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.
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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.
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.
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.