was a natural target for a post-Falcons reunion with Shanahan because of his explosive work as a runner and receiver. Mostert, brought in for his speed by former coach Chip Kelly, maintained his spot on the team despite some injury issues because he was a core special teamer. He had flashed before as a busy runner when needed, but he took his burst to a whole new level this season while filling in often or an ailing Coleman. That happened again when Mostert exploded for 220 yards and 4 TDs on 29 carries when Coleman exited the NFC championship game with a shoulder injury.
Coleman (6-1, 210 pounds) and Mostert (5-11, 183 pounds) are interchangeable big backs ideal for the 49ers’ zone-blocking scheme, also equipped with good receiving skills. They’ve now become more dangerous than the dynamic duo Shanahan had in Atlanta — Coleman and Devonta Freeman.
MORE: Six facts to know about Raheem Mostert — one for each NFL team that cut him
5. 49ers draft TE George Kittle and DT D.J Jones, sign RB Matt Breida and WR Kendrick Bourne
The 49ers’ first draft with Lynch in 2017 was all about Day 3, starting with stealing Kittle out of Iowa in the fifth round to become a dominant blocking and receiving force. Jones, before landing on IR, was thriving as the team’s run-stuffing nose tackle. Breida, before ceding his work to Mostert and Coleman, served as a good undrafted bridge running back for Shanahan without McKinnon. Bourne has kept sticking with the team as an underrated performer in three-receiver sets with a knack for scoring in the red zone.
6. 49ers trade No. 2 overall pick to Bears
The biggest thing about this move was avoiding Mitchell Trubisky on Day 1 of the 2017 draft. San Francisco’s eventual No. 3 overall pick, defensive end Solomon Thomas, has been disappointing, now demoted to rotational work. Because of the trade, however, the 49ers were able to land starting middle linebacker Fred Warner out of BYU in the 2018 draft.
7. 49ers sign OLB Kwon Alexander, trade for DE Dee Ford
The 49ers gambled big on Alexander in 2019 free agency, despite the fact his time with the Bucs ended with a torn ACL last October. Lynch saw he could be the well-rounded playmaker he was early in his Tampa Bay career, much like his Bucs had Derrick Brooks. The result was a four-year, $54 million contract with half of it guaranteed. Alexander delivered those big plays again in the first half of the season before his pectoral injury, and has come back to fly all over the field in the playoffs.
Before putting Bosa on the edge, San Francisco preemptively got him a bookend in Ford, who had 13 sacks in a breakout Pro Bowl season as a 3-4 outside linebacker for the Chiefs. Ford missed five games with quad and hamstring issues, but when he was on the field, he continued to wreak havoc on QBs (6.5 sacks) and set the edge against the run. With Ford, Lynch knew it would be hard for offensive lines to focus blocking on Bosa. The money and assets were there to get Ford, and now he gets to play against his old team in Super Bowl 54.
8. 49ers draft RT Mike McGlinchey
With Joe Staley going strong at left tackle, now through his 13th season, Lynch recognized the need to take care of the other edge of his offensive line at the top of the 2018 NFL Draft. McGlinchey, the Notre Dame product, was seen as one of the class’ safest picks, right there with college teammate Quenton Nelson. McGlinchey has had some growing pains through Year 2, but he’s solidified the position for many years.
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9. 49ers sign FB Kyle Juszczyk and K Robbie Gould
Along with wide receivers Pierre Garcon (since retired) and Marquise Goodwin, these were Lynch’s initial additions during his first free agency run in March ’17. They immediately showed the 49ers were willing to spend good money and be an attractive destination for veterans in various stages of their career.
With not many teams investing aggressively in either a fullback or a kicker, Lynch went a little against the grain. Juszczyk’s blocking is indispensable to the 49ers’ offense. Gould was valuable enough to be designated a franchise player in ’19 and get a sizable second deal (4 years, $19 million) after holding out.
10. 49ers sign CB Emmanuel Moseley
Moseley was signed as an undrafted free agent following the 2018 draft and despite multiple chances to cut him, the 49ers held on to his potential. Moseley ended up starting nine games in ’19, becoming the preferred No. 2 cover man opposite Sherman and also proving to be a strong tackler. He aptly joined Sherman in intercepting Rodgers in the NFC championship game.
11. 49ers trade for WR Emmanuel Sanders
San Francisco had a midseason crisis at wide receiver in ’19 with Dante Pettis not coming through on his promise and Samuel still coming into his own. Enter Sanders, who was acquired from the Broncos at the October trade for the net cost of a third-round draft pick.
The 32-year-old two-time Pro Bowler has lost a few steps from his speedy two-time Super Bowl self, but he was a great versatile fit in Shanahan’s offense. He had only two big games (at Cardinals, at Saints) but he was a stabalizing force for an inexperienced group once Goodwin landed on IR. You can bet Sanders’ Super Bowl experience (losing and winning) will come into play against the Chiefs, a team against which he produced well during his AFC West days.
12. 49ers sign C Weston Richburg, G/C Ben Garland
Richburg was a worthy free-agent priority in ’18, coming over from the Giants on a five-year, $47.5 million deal. Unfortunately, Richburg won’t be playing as the anchor of the 49ers’ fine line after tearing his patella tendon in Week 14. Fortunately, they signed Garland, who played in Shanahan’s offense with the Falcons, in March ’19. Garland was added as a backup guard, but he’s been a solid next man up in the scheme to hold down the middle after Richburg went down.
13. 49ers re-sign S Jimmie Ward
Ward, the team’s first-rounder in 2014, was brought back on a one-year deal in ’19. The 49ers wanted to keep him playing with Sherman and strong safety Jaquiski Tartt, where his inside coverage could remain a good complement. Lynch did a great job to know which inherited assets could be part of a championship team, such as Ward and two more previous first-rounders, defensive linemen DeForest Bucker and Arik Armstead.
14. 49ers trade for LG Laken Tomllinson
Lynch made this sneaky move for a starter after training camp in August ’17. Tomlinson, a talented blocker who fell short of 2015 first-round expectations with the Lions, was given up for a fifth-round pick. Tomlinson started immediately for his new team and the 49ers ended up giving him a three-year, $18 million deal as a free agent in ’18.
15. 49ers sign RG Mike Person
Person was another former Falcon who ended up starting for Shanahan again in San Francisco. The 49ers signed him once in May ’18, and liked him enough to give the 31-year-old a 3-year, $9 million deal last March.
While the franchise quarterback and flashy offensive skill players are big reasons for the 49ers playing in Super Bowl 54, Lynch’s dedication to making the offensive and defensive lines strong and deep is the foundation of everything they do to make big plays on both sides of the ball.
Consider Staley and Mostert were the only current vital offensive pieces in place in San Francisco before Lynch and Shanahan arrived. Counting up Bosa, Ford, Greenlaw, Warner, Alexander, Sherman and Moseley, that’s seven essential defensive pieces added in three years.
Lynch was considered a smart personnel man when analyzing players as Fox’s No. 2 color commentator behind Troy Aikman. He’s taken his astute understanding of what makes up a championship team and made it one of the greatest three-year turnarounds in NFL history.