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Clever designs of Armstead, Ward contracts leave 49ers with options in free agency

© Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Before the 49ers traded DeForest Buckner and re-signed Arik Armstead, they were strapped for cash, with a salary cap figure of just below $10 million. With the Buckner trade and Armstead and Ward extensions alone, that number crept up to $11.28 million.

But didn’t Armstead get five years and $17 million per year? That was the initial report from Adam Schefter, but with all things related to the 49ers, you should never take those numbers at face value. Armstead’s deal is a Paraag Marathe specialty.

Armstead, Ward deals provide substantial, immediate flexibility

According to the contract specifics from OverTheCap, it’s actually six years, with the sixth year set as voidable and $1.5 million guaranteed in prorated money.

While earlier deals were front-loaded with easier cuts on the back end, things have shifted a bit. The 49ers usually keep outs at the end of their deals, but as is evidenced by Armstead’s case, the first and even second year have cheap and manageable $6 million and $12.5 million cap hits, respectively.

There is a heap of guaranteed money for Armstead: $45.85 million in total, $34.15 million at signing, but it’s not impossible for the 49ers to get away from if necessary.

Basically, Armstead’s deal becomes cuttable — with a cost — after its third year, in 2023. At that point, there is $11.5 million remaining in bonus money, but no reported base salary guarantees, with bonuses split in increments of $5 million, $5 million and $1.5 million.

Cutting him in 2023 would save $10,240,000, and $16,760,000 in 2024. It’s not exactly an “easy cut,” but for such a massive deal, the 49ers do have a way out without digging themselves into a financial hellscape.

The same thing happened with Jimmie Ward’s late Wednesday night deal, worth $28.5 million over three years. Like with Armstead’s deal, the first year provides a massive amount of cap relief for the 49ers, with a cap hit of $4.57 million, per OverTheCap. It also allows for the 49ers to cut Ward if necessary in his third season, with a $2.67 million dead cap (but cap savings of $9.5 million).

The other moves

Ronald Blair III was also brought back on one-year deal, as was Shon Coleman, while the 49ers tendered both Matt Breida and Kendrick Bourne at the second-round level for $3.26 million each. Jerick McKinnon’s deal was also restructured, meaning his cap hit will likely drop substantially (he could have been cut to save about $4 million, with a $2 million dead cap in this season and in 2021).

The greatest question marks in all this are McKinnon, Blair and Coleman. As of yet, no exact numbers on any of the three deals have been released, but according to Adam Caplan, McKinnon’s deal reportedly erased 2021 completely and pays him the veteran minimum, plus per game roster bonuses.

If the numbers are accurate, the 49ers still save a substantial amount by cutting McKinnon, with (assuming he gets a per roster bonus increase from $250k to $750k, which would reward his health) his cap hit drops to $3.72 million and provides the 49ers with $16.11 million in cap space.

That leaves Blair and Coleman. Had Blair not torn his ACL, he would have been worth much more, and there were reports he was receiving interest from the Browns (perhaps in a bid to raise his value). He signed a one-year deal, expected to be worth between $3 and $5.5 million. For these purposes, let’s say it’s a $4 million deal, mostly, if not fully guaranteed, and we’ll project Coleman’s deal is a bit over the minimum, at $1.25 million.

Factoring in the No. 13 overall pick (projected at roughly $2.91 million) and the 49ers trading the 31st for a second- and third-round pick, would leave the 49ers’ cap space at around $9.599 million.

The Kittle extension

The last substantial cost before determining if the 49ers can bring back Sanders is an extension to George Kittle.

If Kittle is extended now, his cap hit will jump from well above the $2.21 million mark it’s currently set as. There’s no clarity as to what that number is, but the 49ers will surely make him the highest-paid tight end in football in the long term, and probably around $14-plus million per year, considering that Austin Hooper will make $11 million. That, doesn’t, however, mean they need to spike his 2020 salary. Just like with Ward and Armstead, they can backload the deal.

If Kittle makes $6 million, it would leave the 49ers with around $5.73 million in space, and $8 million would leave $3.73 million in space (and $1.73 million if he makes $10 million). Again, this is assuming the exact values of the McKinnon, Blair and Coleman deals, which are still lacking clarity.

The rest of this scenario will project a Kittle salary bump to $8 million.

Clearing more space

Still, there are easy ways to clear space. Marquise Goodwin is almost certain to be traded or cut. Assuming that, the cap space jumps to $6.64 million.

Because the 49ers kept McKinnon and Breida, they don’t need Tevin Coleman, whose skillset is similar to the younger, cheaper, Jeff Wilson Jr.. Cutting or trading his $4.87 million salary bumps that space up to $10.76 million.

All of a sudden, Sanders is back in play. Jane Slater of NFL Network did report, however, that there is mutual interest between Sanders and the Dallas Cowboys (where he lives).

