49ers

Why Ian Rapoport says 49ers have 'tough decisions' to make on defense

Why Ian Rapoport says 49ers have 'tough decisions' to make on defense

The 49ers are just a few days away from taking the field in Super Bowl LIV, but it's never too early to look ahead to next year.

San Francisco came out of nowhere to meet the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl after a nine-win improvement over the previous season, and while the Niners are the league's surprise team, that won't be the case in 2020.

"There were definitely issues with the 49ers last year that they fixed not only quickly, but fixed in a way that will make them have staying power," NFL Media's Ian Rapoport told NBC Sports Bay Area's Scott Bair on Thursday. "Like, I feel like this team, if they were back here next year, I'd say, 'Okay, that makes sense.'"

"They didn't need a ton," Rapoport added, "but they needed a little bit, and the way they're constructed, they could be around a while."

One could argue the 49ers are playing with house money in Miami, but they might want to save some for the offseason in order to re-sign a number of key players, specifically on the defensive side of the ball.

"They're going to have to shed money," Rapoport said on Radio Row. "They absolutely are."

Among the players that are due for contract extensions are tight end George Kittle, defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead and safety Jimmie Ward. While Rapoport assumes San Francisco will prioritize Kittle, he believes the salary cap could make it challenging to bring back all of the defensive standouts.

"He has played really, really well," Rapoport said of Ward, who is due to hit unrestricted free agency. "Might have even priced himself out of San Francisco, which for him would be good news."

[RELATED: Kittle identifies key in 49ers going from 0-9 in '17 to SB]

Rapoport notes that the 49ers have done a good job of extending their players early and getting creative with the salary cap, so he doesn't rule out the possibility of anyone returning. He also expects both linebacker Kwon Alexander and edge rusher Dee Ford to "probably" return next season.

You can watch the full interview with Rapoport at the top of this article.

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers Super Bowl coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (8:30 p.m. Thursday, 9:30 p.m. Friday, and 3 p.m. Saturday).

Also tune in at 1 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday for a two-hour special of "49ers Pregame Live" with Laura Britt, Donte Whitner, Jeff Garcia, Ian Williams, Kelli Johnson, Greg Papa and Grant Liffmann. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on "49ers Postgame Live," starting immediately after the game.

How Patrick Mahomes' contract compares to 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo deal

How Patrick Mahomes' contract compares to 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo deal

As expected, the NFL’s quarterback market has been completely reset by Patrick Mahomes. The Kansas City Chiefs inked the quarterback to a 10-year contract Monday, worth $503 million (yeah, not a typo there) that is added on to the final two years of his rookie contract.

49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo already was knocked out of having the league’s highest base salary for 2020 by Dak Prescott’s franchise tag with the Dallas Cowboys, and Jimmy G now has the fourth-largest total contract in the NFL after Mahomes’ record-obliterating contract extension.

Mahomes' new deal sets him up for an average annual salary of $47.7 million, by far the league's highest value. Garoppolo now sits No. 11 overall among NFL QBs, with an AAV of $27.5 million.

I’m not going to waste your time comparing Garoppolo and Mahomes as quarterbacks, we all know which one is better. But just for fun, here is how they matched up statistically in 2019 (Mahomes missed two regular-season games with injury).

Garoppolo: 69.1 Cmp%, 3,978 yards, 27 TDs, 13 INT, 8.4 Y/A, 5.7 TD%

Mahomes: 65.9 Cmp%, 4,031 yards, 26 TDs, 5 INT, 8.3 Y/A, 5.4 TD%

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

Although the two aren’t in the same stratosphere as quarterbacks, they do lead two of the NFL’s most dominant teams. The 49ers’ punishing defense and buttoned up offense bulldozed teams last season all the way to the Super Bowl, before running into Mahomes and the Chiefs’ battering ram of an offense in Miami Gardens this past February.

[RELATED: 49ers sign cornerback Jamar Taylor, waive Teez Tabor to clear roster spot]

It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see the two teams match up in at least one more Super Bowl down the road, especially with how well the 49ers handled this offseason, reloading through two first-round draft picks and a big-time trade for Trent Williams.

Winning a Super Bowl and a league MVP within your first three seasons as a starting quarterback is incredibly rare, and Mahomes earned every dollar of that contract. But every other quarterback in the league, Garoppolo included, have to be intrigued about how this will impact their future contracts now that Mahomes has secured the half-billion-dollar bag.

How 49ers can compete with Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs after huge contract

How 49ers can compete with Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs after huge contract

Patrick Mahomes always will be "the one that got away." Not just for the 49ers, not just for the Chicago Bears, but for a handful of teams.

