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On Thursday, general manager John Lynch joined the Murph and Mac show and made the proclamation, in reference to any potential interest in training camp-hating free agent Jadeveon Clowney—who is reportedly close to signing a deal with one of three potential suitors after roster cuts are concluded (the New Orleans Saints, Tennessee Titans or Seattle Seahawks)—that the 49ers were “out of money.”
A clever man that John Lynch is. It wasn’t true, but with a cap expected to shrink substantially next season, it may not have been all that much of a lie. On Saturday, according to ESPN’s Field Yates, the team created $9.5 million in cap space by converting most of Dee Ford’s base salary into bonus money. What that means is not that the 49ers just pay him that extra money now, but they kick the can down the road.
With roster movement upon us, three teams created notable 2020 cap space by converting a veteran’s base salary into a signing bonus, per source:
▪️Buccaneers: $9.5M created via Mike Evans
▪️49ers: $9.5M created via Dee Ford
▪️Steelers: $3.85M created via David DeCastro
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) September 5, 2020
Normally when these contracts are restructured, it’s in the name of short-term value. After adjusting Tom Compton’s contract from a $2.15 million base to $1.05 million—wherein they likely conveyed to Compton he was a backup and would paid as such or he’d be cut—the team now has roughly $19 million in cap space, per OverTheCap.
Now, this stuff gets a little wonky with contract details not always abundantly clear and roster cuts leaving some confusion. But the 49ers aren’t expected to release anyone who has a substantial cap hit, meaning that cap number is about where it will remain at. Some guys above the top-51 cutoff (only the most expensive 51 salaries count against the cap) will, or could get cut, like Kevin White, Dion Jordan, Cameron Malveaux and Hroniss Grassu, etc., which will uncover a few hundred thousand dollars, but nothing substantial.
What’s interesting about this move is that it provides the 49ers with massive cap flexibility. Below are the options the 49ers have with that space.
Pursue a free agent or trade for a high-salaried player
If OverTheCap’s salary cap figure is correct, they could, right this very moment, sign Jadeveon Clowney. That seems exceedingly doubtful, but it’s the first and most obvious benefit of a contract restructure like this. It leaves the door open for signing a veteran or semi-pricey player still on the market, or acquiring someone with a significant salary in a trade. They acquired Emmanuel Sanders midway through last year; that could be on the table again.
Use the money for immediate extensions
One option is to use that extra $9.5 million and extend Trent Williams, Kyle Juszczyk, Richard Sherman, or anyone else by increasing their salaries this year and providing a lower next year salary with an extension. With such little time before the season starts, this seems doubtful as there’s no real reason to adjust their salaries for the season or extend them when potential injuries could occur.
Roll the money over; save it or use it for extensions
This might be in the cards. One factor of the NFL’s very soft salary cap, which, unlike the NBA’s, is easily manipulated and allows teams like the New Orleans Saints to make a mockery of it every year. But the league is bracing for a monumental drop in the salary cap next season, with the floor set at $175 million. This year’s cap is set at $198.2 million, and teams approach contracts by preparing for a roughly $10 million increase in that number, which has been the case every year for the last decade or so.
If teams lose $23.2 million in cap space (really more like $33.2 million, given the lack of an increase), that could be a nightmare situation. Team like the Saints, who make the mockery of that flexible cap, and seem to be going all-in with Drew Brees potentially retiring after the season, will have to clean house if that doomsday number comes into effect.
By converting Ford’s $9.5 million into bonus money, the impact is spread over three years. So, each year over the next three seasons, the 49ers should be due an extra $3.16 million in guaranteed money to Ford.
But if they save the money from that cap opening (i.e., not signing someone like Clowney), they’ll actually roll that extra space over, saving, in effect, an extra $6.34 million next season. If an extension for Trent Williams or Juszczyk is required, that’s invaluable extra space.
Currently, the team is projected to have $40.91 million in cap space per OverTheCap, but that’s assuming a $215 million cap.
In reality, the 49ers are just shy of that $175 million number, which would become the cap maximum if the league is dealt substantial losses. But if they retain this extra space, in addition to the roughly $9.5 million in cap space they already had, they’d be saving that $19 million, and go under that doomsday cap figure by about $20 million (roughly $154 million in cap liabilities, if they don’t utilize their cap space for this season).
They’ll need that money not just for potential Williams or Juszczyk extensions, but for their defensive backfield, which… is expiring, almost entirely.
Richard Sherman, Jaquiski Tartt, K’Waun Williams, Ahkello Witherspoon (who, according to Matt Barrows of The Athletic, the team looked into trading) and Emmanuel Moseley (restricted free agent) are all going to hit the market this offseason.
Bold statement incoming: the 49ers need money to re-sign those guys.
They also need money for next year’s draft class, which will probably include an extra fifth-round compensatory pick from Emmanuel Sanders departing in free agency. The figures aren’t set for rookie pay next season, but signing their rookie class this year, which mainly counted just Javon Kinlaw and Brandon Aiyuk’s salaries took up about $4.34 million in cap space.
They can use the money created with this Ford restructure (and potentially extending/restructuring Jimmy Garoppolo’s contract next year) to make that easier. They’ll probably also cut Robbie Gould, who’s due a non-guaranteed $5.25 million and would still save nearly $10 million by cutting Ford next year, even with the extra $3.16 million he’s now due.
In kicking the can a bit on Ford, the 49ers have given themselves additional flexibility to sign a free agent or acquire one in a trade, or save this money for extensions and/or re-signing. The cap downside of this move is putting $3.16 million in guaranteed money on the books for each of the next three seasons, and if the team chooses to pursue a free agent, they’ll make their cap situation tighter next year. Though, if they do use that money this year, it will likely be for a proven, quality player in the league, which is not exactly a scenario that will have fans pulling their hair out.
At the very least, the Ford restructure allows the organization the option to make signings now if needed and if not, they’ll protect their cap space for next season.