ORLANDO, Fla. – John Lynch called a meeting shortly after the 2017 season to begin assembling a wish list for the new league year. Also in attendance were Kyle Shanahan, vice president of player personnel Adam Peters, senior personnel executive Martin Mayhew and the entire 49ers coaching staff.
Director of pro personnel Ran Carthon as well as pro scouts A.J. Highsmith and R.J. Gillen led the session. They provided brief thumbnails on each player who could potentially hit the open market on March 14.
From there, coaches had a few weeks to pour over the tape of players at their respective position group. What helps in this process is that Shanahan and Lynch have such specific traits they look for at each position. That makes it easy to determine who is a fit and who isn't.
By the beginning of March, the San Francisco 49ers had zeroed in on their two must-have players: former New York Giants center Weston Richburg and former Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon (beyond the signing of Richard Sherman following his release from the Seattle Seahawks).
"Richburg was a no-brainer. We knew that guy was a great fit for what we do," Lynch told 49ers.com. "It's not hard to put on the film and see that he's a pretty talented player."
San Francisco knew that McKinnon had all of the athletic traits necessary to thrive in Shanahan's offense, but at 5-foot-9 and 205 pounds, he's undersized compared to most featured backs. It was McKinnon's film that squashed any lingering uncertainty.
"He doesn't play little," Lynch said. "He's an excellent pass blocker."
Which is important because San Francisco knew it was going to have to pay top dollar to acquire McKinnon. That's where executive vice president of football operations Paraag Marathe entered the conversations. Marathe created a book with a projected market for each available player. Cap space wasn't an issue for the 49ers this offseason, but Marathe still allowed the team to enter negotiations in the right ballpark.
While San Francisco discussed terms with Richburg and McKinnon's respective representation, erroneous rumors linked the 49ers to other free agents.
"I'd wake up every day and see something and say, 'I didn't know we were interested in him, but apparently we are,'" Lynch joked.
The GM confirmed that the 49ers were not in play for either former Jacksonville Jaguars wideout Allen Robinson or former Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell.
"We got our two (guys)," Lynch said. "Those are the guys we targeted, and those are the guys we landed."
Lynch and Shanahan made it a point to enter free agency without the concern of public perception. The sticker shock, especially in the case of McKinnon, prompted plenty of critics. Lynch admitted that the 49ers paid more for the running back than initially expected, but that's what happens in a bidding war. It's since come out that the New York Jets were also fighting to land McKinnon. The 49ers ultimately signed the versatile back to a lucrative four-year deal.
"We know how we will use him," Lynch said defending McKinnon's price tag. "Whenever Kyle has had a clear and articulate vision as to how he's going to use someone, it's worked out. Is there some point where we would have bowed out (of negotiations)? Sure. But we weren't there yet."
John Lynch and Co. quickly turned the page to their next target: former Los Angeles Chargers pass rusher Jeremiah Attaochu. The 49ers had long admired Attaochu and even worked hard to acquire him at last year's trade deadline. There were "serious discussions that went down to the wire" as Lynch put it, but no deal came to fruition.
Attaochu, a former second-round pick out of Georgia Tech in 2014, brings with him the potential of filling the last glaring void on San Francisco's roster. The 49ers are in need of help rushing the passer, and Lynch believes there's untapped potential with Attaochu. The defensive lineman recorded six sacks in 2015 but has been quiet the last two years buried on the Chargers depth chart behind Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram.
"There's a skill set there that we really like," Lynch said. "We valued him and studied him a lot. We believe that it's all in there. Can it come to fruition? I don't know. But if it does then we've really hit on something."
Lynch shared similar sentiments on guard Jonathan Cooper, who was the next domino to fall in free agency. The former seventh-overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft lost his way a bit at the beginning of his career. Cooper played three seasons with the Arizona Cardinals before spending 2016 with the Cleveland Browns and 2017 with the Dallas Cowboys. Cooper made 13 starts at left guard for the Cowboys.
He figures to be a serious contender for a starting spot in San Francisco as Lynch believes Cooper is well on his way to reviving his career.
"We believe Jonathan is a legitimate competitor for an interior offensive line position," Lynch said. "He also has swing value."
Attaochu and Cooper have bet on themselves, taking one-year deals with the expectation that they're far from a finished product. Either (or both) could end up having a significant impact on next season.
Now the 49ers shift focus to the draft. San Francisco owns nine selections this year, headlined by the ninth-overall pick. And while the 2018 roster is far from a finished product, there's no debating that the 49ers are already in better shape than they were at the end of last season.
"We're not afraid to say that we're proud of what we're building, and we think we're building something pretty special," Lynch said.