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Before any other business gets underway, before the 49ers even begin to assess what they need in the upcoming draft, or whether they can afford to re-sign Emmanuel Sanders and Jimmie Ward, the team needs to figure out what it wants to do with Arik Armstead.
Armstead, a free agent after playing out his fifth-year option on his rookie deal, had his first fully productive season in 2019, skyrocketing his price with a 10.0-sack season, which eclipsed his combined sack total from his previous four seasons. There has been plenty of speculation, given that the 49ers need to work out contract extensions with both DeForest Buckner and George Kittle, and are inching ever closer to no functional cap space, that Armstead would be franchise tagged, or tagged-and-traded.
That franchise tag for a defensive end is projected to carry a one-year cap hit of $17.95 million and Armstead, following the conclusion of the season, said he was amenable to playing on it.
According to Josina Anderson of ESPN, however, the 49ers and Armstead are in talks on a new contract, seeking to avoid that potential lame-duck situation.
Latest: #49ers want DL Arik Armstead back and are working on getting a deal done, per source.
— ig: josinaanderson (@JosinaAnderson) March 2, 2020
It’s entirely unclear what a new deal would look like Armstead. He was clearly instrumental in the 49ers’ success last season, but had a questionable start to his career, both with injuries and from a performance standpoint. The team can’t afford to come anywhere near that franchise tag number over multiple seasons, but one bonus of negotiating a new deal is that it could potentially save the 49ers a massive amount this season (say a $10 million cap hit versus the $17.95 million franchise tag).
But Armstead is still just 26 years old and didn’t struggle with injuries last year, and his flexibility on the interior and as an edge rusher (especially in the run game) was (is) invaluable. It’s difficult to figure out what a new contract would look like — does something three years, $40 million with $29 million in guarantees make sense? A la Brandon Graham’s deal with the Eagles — especially given that Nick Bosa and Dee Ford (who becomes cuttable after this season) are in the top-12 of highest-paid 4-3 defensive ends.
Whatever happens with Armstead will set in motion the rest of the 49ers’ offseason plan, and reveal just how serious they are about their stated goal of keeping the band together.