© David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Well folks, it’s the final week of the season, and the 49ers are, if nothing else, leaving no-man’s land. San Francisco sits at 6-9 and could desperately use a loss to push them closer into draft contention for the quarterback this franchise needs to raise its ceiling.
That’s where this season is headed.
Too many injuries, too many losses, too little time. And if the 49ers play their cards right (i.e. lose as many games as possible), it might just all be worth it like it was when they ended up with Nick Bosa. A loss to the Rams is all San Francisco really needs to embrace the season being officially over, but their long-shot playoff hopes remain, somehow, still in the balance this week.
With that in mind, I answer some of your looming questions about this year and what lies ahead.
Jay A. asks on Instagram: If the 49ers didn’t have all the injuries, where do you think they would be in the standings?
I wish I could give a straight answer to this question, but it’s almost impossible. Is this scenario supposed to assume they didn’t suffer any major injuries this year? That’s inevitable in the NFL.
But, let’s say they had Garoppolo, Bosa, Kittle, Ford, Thomas, Sherman, Mostert, Samuel, etc. all year and Garoppolo doesn’t get hurt. I still think they lose to Miami and Seattle, but beat Philadelphia and New Orleans. Green Bay is the most nebulous question here, but if all were healthy, I would lean towards a win.
So, a soft 7-3. But again, there’s no season without injuries, especially not with this team.
Daddyestebez asks on Instagram: Do you think the strength and conditioning coaches are part of the reason for our injuries?
No, I wrote about this after the Jets game. I believe it’s the NFL’s aggressive timeline to start the season and the 49ers not doing padded practices. Because of the injuries related to that timeline, San Francisco had an avalanche of injuries, where attrition caused additional injuries, and because they didn’t adequately prepare players’ bodies for contact, that dug their hole even deeper. The burden rests more firmly on the NFL’s shoulders for ignoring the advice of its own doctors.
Eliny L. asks on Instagram: When will Ronald Blair be back?
It’s unclear, but the updated timeline was between Week 10 and 12. So… now? But it seems clearly like it will be after the Rams game, so there’s no obvious answer.
Joe A. asks on Instagram: What’s the deal with Jauan Jennings, is he hurt?
Yup. He was placed on the practice squad injured reserve list on October 24.
David A. asks on Instagram: When is Richard Sherman coming back?
The 49ers are hoping Sherman will be back for the Rams game this week.
Tag asks on Twitter: Can we get any sort of diagnosis of what’s up with Dee Ford?
I would love that, but the 49ers have been tight-lipped. We’ll check in again this week, but there have been no signs for optimism at this point. Ford almost lost his ability to walk with a severe back injury in Kansas City, so I’m not expecting he returns this year. It’s unclear yet if this could be a career-ending injury, or if he could return in three weeks. There’s no clarity.
Horacio F. asks on Instagram: Do you expect us to make the playoffs?
No. The 49ers need to go at least 5-1. I expect they lose to the Bills, which to me means 5-0. They have too many injuries (and too many Nick Mullens’ at quarterback) to pull that off.
Emmanuel H. asks on Instagram: Do you see Jimmy coming back soon?
No. I don’t think this team goes on the competitive run required for Garoppolo to come back. Shanahan all but said they have to be in playoff position or close to it for him to return. I don’t expect that happens and he sits out the remainder of the year.
Kenneth P. asks on Instagram: What’s our goal for the rest of this season?
Player evaluation and development.
Kyle Shanahan obviously still wants to make the playoffs but is also aware that the team’s injury situation and record make that extraordinarily difficult. Even if they do somehow sneak in, they don’t have the edge rushing to hope for anything other than a Wild Card exit. Shanahan, in recent weeks, has stressed that he wants players to improve. He said he wants to see more from Trent Williams, Brandon Aiyuk, Jason Verrett, Jimmie Ward etc.; all guys who have performed well, but who he sees as having a higher ceiling.
The remainder of the year is about creating improvement on a player-by-player basis and evaluating what they have. Is Colton McKivitz the guard of the future or is he an unsuccessful lottery spin? How much is Trent Williams worth? Can Dre Greenlaw be the long-term partner to Fred Warner?
Those are some of the obvious questions that the 49ers will hope to have answered by the end of the year. From a front office perspective, the quarterback equation gets leaps and bounds easier if they continue losing games.
Luke N. asks on Instagram: Who is the most valuable piece on the Niners’ offense?
George Kittle. Watch Ross Dwelley, Charlie Woerner or Jordan Reed blocking. It’s abysmal. Dwelley whiffs on or gets blown by—and this is not hyperbole—on at minimum, three block attempts a game. Kittle’s value as a blocker is a massive reason for the success of this running game, and none of those other tight ends are capable of pass protection. And yes, Kittle is also probably the second-best receiving tight end in the league.
