Green Bay Packers

Why Damarious Randall is 49ers' dream signing to replace Jimmie Ward

Why Damarious Randall is 49ers' dream signing to replace Jimmie Ward

The 49ers have numerous free agents and not a ton of cap space with which to re-sign them. What San Francisco chooses to do with safety Jimmie Ward could either add to the 49ers' coffers, or further deplete them -- significantly.

Ward is an unrestricted free agent and coming off a career-year in which he totaled 65 tackles, 1.0 sack and eight passes defensed across 13 regular-season games, all starts. He also was a critical part of the team's NFL playoff run, starting all three games and forcing a fumble in the Super Bowl. 

He signed a one-year, $5 million contract last offseason, a price that was somewhat depressed due to his injury history. Ward then missed the first three games of the season with a fractured finger, leading to more of the same criticism he had dealt with through the first five seasons of his NFL career. He returned in Week 4, however, and played the rest of the way, putting forth a productive season that might put him out of San Francisco's reach on the free-agent market.

If the 49ers move on from Ward this offseason, they have options, both internal and external, to replace him with. Bleacher Report's Kristopher Knox recently laid out his most realistic dream signing for every NFL team in free agency, and when it comes to potentially replacing Ward, he believes Damarious Randall is who San Francisco should target.

"If the 49ers allow Ward to walk, Damarious Randall would be a good replacement," Knox wrote. "He's just 27 years old and has 47 passes defended and 14 interceptions in five seasons. His ball-hawking ability and versatility -- he played cornerback for three seasons with the Packers -- would mesh nicely with Robert Saleh's defense."

For the reasons Knox described, Randall would make plenty of sense for San Francisco if it turns out there's an opening at free safety. While he is almost identical in size to Ward, he's one year younger and has been both more productive and more dependable throughout his career. Despite entering the NFL a year after Ward, Randall has appeared in and started more games, and has recorded considerably more interceptions (14 to two) and tackles (290 to 251) over his five seasons with the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns.

[RELATED: If not re-signed, Ward thinks 49ers should stick with Moore]

Randall is an unrestricted free agent after playing last season on his fifth-year option, but might be hitting the market at the wrong time -- for him, at least. He is coming off a down year, and Ward's numbers last season, for instance, were better across the board. Consequently, Randall is likely to fall lower in the free safety free-agent hierarchy. That, however, might increase the likelihood that he would be a fit with San Francisco.

Given the 49ers' dearth of cap space, they're going to need to find some diamonds in the rough. Randall wasn't great last season, but his track record leads one to believe he could fit that description.

NFL rumors: League seeks to add seventh playoff team in each conference

NFL rumors: League seeks to add seventh playoff team in each conference

The NFL’s playoff structure is expected to change to reportedly include seven teams in both conferences to advance to the postseason.

The current proposal, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, would add one playoff team in each conference and only the top seed in the AFC and NFC would be rewarded with byes in the first round of the playoffs.

The changes to the playoff format would take effect this season when the new collective bargaining agreement is ratified. ESPN reports there is “mounting optimism” the new CBA will be agreed upon within the week.

Through last season, the top six teams in both conferences made the playoffs. If the playoff proposal had been in effect last season, the Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers would have advanced to the playoffs as the Nos. 7 seeds.

As the No. 1 seed in the NFC, the 49ers would have still earned a first-round bye in the playoffs. But the Green Bay Packers, the No. 2 seed, would have played in the extra game against the Rams. If the Rams were to have upset the Packers in the wild-card round, the 49ers would have played Los Angeles in the NFC Divisional Playoff instead of the Minnesota Vikings.

But the new proposal would have had an even more major impact in the AFC, where the Kansas City Chiefs would have been forced to win three games in the playoffs just to advance to the Super Bowl.

"That's been agreed to for a long time," one source familiar with the CBA talks told ESPN about the NFL's new playoff structure. "There wasn't a lot of disagreement to that issue."

[RELATED49ers roster analysis: More receiver depth needed around Deebo Samuel]

Players on the top team in each conference will receive postseason pay for the bye weekend, unlike years past, according to the report.

Also, ESPN reported that the sides are also trying to work through a proposal for a 17-game regular season, while the exhibition season is shortened to three games. The earliest that change could occur would be the 2021 season, according to the report.

49ers expected to win 10 or fewer games in 2020 by Pro Football Focus

49ers expected to win 10 or fewer games in 2020 by Pro Football Focus

The 49ers went 13-3 in the regular season last year, barely edging out the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints for the top seed in the NFC playoffs. San Francisco should be good again in 2020, and certainly capable of contending for a playoff spot -- if not more. That said, there's reason to believe the Niners will have a worse record in the season ahead, even if they're not necessarily a worse team.

A few days after San Francisco's heartbreaking loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV, early NFL season win totals were posted, and the 49ers were given an over/under of 10.5 victories. Pro Football Focus' Eric Eager recently examined some of his favorite values based on those early win total projections, and San Francisco's 'under' was among the select few.

"The 49ers are in a very similar place to where the Los Angeles Rams were a season ago," Eager wrote. "They have a great, young offensive mind, a quarterback who is good but needs infrastructure to succeed and a defense that was among the league's best, especially up front."

In explaining his reasoning for the under, Eager focused on some of San Francisco's pending free agents.

"With Emmanuel Sanders, Arik Armstead and Jimmie Ward set to be free agents, and with only $13 million in cap space and a situation where the team likely needs to get better fundamentally just to stay the same, look for the 49ers to remain a good team in 2020 but, like the Rams, fall short of double-digit-win expectations against a schedule that includes non-NFC West opponents New England, Dallas, Buffalo, New Orleans and Green Bay."

That last bit is important, too. As part of the league's effort to create parity, the 49ers had a third-place schedule last season, after finishing in third place in the NFC West in 2018. That obviously won't be the case in 2020, as San Francisco will play a first-place schedule as the reigning NFC West champions. 

So, Eager brings up several good points. The 49ers will not only have a tougher schedule in the coming season, but also might be without one or more marquee players that helped them reach the Super Bowl. Add in the fact that San Francisco won't be sneaking up on any teams in the year ahead, and it's easy to understand why the Niners are expected to win fewer games in 2020 than they did in 2019.

However, I'd caution against comparing the 2020 49ers to the 2019 Rams.

Whereas San Francisco reached the Super Bowl with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo carrying a $20 million cap hit, Los Angeles did so while Jared Goff still was on his rookie contract, which carried a cap hit of just under $3 million. That's an extra $17 million the Rams could comparatively spread around their roster to build a Super Bowl contender that the 49ers didn't have.

This is why good quarterbacks on rookie contracts are so valuable.

Los Angeles ran into trouble once Goff's rookie contract concluded -- prior to the start of last season. He carried a $26 million cap hit this past season, and without that additional financial flexibility, the Rams had to cut costs elsewhere, which significantly deteriorated their overall depth. The end result? Going from Super Bowl runner-up to a 9-7 non-playoff team.

While the 49ers will have to make some tough decisions due to their salary-cap constraints as Eager noted, the space they have already has been accounted for their QB's large salary. Yes, they still need to re-sign some big-money players, but they should be far better able to retain the depth that made them so formidable than the Rams proved capable of.

[RELATED: Why 49ers seem to be in good shape at QB this offseason]

The odds are against San Francisco reaching at least 13 regular-season wins in 2020. That doesn't necessarily mean they'll be a worse team, though, and expecting a three-victory dropoff (or more) seems a bit extreme for a team that was minutes away from winning the Lombardi Trophy, and should return most of what made them so dominant.