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The 2020 offseason will be one that quickly reveals how much the 49ers value keeping their Super Bowl group together, and how they want to approach the re-tooling of that mostly young roster over the course of the next few seasons. Below are the team’s 14 unrestricted free agents, followed by restricted free agents and exclusive rights free agents (who can either accept the team’s tender or sit out a full season).
Predicting the big three: Armstead, Ward, Sanders
Arik Armstead: Non-exclusive franchise tag
Joel Corry of CBSSports, a former agent, NFL contract and salary cap expert, projects the franchise tag for defensive ends to be at $17,950,000, assuming the NFL’s salary cap is set at $200 million for the 2020 season.
The reason the 49ers will franchise tag Armstead is pretty straightforward. Their cap space will likely be even tighter in 2021 than it looks to be in 2020, but it doesn’t seem like they want to lose Armstead, at least not right now. This team made the Super Bowl because they had a dominant defensive line, and that line was the reason they nearly won that game.
General manager John Lynch said in his final availability of the season: “We want to find a way to keep [Armstead] and make him a part of the 49ers for a long time.”
It’s unclear how much of that was lip service. Lynch said earlier in the season that Armstead is “going to make a lot of money,” and made the not-so-optimistic statement of: “We’re glad we have him and we’re going to work hard to try to keep him, but you can only sign so many, so we’ll see where that goes.”
Armstead said at the 49ers’ final availability of the season that he’s not opposed to playing next season on the franchise tag.
The 49ers’ cap situation is very tight (currently projected at $12.98 million, but effectively $21.38 million once Jerick McKinnon and Marquise Goodwin are both cut), and that’s before DeForest Buckner and George Kittle negotiate likely massive contract extensions. It likely means a restructuring of Jimmy Garoppolo’s contract, along with an extension and upcoming year cap decrease for Kyle Juszczyk (more on all that below).
There are a host of other moves that the 49ers will have to make to retain all three of their key free agents in Armstead, Emmanuel Sanders and Jimmie Ward, but franchise tagging Armstead seems like the most predictable outcome of the three.
There’s no question the 49ers could look to trade Armstead, a la the Dee Ford trade to San Francisco, which netted the Kansas City Chiefs a second-round pick. There’s clear appeal there, especially for a team that has no draft picks from the second through fourth rounds this season. But after being minutes away from a Super Bowl victory thanks to fantastic defensive line play, the safest bet is on Armstead playing out next season on the franchise tag.
Jimmie Ward: Re-signed on two-year, $15 million deal
It was evident just how impactful a healthy Jimmie Ward was last season. Well, a mostly healthy Jimmie Ward. He played his first career 16-game season thanks to the 49ers’ three playoff games, after missing the opening three games of the year with a freak finger fracture. His symbiosis with Jaquiski Tartt elevated the secondary to an elite level, and there’s a genuine argument that he played at a Pro Bowl level.
With the expiry of the one-year, $4.5 million prove-it deal Ward signed last offseason, he’ll be looking for some sort of financial security coming off a career-best season. However, the safety market is tricky. There’s really one question, and it’s one of the 49ers’ biggest questions for this offseason, and it’s whether a team will be willing to pay Ward over multiple seasons.
Ward’s injury history and lack of Pro Bowl nods will be used against him, and while 28 isn’t old by any stretch, you’re not paying for youth, either. It’s hard to imagine a team signing Ward for any more than three years, and it’s hard to imagine anyone valuing him more than the 49ers.
He said in his final availability of the season that he’d prefer to be back in Santa Clara, but understands he’s not the first priority the 49ers have to deal with.
“The 49ers, they have the upper hand right now,” Ward said. “This is where I would like to be at, like to continue playing for this great organization. But there’s a lot of great guys on offense and defense and you gotta lock some guys in. You don’t want a few of these other guys to hit free agency because it’d be hard to afford them guys. But I don’t know, you know how free agency can go either way.”
If a team makes Ward a deal along the lines of three years, $24 million or more, though, don’t be surprised to see the 49ers balk at the price tag and the length. There are other options out there, like Devin McCourty, Tre Boston, Haha Clinton-Dix and Damarious Randall, so don’t expect San Francisco to tie itself to Ward because it’s not yet sold on Tarvarius Moore.
That said, a two-year deal with a substantial raise seems like it could be in the cards.
Emmanuel Sanders: Re-signed on two-year, $16 million deal
When Sanders came to the 49ers, it fundamentally changed the offense, providing two elite pass-receiving threats along with Kittle, and upping the games of Deebo Samuel and Kendrick Bourne. The 32-year-old Sanders, having played a full decade in the NFL (155 games) plus 47 games in his four-year college career at SMU, has said his main priority is winning.
