Sometime Tuesday, a peal of thunder tore the air, the clouds opened up, the world was bathed in an eerie light the color of Jose Cuervo Gold, and the NFL announced that Rob Gronkowski had come out of retirement. The Patriots are trading him to Tampa Bay, where he will reunite with his boo, Tom Brady.
Gronk’s emergence from a one-year hiatus got me thinking. Which former 49ers would be most likely to un-retire and join their former team in Santa Clara? Is Jerry Rice too old? Would Ian Williams consider putting down his microphone and sliding into a locker at Levi’s Stadium?
Here are my top 10 ex-49ers to coax off the couch and onto the field. I included guys who (as far as I know) never officially announced their retirements, but are currently unaffiliated and have sat out at least one full season.
GARRETT CELEK: If Gronkowski can do it, why not this recently retired tight end? Celek was no George Kittle, but he was a popular 49ers teammate for eight years and a versatile minor part in the system. I’m sure he hasn’t forgotten directions to team headquarters, either. Celek announced his retirement on Feb. 7 after battling back injuries for a year. Is it Celek Time again? Maybe he can be this year’s Earl Mitchell.
PIERRE GARCON: Yes, he is 33 years old, the elder of this list. But Garcon played as recently as 2018, when he caught 24 passes for the 49ers. No doubt he has lost some speed. But who is the Niners’ current top possession wide receiver? Hello? Anyone?
ELI HAROLD: He was highly disappointing in his three years as a 49ers edge rusher, collecting just five sacks in three full seasons. Harold did a little better for the Lions in 2018, but after a trade to Philadelphia, the Eagles cut him just before the 2019 season. He has failed to latch on since. Harold is just 26, though, and he always was a superior athlete. Is he worth one more shot as a Dee Ford insurance policy?
BRANDON FUSCO: Do you guys remember Fusco starting 16 games at right guard for the 49ers in 2017? No? Me either, really. But he did. They were among the 87 starts he made in eight NFL seasons, most of them with Minnesota. The 49ers need help in the interior line. It seems they always do lately. There are worse options than the 31-year-old Fusco, who I believe has never announced his retirement.
BROCK COYLE: He broke a bone in his back in 2018, and I’m not generally in favor of luring athletes into long-term health problems. But who knows how the man’s body is feeling at this point? Coyle hasn’t hit 30 yet, and he was a solid linebacker for the 49ers in 2017, when he started 10 games and finished fifth on the team with 64 tackles.
TORREY SMITH: Another aging wide receiver who might contribute to a team with few proven wide receivers. Smith is smart and committed, and was a great locker-room presence in Santa Clara. He is a little younger than Garcon at 31, but hasn’t topped 500 yards in a season since 2015, his first with the 49ers. He retired last September. He’s still faster than you or me.
QUINTON DIAL: Every team needs depth on the D-line, right? That includes the 49ers, who are attempting to replace stalwart defensive tackle DeForest Buckner by committee. Dial last played in 2017, a season in Green Bay that was ruined by a knee injury. The guy was good during his four seasons with the Niners, though. Quite good. Dial started a total of 26 games in 2015-16.
ALEX BOONE: Unlike most of these guys, Boone has announced that he is actively attempting a comeback after two seasons away from the game. He reportedly hung out at the NFL combine in February to meet with prospective teams. Boone always was a good blocker, impressively athletic for his size (6-7, 330). At 32, he might have some tread on the tires. I must admit that Boone was never my favorite 49er. He could be downright rude. On the other hand, getting him back on the roster might get him off the local radio airwaves, and I’d be fine with that.
COLIN KAEPERNICK: Quick reminder. Kaepernick is not actually retired. He is just, uh, not quite as good as [checks notes] Trevor Siemian and Luke Falk, both of whom started NFL games in 2019? Somehow? True, Kyle Shanahan already decided once that Kap wasn’t his quarterback. Never say never, though. You know Kaepernick is in great shape, and 32 is prime career for a QB. Plus, signing him would generate massive attention, most of it positive here in the Bay Area.
CHRIS BORLAND: He walked away after an outstanding rookie season in 2014, citing his unwillingness to risk health and happiness in the wake of multiple concussions. Since then, Borland has become of sports’ most respected voices on the subject of head injuries. He’s just 29 yet. Still, I think the only chance here is for Borland to invent his own state-of-the-art helmet and come back to Santa Clara to prove its worth.