Mahomes somehow fell to the Kansas City Chiefs with the No. 10 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, and now he isn't going anywhere for a long, long time. Mahomes and the Chiefs agreed to a 10-year contract extension Monday, worth $503 million.

The 49ers, who owned the No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft and selected Solomon Thomas after trading back one spot with the Chicago Bears, saw Mahomes' greatness firsthand on the brightest stage just five months ago. San Francisco forced Mahomes into two interceptions and sacked the 2018 NFL MVP four times. Still, that wasn't enough. 

Mahomes and the Chiefs trailed the 49ers by 10 points with just over six minutes remaining in Super Bowl LIV. They then scored 21 unanswered points, beating the 49ers 31-20. In the blink of an eye, Mahomes stole the Lombardi Trophy from Jimmy Garoppolo and the rest of the 49ers. 

While they don't play in the same conference, Mahomes staying in Kansas City for at least the next dozen years is a significant obstacle in the 49ers winning their first championship since the 1994 season. How can they compete with the Chiefs long-term for their own Super Bowl rings? Here are three keys to a tough task. 

Jimmy G's development 

This is where I put on my Captain Obvious hat. Yes, it all starts with Garoppolo, who was playing as good or better than Mahomes for much of the 49ers' Super Bowl loss. But Garoppolo fell short, there's no denying that. 

We also have to remember this was Garoppolo's first full season in Kyle Shanahan's system, one year after tearing his ACL. Yet he still led the 49ers to 13 regular-season wins while passing for nearly 4,000 yards, and completed 69.1 percent of his pass attempts. Garoppolo wasn't on Mahomes' level last season, but he was very good. 

The simple fact is Garoppolo ranked in the top five in the NFL in touchdowns (27), completion percentage and yards per attempt (8.4). He deserves more respect, and his coach feels the same way. 

“Jimmy was one of the better quarterbacks in the league (last) year, and there’s still a ton of room to grow, though,” coach Kyle Shanahan said during the 49ers’ State of the Franchise virtual event. “And he knows that. I know that. To have only one year in this league for him to do what he did is very exciting.

“I can’t wait to get started with him this year. And I expect him to get better and better each week.”

The 49ers have defended Garoppolo all offseason. He has his faults, sure. He also is one of the better QBs in the league. If the 49ers are to make multiple championship runs, Garoppolo has to continue developing his game. 

It all starts with Jimmy G. 

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

Re-sign George Kittle

The offense starts with Garoppolo, but Kittle might be the biggest cog in the machine. There's a reason why he was Pro Football Focus' highest rated player in the game last season. 

Kittle is football's biggest unicorn. He's part bruising offensive lineman and part bulldozing receiver. The tight end truly is the best of both worlds. He also is due for a huge payday. 

San Francisco's All-Pro is set to be a free agent after this season. The goal, however, is to never let him get there. His agent believes Kittle will be a 49er long-term, but it will take a hefty new contract.

“George is a very special player. He needs a special contract,” Bechta said to NBC Sports Bay Area's Matt Maiocco on the 49ers Insider Podcast. “And those things take time for both sides. It’s a nice problem for everybody to have.

“At the end of the day, I trust the Niners will do the right thing and take good care of George, as they should. But I trust the process. I won’t comment where we’re at, or numbers or anything like that. But hopefully it gets done.”

It has to get done. The 49ers are a Porsche with Kittle on the field, and a beat-up Honda Civic -- à la my own car that has become The City drivers' favorite target practice -- without him.

[RELATED: Lott believes Shanahan is 49ers' modern version of Walsh]

Keep Fred Warner long-term

For how important Kittle is to the 49ers' offense, Warner nearly has as big of an impact on the defense. He is the perfect hybrid linebacker in today's modern NFL, one who can actually slow down elite QBs like Mahomes and Lamar Jackson. 

In the Super Bowl alone, Warner put on a show. He had seven tackles, one pass defensed and intercepted Mahomes.

Warner has averaged 121 tackles through his first two seasons in the league. Even more importantly, he's dominant in defending the passing game. He already is among the best linebackers when it comes to breaking up passes, and had a 74.5 coverage grade across 1,166 total snaps last season. That was the fifth-best grade of any linebacker who played at least 1,000 snaps.

Through two seasons with the 49ers, Warner has three interceptions and 15 passes defensed. He also added three sacks and three forced fumbles last season. 

Warner, a 2018 third-round pick, is signed through the next two seasons. The 49ers have to keep him in the Bay Area for much longer.

Everything starts with Garoppolo and Kittle is the engine that makes the offense run. Warner, however, is at the forefront of a breed of linebackers who can change the game on defense, even giving stars like Mahomes headaches for years to come.