“Once I become a free agent, obviously yeah, [winning] is going to factor in a lot,” Sanders said during his introductory presser in October. “A lot of people don’t understand, yeah the money’s good, I’ve made my fair share of that, but I think it’s it’s about happiness. It’s about happiness, it’s about, is it worth it? Because for me, if I’m just playing for the money and then we talk about longevity, it’s not worth it for me. I love playing football, I love being happy, I love winning games and I think that’s going to be definitely the ultimate deciding factor of where I go.”
So, if it’s really just about happiness and winning games is the “ultimate deciding factor,” the choice should be fairly straightforward as long as the money is fair from the 49ers’ end.
Sanders, who has made $53.85 million in his career, per OverTheCap said in the 49ers’ final locker-room availability that he was both confident the team was set up to win for “a long time” and that Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch are “special guys.”
“In terms of team chemistry, I’ve never seen anything better,” Sanders said earlier the year on the Murph and Mac show.
Think something like a two-year, $16-to-$18 million deal.
Like Ward, if a team goes long on Sanders, say three years plus, it could get tricky. He didn’t show any signs of his age or the fact that he suffered a torn Achilles with the Broncos two years ago, but there is a ton of mileage on Sanders, and unless the 49ers can get him on a deal with almost zero guaranteed money in his third season (not out of the question for Paarag Marathe), that type of length could be an issue.
Again, though, if it’s really just about competing for a championship and Sanders did enjoy being in Santa Clara as much as seemed to be the case, expect him to be back.
The other unrestricted free agents
Ronald Blair III: Re-signed on three-year, $6 million deal
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has a saying about Ronald Blair: “If you want to win, put Ronnie in.” The 27-year-old defensive end has struggled with injuries in his career, missing 12 games in his sophomore season in 2017, and missing the second stretch of the 2019 season after tearing his right ACL.
But Blair had a tremendous season before that and may have been the defensive loss the 49ers quietly missed most along with D.J. Jones. Outside of the big four defensive line unit of Dee Ford, DeForest Buckner, Armstead and Nick Bosa, it was Blair and Jones who were the second-unit stars (Jones sometimes started at nose tackle, but for all intents and purposes was with the second unit). Both were extraordinarily good at stopping the run, an area that struggled without them.
Coming off an ACL injury, Blair likely won’t be valued anywhere more than in Santa Clara, and it’s clear his presence was missed. As long as the price is right, he should be back.
Ben Garland: Re-signed on three-year, $5 million deal
Weston Richburg’s deal was restructured so his cap hit is only $4.3 million next season, but he is on the 49ers’ books heavily for 2021 and 2022. After a season of playing through a torn quad in 2018 (and undergoing offseason surgery) and tearing his patella tendon in 2019, Richburg’s health has become impossible to rely on.
That’s not to say Richburg won’t be healthy in 2020, but the 49ers can’t bank on that being the case, and they’ve seen more than enough of Ben Garland to know that he’s a capable option at center, which is not easy to find.
Anthony Zettel, Damontre Moore, Sheldon Day, Levine Toilolo, Dontae Johnson, Jason Verrett, Jordan Matthews: Re-signed on one-year, minimum deals
Thanks to the top-51 rule, only the top-51 contracts count against a team’s salary cap. That means the minimum contracts, even for an eight-year veteran like Moore, who would make around $945,000, don’t move the needle all that much in terms of salary cap implications.
All three of Zettel, Moore and Day showed their value last season, and the 49ers have made clear they want depth along the defensive line. Unless the market shapes up for any of those three, the 49ers should be able to bring them back on one-year fliers.
Toilolo and Lee were the most useful of the remaining group, though neither one is particularly crucial to the 49ers. Bringing back Johnson, Matthews and Verrett on cuttable, training-camp deals causes no harm and provides competition in the secondary and at wide receiver.
Earl Mitchell, Shon Coleman: Free agency
Mitchell un-retired only for the 49ers and it’s unclear if he intends to head back to retirement. If he doesn’t, it’s feasible to see him back with the 49ers for training camp. Coleman is a tricky one, given that he looked tremendous in the preseason as the 49ers’ swing tackle backup and is entering his fifth season at age 28.
He seems like a player that would be out of the 49ers’ price range, even coming off an ACL tear, given how hard it is to find decent offensive line depth in the NFL.
Restricted free agents can be offered one of three tenders:
First Round Tender: $4,667,000
Second Round Tender: $3,278,000
Original Round Tender: $2,144,000
Those free agents can negotiate with other teams, but the 49ers would have the option to match, and if they don’t, they’d receive a draft pick accordingly, with a first-round pick for a first-round tender, a second-round-pick for a second-round tender and the original round a player was drafted in for the original round tender.