But that salary cap freedom all comes without extending Kyle Juszczyk (who has a $6.7 million cap hit), trading Solomon Thomas (would save about $3.8 million), or cutting/trading Mark Nzeocha (would save about $800k). One of those other moves, with Juszczyk’s extension potentially being the easiest, might be required to both retain Sanders and center Ben Garland, depending on what Garland gets.

While an offensive line pick is a popular suggestion given the 49ers’ aging group, the team has expressed confidence in both Justin Skule, Daniel Brunskill and Garland. Shanahan said they initially viewed Brunskill as a guard, and he might end up replacing Mike Person on the right before too long. Skule or Coleman are being assessed as potential Staley replacements in the short-term and Skule at least has proven he’s serviceable, while Coleman was a standout in training camp before fracturing his fibula.

The problem with Weston Richburg is his deal has already been restructured and will cost the 49ers $3.05 million to cut him in 2021. There’s already a ton of money tied up next season, so that might not be a cost the 49ers are willing to part with. If anyone is going to replaced by a draft pick, though, it’s between him or Staley. So, for the moment, let’s assume Ben Garland returns on a $2.25 million deal.

The scenario

In this scenario, the 49ers would have $9,257,021 million in cap space.

To recap that number:

  • Extending George Kittle, with a new year one cap hit of $8 million
  • Cutting or trading Tevin Coleman draft pick, saving about $4 million
  • Cutting or trading Marquise Goodwin for a draft pick, saving roughly $3 million
  • A Jerick McKinnon restructured cap hit of $3.72 million
  • Ronald Blair III’s one year being worth $4 million
  • Shon Coleman’s one year being worth $1.25 million
  • Extending Ben Garland for $2.25 million in 2020
  • Drafting at the No. 13 overall spot for $2.92 million, trading the 31st pick for a second- and third-round pick.

That’s without the three additional options, which could boost that space to $17,351,256 million:

  • Cutting Mark Nzeocha, saving about $800k
  • Trading Solomon Thomas for a draft pick, saving about $3.6 million
  • Extending Kyle Juszczyk, dropping his year one cap hit from $6.7 million to $3 million

Through the maneuvering of the Armstead and Ward deals (combined $10.5 million cap hit) and trading Buckner, the 49ers acquired the 13th overall pick and brought back two key defensive players while saving about $1.5 million in cap space.

Through the relatively easy transactions above (something not factored in is Sheldon Day and whether he re-signs), San Francisco can afford to extend Kittle and will have a chance to bring back both Emmanuel Sanders and Ben Garland. Or, they can opt to look for defensive line and/or wide receiver depth elsewhere in free agency, especially if Sanders leaves. The point is, the structure of the Ward and Armstead deals provides flexibility, and could even allow the 49ers to realistically pursue a pricey free agent, or mid-level veteran.

It’s why the 49ers were reportedly involved in Austin Hooper talks, and have reached out to former Patriots wide receiver Phillip Dorsett. Considering the possibility Sanders could go to the Cowboys, here are some veteran wide receiver and defensive tackle options the 49ers could pursue.

Wide receiver: Phillip Dorsett (already linked), Taylor Gabriel (Shanahan had him with the Browns and brought him to the Falcons), Ted Ginn Jr., Demariyus Thomas, Rashard Higgins, Chris Hogan, Geronimo Allison, Demarcus Robinson, Devin Funchess

Defensive tackle: Damon Harrison, Linval Joseph, Brandon Mebane, Timmy Jernigan, Christian Covington, Mike Daniels, Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy

But something stinks

But the most conspicuous thing about this whole process is the fact that Buckner could have been kept along with Ward, Armstead, Blair, (Shon) Coleman, Breida, Bourne and leave just enough money to sign Sanders (or make some mid-level free agency moves). And that’s assuming that Buckner has a $21 million cap hit via the extension the Colts gave him, not the $12.3 million fifth-year option.

What was that conspicuous option that the 49ers declined to use? Restructuring Jimmy Garoppolo’s deal.

I’s clear that the 49ers want to leave Garoppolo’s contract as is. That’s despite Shanahan’s guy, Kirk Cousins, getting a two-year extension, which not-so-coincidentally happened right after it was reported that Shanahan was targeting him as a free agent in 2021.

On April 1, $15.7 million of Garoppolo’s $23.8 million base salary becomes guaranteed. But after that? He’s effectively cuttable. While he has cap hits of $26.9 million and $27 million, there is no guaranteed money outside from the $1.4 million prorated bonus cash due each year. That’s less than the $2 million of bonus money due to McKinnon in 2020 and 2021.

By trading Buckner, and signing Armstead and Ward to smart, backloaded deals, there are myriad options in free agency and even the trade market for the 49ers. Obviously, there’s no reason to restructure Garoppolo’s deal for no reason.

But something about the refusal to touch his money, in order to avoid trading a star like Buckner is too pronounced a decision to ignore. Maybe they want to leave options open for a trade, or pursue someone like Dak Prescott in free agency. Whatever the reason, for a guy who seems, by all accounts, to be the long-term quarterback option, the folks in Santa Clara seems to very much prefer he can be cut easily after this season.


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