George Kittle, four other 49ers future contract conundrums to get done

George Kittle, four other 49ers future contract conundrums to get done

The 49ers made some tough decisions this offseason. They paid Arik Armstead a solid sum. Then they traded DeForest Buckner, who would’ve commanded a massive payday, to the Indianapolis Colts for a draft pick used to acquire his replacement on a rookie deal.

That’s what championship teams must do to keep their championship window open. Sometimes those moves don’t work out and it closes a little faster. Sometimes it stays open a long time thanks to smart, calculated and often cutthroat use of the salary cap.

Buckner is an elite talent and a great leader no 49er wanted to let go, but getting Armstead and Javon Kinlaw and some extra coin for future re-signings might be worth it in this NFL business where sentiment is rarely smart.

The 49ers used to be flush with cap space but drafting well and sustaining a quality talent base means those days are done.

49ers general manager John Lynch knew tough choices were ahead this offseason.

“We can't go to the grocery store and say I'll have that, I'll have that, I'll have that," Lynch said in a Feb. 6 press conference. “It is more like, I'll have that, but I might have to put that back. There are tradeoffs.”

Time will tell if the 49ers made the right choices. They will have to make others coming up that could play a huge role in the team’s ability to sustain success.

Let’s take a closer look at some tough contract decisions hanging overhead:

TE George Kittle

Let’s make one thing crystal clear: This isn’t a will-they-or-won’t-they thing. Kittle is going to be a 49er for a long time. That should happen relatively soon, at a premium price. This isn’t about that. It’s more about how much will it take to sign Kittle, and how much could that eat into the team’s ability to keep others.

Quick aside: Nothing is straight causation in this business. If they keep Kittle, then they can’t keep [blank] -- it doesn’t always work like that. Restructures help, as the 49ers did with Kwon Alexander and Weston Richburg heading into this offseason. And other cuts can be made. A savvy negotiator/capologist can often make magic happen. Paraag Marathe is one.

Kittle definitely will set the tight end market. The question is by how much. Structure is as crucial as anything, but let’s not get lost in hypotheticals. Spotrac.com suggests he’ll get $12.5 million per season, though it could well be higher -- maybe $15 million -- considering how much he does for the team as a blocker and No. 1 pass catcher.

That type of talent, and the fact he’s a marketable public face of the franchise, means he’s getting paid. But, as I always say when discussing future deals, don’t worry about dollars. You aren’t writing Kittle’s checks and Jed York’s has plenty in his pockets. It’s about percentage of the salary cap.

I normally use the phrase “ever-increasing salary cap,” but the rate of increase might be below normal or maybe non-existent if the NFL plays without fans due to the coronavirus pandemic. That’s an unknown variable worth tracking as we move forward because a slow-down would mean a Kittle deal’s cap percentage wouldn’t decrease as fast.

Bottom line: Kittle’s staying put. How will the 49ers work the deal to help keep as many important pieces as possible? Creativity might be key here.

LT Trent Williams

The 49ers made an excellent trade during the NFL draft, swapping a 2020 fifth-round pick and a 2021 third rounder for the seven-time Pro Bowler. Player and team also decided to take a wait-and-see approach to a contract extension.

Williams plays a premium position and could cost a fortune despite already being over 30, especially if he plays to massive potential in 2020. Will the 49ers pay fair market value for Williams or is this a one-year rental? Is that worth it for two mid-round picks? It most certainly is if the 49ers win a Super Bowl. That’s worth some sacrifices.

As a counter, let’s use some quality Lynch selections as an example. Would a team give up Fred Warner (third round) and Dre Greenlaw (fifth round) for a year of Trent Williams and no Lombardi Trophy? That’s a tougher sell.

Keeping Williams for a longer-term, if he stays healthy and sustains excellent play, also makes that trade worthwhile. It will be interesting to see how both sides proceed.

49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

CB Richard Sherman

The elite cornerback bet on himself signing with the 49ers and rolled a Yahtzee. Awesome play triggered a series of escalators that upped his salary considerably. He’s entering a contract year, due $9 million in 2020, per OverTheCap.com.

