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49ers' five remaining roster needs after first wave of free agency

The 49ers’ latest apparent free-agent departure leaves the team without a reliable return specialist.

Ray-Ray McCloud filled that role the past two seasons and averaged a solid 9.8 yards on 57 punt returns during that time.

The 49ers filled their biggest offseason needs with the announcements Thursday of deals for four defensive linemen.

The 49ers re-signed defensive tackle Kevin Givens, signed former Cleveland defensive tackle Jordan Elliott and former Carolina Panthers defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos, and acquired defensive tackle Maliek Collins in a trade with the Houston Texans.

So what’s left for the 49ers to accomplish this offseason? Here are their biggest needs:

Offensive guard

Why: Veteran Jon Feliciano took over as the starting right guard to replace a struggling Spencer Burford. Feliciano played well. And when he exited Super Bowl LVIII with an injury, Burford replaced him and busted an assignment that left Kansas City star defensive tackle Chris Jones on a key third-down play in overtime.

Burford has not proven he can improve and develop into a reliable starter. And Feliciano remains unsigned as a free agent.

The plan: General manager John Lynch recently expressed his desire to re-sign Feliciano. So that clearly is an option.

Regardless, adding an immediate starter at right guard is a possibility when the 49ers go on the clock with the No. 31 overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. The 49ers could even trade up to make sure they get their guy.

Nickel back

Why: This is the area of the defense that was a liability all season. First, Isaiah Oliver struggled and got benched. Deommodore Lenoir played well in that role, but it meant that Ambry Thomas entered games at cornerback. The more Thomas played, the more he got exploited.

The plan: Perhaps, the 49ers have a keeper in Darrell Luter, a fifth-round draft pick last year. San Francisco should be able to find a starting nickel back — such as Mike Sainristil (Michigan), Dru Phillips (Kentucky) or Kris Abrams-Draine (Missouri) — in the third or fourth rounds of the draft.

Return specialist

Why: McCloud was generally good in his role. However, he did make the mistake in the Super Bowl of not taking greater measures to secure the live ball after Kansas City’s punt hit Luger’s leg.

Ronnie Bell struggled mightily as a rookie when he was called upon to field punts while McCloud was on injured reserve. The 49ers have to find a pair of steady hands in the return game.

The plan: The 49ers will continue to work with Bell to see if he can be a factor in the return game. But the best bet for Lynch is to remain opportunistic in free agency and the draft to look for someone to fill that vital role.

Linebacker

Why: Dre Greenlaw is going through physical therapy after surgery to repair his torn left Achilles tendon. He sustained the devastating injury in the second quarter of the Super Bowl.

The 49ers had a verbal agreement on Wednesday with veteran free-agent Eric Kendricks. But Kendricks changed his mind and signed with the Dallas Cowboys instead.

The plan: Oren Burks and Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles remain as unrestricted free agents. Based on the 49ers’ pursuit of Kendricks, they were looking to upgrade the No. 3 linebacker position. They might still be looking at the free-agent market.

Burks and Flannigan-Fowles remain options while the team also will look to develop such young players as Dee Winters, Jalen Graham and Curtis Robinson to increase the competition.

Wide receiver

Why: The departure of McCloud also stripped the 49ers of some depth at wide receiver. McCloud never was a big contributor on offense, but the 49ers need more depth behind Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel and Jauan Jennings.

The plan: The 49ers will try to add a veteran wide receiver or two on their limited budget. And with Aiyuk due for a big contract and Samuel’s future pay increases, the 49ers must create better depth at wide receiver.

There should be opportunities for the 49ers to take advantage of what promises to be a deep pool of wide receivers in the upcoming draft. They need to add more young talent after Danny Gray and Bell have yet to establish themselves from recent drafts.

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