Kendrick Bourne, Matt Breida: Original-round tender
Because Bourne and Breida were both undrafted, there’s no compensation if they’re signed away. Given that Breida played very little for the 49ers down the stretch, has struggled with injuries and ball security and running backs are a dime a dozen in the NFL, offering him an original round tender seems like the most pragmatic option.
Bourne might be a little trickier, given just how limited the 49ers are with cap space. He became the team’s clutch, third-down and third-choice receiver behind Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel and figures to be a key part of the offense going forward. The question is whether he’s offered the second-round tender, which costs more than $1.1 million more than the original round tender.
It’s tough to gauge given his productivity, and with no draft compensation required, it’s not unreasonable to think other teams would be interested at the original round tender. There are limited ways the 49ers can create cap space without jeopardizing their long-term plans, and that might require offering Bourne the cheapest tender.
Elijah Lee: Re-signed on one-year, minimum deal
Lee is the 49ers’ third restricted free agent, and there’s no reason for them to offer him a tender at all given his production. Unless someone else scoops him up, a one-year deal seems to be in the cards.
Jeff Wilson Jr., Emmanuel Moseley, Daniel Brunskill, Ross Dwelley, Nick Mullens, Andrew Lauderdale: ERFA tender
An Early Restricted Free Agent isn’t really a free agent at all. They’re a hostage. Third-year players like the ones above get the sweet option of signing a team’s ERFA tender, ranging from $585,000 to $660,000, or sitting out a full season. Because those cap hits are extortionately low, they don’t count on the top-51 and so there’s no reason for a team not to bring players back on an ERFA tender.
How do they afford all this?
The cuts: Jerick McKinnon, Marquise Goodwin, Tevin Coleman, Mark Nzeocha
Cutting McKinnon and Goodwin will save a combined $7,186,250 if cut next season. Unless the 49ers can work out a restructured deal with McKinnon where he takes an infinitesimal cap hit, he’ll likely be cut.
The bigger question is Tevin Coleman, who can be cut, with no dead cap, saving $4.9 million next season. Not doing so would be financially irresponsible from the 49ers’ perspective unless they were to either not bring back Arik Armstead, or re-work multiple deals outside of the ones they already should.
Mark Nzeocha is also an easy roster cut who would save the 49ers just under $1 million in cap space. He’s a fantastic special-teamer, but if the moves above are to be made, every cent counts.
Restructures and extensions
The re-worked deals this offseason should include Jimmy Garoppolo’s contract. San Francisco can and should save $17.1 million in cap space by converting Garoppolo’s 2020 salary and roster bonus into bonus money in future seasons. The downside is that locks them into Garoppolo, when he could currently be cut with zero dead cap aside from his $1.4 million yearly bonus.
But, unless the 49ers think they can find a quarterback on the market that is both cheaper and better than Garoppolo (that’s not exactly feasible), that’s not happening. It would also require the front office to get rid of a prolifically successful quarterback who made the Super Bowl in his first full season, which might cause a riot in an otherwise calm locker room.
In addition to restructuring Garoppolo’s deal, the 49ers should extend Kyle Juszcyzk, DeForest Buckner and George Kittle this offseason. Extending Juszczyk and Buckner would allow the chance to lessen both players’ cap hits in 2020, while Kittle’s figures to jump drastically to the $10 million range.
Buckner figures to get something in the five-year, $82 million range, and Kittle’s four-year figures to be around $60-plus million (plus $10 million in 2020).
There are other avenues for the 49ers to open up space, like with Dee Ford and Joe Staley’s deals, but with Ford coming off the unhealthiest season of his career and his contract pretty cuttable by 2021, that doesn’t seem like the most prudent option. Staley seems a more viable choice, though guaranteeing more money to a 35-year-old and ballooning his next two cap hits into the $15 million range is also a concerning proposition.
The last avenues of relief the 49ers have are trades, with one main candidate: Solomon Thomas.
Thomas’ fifth-year option will likely be declined this summer, but he carries an $8.95 million cap hit this season. If traded (likely for a seventh-round pick given the money going out), it would save the 49ers around $4 million, which could give them substantial breathing room when it comes to draft picks (especially if the 49ers don’t trade their 31st overall pick) and potentially sliding cap hits to this season.
For the most part, the 49ers should be able to afford to keep their core together for this season, with Kyle Shanahan’s willingness to part with Tevin Coleman poised to be a significant indicator of how things play out.