What if Sherman plays like he did last year, when he earned a Pro Bowl nod and a second-team All-Pro selection? Would the 49ers pay similar or increased freight for someone who would be 33 entering the 2021 season? Sherman could be a Darrell Green type who could be good forever. Expecting a severe drop-off isn’t smart considering how good he has been for so long.

Let’s not forget how important he has been in the 49ers locker room.

This will be a hard choice we were talking about earlier, but it would be tough to let him walk if he sustains last year’s levels. The Seattle Seahawks did it after 2017 and their rivals benefitted greatly.

[RELATED: Why Armstead believes 49ers can avoid Super Bowl hangover]

QB Jimmy Garoppolo

We’ve talked about extending talent to this point. How about a possible subtraction that would make it easier signing others?

Garoppolo’s name is coming up here not because Jimmy G bashing is an oddly popular offseason endeavor and we’re playing to mob. He’s a good, productive quarterback who helped the 49ers win a lot of games when healthy. The guy has a 22-6 record as a 49ers starter, counting the playoffs, with six fourth-quarter comebacks. Let that sink in. Wins obviously are a team stat, but quarterbacks can drag a good team down.

Garoppolo hasn’t done that, in fact elevating the 49ers often times.

He's brought up here to remind that 2020 could be an important evaluation point on the quarterback position in combination with 49ers cap standing because it gets really easy to part ways after the season. Letting him walk before the 2021 season could save $24.1 million in cap space, with just $2.8 million in dead money, per OTC. It gets even cheaper in 2022.

One quick statement of the obvious: The 49ers better have a backup plan before exercising an easy out. Garoppolo’s the obvious No. 1 on the roster right now and a draft pick’s a risky proposition for a team trying to win Super Bowls right now. Importing a free agent would be even more expensive than the solid guy they already have, whose deal looks better as the market goes up.

EDGE Dee Ford

Some might say cutting Ford after 2020 would be an easy move to make. His salary no longer is guaranteed and would come with $12.8 million in cap savings and a $4.8 million hit, per OTC. That might help the 49ers keep Williams around if he’s as dominant as ever.

As a counter: Ford has had double digit sacks his last two seasons playing at least 15 games. When he was in a contract year and playing every week, he had 13 sacks and seven forced fumbles with the Kansas City Chiefs. That’s worth next season’s $15.1 million base salary in the current market.

Also, go back and read some clips after Ford returned from injury. His teammates considered him a game changer who had the speed to make everyone around him better. He brings a different and rare element to the game that’s worth a premium. Don’t forget he’ll essentially be on a pay-as-you-go deal and determined to either keep a good thing going with the 49ers or be attractive on the open market.

The no-brainers

We’ve talked a ton about hard choices the 49ers might have to make paying talent with even more on the horizon -- Fred Warner might get expensive soon; Mike McGlinchey and Nick Bosa have a while left on rookie deals but are gonna get rich -- but there are two easy moves that won’t impact the cap and York shouldn’t have to think much about. That’s extending head coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch.

They aren’t formally up until after the 2022 season but won’t get cheaper if the 49ers continue near last season’s pace. York might as well lock them up longer and do it soon, maybe when this season starts? Why not? The pairing works well, and has made the 49ers cool again.

Roger Goodell says NFL didn't listen, doesn't mention Colin Kaepernick

Roger Goodell says NFL didn't listen, doesn't mention Colin Kaepernick

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell admitted Friday that the league was wrong for "not listening to NFL players earlier" and that they "encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest," but his 81-second video didn't mention former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Kaepernick first sat, then kneeled during the playing of the national anthem before games in the 2016 season to protest police brutality and institutional racism. The QB's protest has recently received renewed attention, as demonstrations against the same issues spring up around the globe following the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, in Minneapolis police custody last Monday.

"We, the [NFL], believe black lives matter," Goodell said Friday. "I personally protest with you and want to be part of the much-needed change in this country. Without black players, there would be no [NFL] and the protests around the country are emblematic of the centuries of silence, inequality and oppression of black players, coaches, fans and staff.

"We are listening. I am listening. And I will be reaching out to players who have raised their voices and others on how we can improve and move forward for a better, more united NFL family."

The commissioner's comments came shortly after the league shared a video of players asking for the NFL to "listen" and admit they were "wrong in silencing our players from peacefully protesting." Multiple players, including star New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley, first shared the video Thursday.

"We will not be silenced," the players said. "We assert our right to peacefully protest."

Protests have taken place nationwide in each of the 10 nights following Floyd's death prior to this story's publication. Floyd pleaded that he couldn't breathe as Derek Chauvin, a since-fired officer who is white, pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes. The 46-year-old's death occurred within months of Breonna Taylor, 26, and Ahmaud Arbery, 25, dying, all as the coronavirus pandemic continues to disproportionately affect African Americans. Louisville police fatally shot Taylor in her home while reportedly performing a "no-knock" warrant, and two white men allegedly shot and murdered Arbery as he jogged around his Georgia neighborhood.

Demonstrators have taken the streets to protest the same issues Kaepernick highlighted, nearly four years after he first began protesting. Kaepernick, who agreed to kneel during "The Star-Spangled Banner" after consulting with former Seattle Seahawks long-snapper and Green Beret Nate Boyer, faced criticism for disrespecting the American flag and the country's veterans. Goodell said he didn't "necessarily agree with what [Kaepernick was] doing" in his first public comments after Kaepernick's protest.

“We have to choose respectful ways of doing that so that we can achieve the outcomes we ultimately want and do it with the values and ideals that make our country great,” Goodell told The Associated Press on Sept. 7, 2016. “I think it’s important to have respect for our country, for our flag, for the people who make our country better; for law enforcement; and for our military who are out fighting for our freedoms and our ideals.”

Goodell said in 2017 players had a "responsibility" of demonstrating "at the right time and in the right way." The NFL owners approved a national-anthem policy in May 2018 that would've required players to stand on the sideline as "The Star-Spangled Banner" played, but the league and the NFL Players Association announced in July there would be no new policy.

[RELATED: 49ers' Shanahan wants NFL to fix coaching diversity issue]

Kaepernick argued his protest cost him his career in a collusion lawsuit he settled with the league last February. The quarterback opted out of his contract ahead of the 2017 season, when the 49ers told him he'd otherwise be released, and has not been signed since. The NFL organized a workout for Kaepernick at the Atlanta Falcons' facility last November, but Kaepernick pulled out of the workout after the league barred media access and his lawyers deemed a liability waiver "unusual."

"I've been ready for three years, and I've been denied for three years," Kaepernick told reporters after moving the workout to a high school outside of Atlanta. "We all know why I came out here and showed it today in front of everybody -- we have nothing to hide. So we're waiting for the 32 owners, the 32 teams, Roger Goodell, all of them to stop running. Stop running from the truth, stop running from the people."

Goodell said in December that the NFL had "moved on" from Kaepernick after he "chose not to take" the opportunity the NFL gave him by moving the workout.

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

49ers' George Kittle reveals which NFL players are toughest to block

49ers' George Kittle reveals which NFL players are toughest to block

George Kittle has never kept his love for run-blocking a secret. Any opportunity to drive a defender into the turf is embraced by the 49ers tight end the same way kids greet the arrival of Christmas morning.

During a recent appearance on the “Bussin’ With The Boys” podcast with fellow NFL players Will Compton and Taylor Lewan, Kittle revealed two blocking assignments he doesn’t exactly live for.

“Khalil Mack’s tough,” Kittle said. “He’s pretty good. (Jadeveon) Clowney is pretty good too.”

Kittle and Mack faced off late in the 2018 season, during a low-scoring dogfight at Levi’s Stadium between the 49ers and Chicago Bears. Mack got three hits in on quarterback Nick Mullens, but didn’t end up with a sack among his five tackles.

[RELATED: Ranking top 49ers plays in franchise's storied history: No. 5-1]

Clowney was a difficult assignment for the Niners in both matchups last season, although Kittle was inactive for the Seattle Seahawks’ win on "Monday Night Football" in Week 10.

The current free agent had six tackles and five QB hits over those two games against San Francisco, not to mention scoring one of his two touchdowns on the season after scooping up a fumble.

Mack and Kittle could face off when the 49ers and Bears meet during the 2020 preseason on Aug. 29, but it remains to be seen where Clowney will wind up signing in free agency. 

Some have even postulated he could be a fit for the 49ers, if no team is willing to meet a reportedly exorbitant asking price.

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]