Axel H. asks on Instagram: Do you think Jimmy G is a franchise QB?
No, and I was high on Garoppolo coming into the year. This season was the 49ers making a bet that he could take his game to the next level. At this juncture, it appears like we may have seen his ceiling. At his best, he is excellent at disguising play actions and making quick decisions regardless of whether there is pressure in his face.
His arm talent is suspect, though, and that places constraints on this offense. You saw this year and in the playoffs last year that Shanahan can and will take the ball out of Garoppolo’s hands because… well, he may not trust him.
Everything 15-plus yards past the line of scrimmage is a roll of the dice. That’s not to say that’s the only area Garoppolo struggles. His read progression, when he’s not comfortable in the pocket, reeks of anxiety. He doesn’t trust his offensive line or his receivers or himself, because he varies from locking onto a read, not knowing when to move onto his next progression, and panicking and leaving his hot read too soon.
I understand if that sounds like a damned-if-he-does, damned-if-he-doesn’t situation, but it’s more about the overcorrections he makes. When he doesn’t trust his receivers, he overcorrects to moving through progressions too fast, as opposed to his normal propensity to laser-lock, which also allows defensive backs to read his eyes.
He’s not consistent, other than in providing three interceptable passes each game.
Now, is the Garoppolo we saw last year a bad quarterback? Absolutely not.
Could he still provide value to the 49ers? Yes.
The real question is not whether Garoppolo can or is a decent quarterback. He is. It’s about his cost and his ceiling, the latter of which is not that of a franchise quarterback.
His arm talent and game processing come with inherent limits. If you cut or trade him (he has a no-trade clause, according to Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated), you free up $24.1 million in cap space. A rookie, first-round quarterback and a potential veteran might cost $10 million or less combined, and in pursuing that path, you’d re-set the cap clock and take your swing at a true franchise quarterback, hopefully someone who is athletic and and possesses the arm talent to actually throw the ball down the field.
When you look around the league, the perennially competitive teams all have elite quarterbacks. Seattle can take so many risks and whiff in the draft because they have Russell Wilson to bail out their errors. Banking on an average quarterback to not mess up, and on an elite defense to not lose a war of attrition, is a losing bet in the long-term.
Johnathan K. asks on Instagram: Are the Niners gonna get a QB this offseason or stick with Jimmy Garoppolo?
I think they draft a quarterback and try to trade Garoppolo. If they can’t trade him, I expect they cut him given how tight the salary cap will be and the need for extensions and signings at key, expensive positions. It’s looking like Trey Lance and Zach Wilson are the two most likely options. There are other quarterbacks further down, but none are widely viewed as having that franchise-altering ceiling.
Jeromy G. asks on Instagram: Is Dak Prescott real fit and option?
I can’t imagine Prescott leaving Dallas, but if he wasn’t franchise-tagged and made it to free agency, he would absolutely be a fit.
Kyle H. asks on Instagram: Is a Matt Ryan trade feasible?
Probably not. He has cap hits of $40.9, $41.6 and $36.6 million over the next three years when he’ll be 36, 37 and 38, respectively. Now, quarterbacks don’t have the same wear as any other position, but most of that money for Ryan is guaranteed. I wouldn’t doubt it’s something Shanahan is open to, but the math is brutal here. San Francisco will need to work on extensions for Fred Warner, Trent Williams, Nick Bosa, Deebo Samuel and the entire secondary including Richard Sherman.
With the salary cap potentially about to drop precipitously, it would be a shockingly irresponsible move to add that sort of guaranteed money to the bill. The far smarter player is going for youth, reaping the benefits of the first-round rookie scale contracts.
Mike B. asks on Instagram: What is the Niners’ biggest need in the 2021 draft?
In order: QB, DB, TE, IOL, WR, T, DE
Tackle obviously becomes priority number one if Trent Williams leaves and they might need a Mike McGlinchey replacement, too.
Del asks on Instagram: Is there a chance we try to draft Fred Warner’s brother? Also are we looking at offensive linemen?
I wouldn’t be surprised if the 49ers are scouting Troy Warner, who is a safety at BYU given the obvious facts that they’re scouting BYU quarterback Zach Wilson and that type of move might help in developing additional goodwill with Fred Warner before contract negotiations begin. At this stage, though, it’s looking like the younger Warner, who doesn’t have burner speed, has a fairly slight frame and a history of foot injuries, is leaning towards undrafted territory. That could change if he continues to play well.
Darrell T. asks on Instagram: Are we planning on drafting a CB this year, maybe even Round 1?
A betting man would say yes, the 49ers absolutely need to draft a corner. But I thought they needed to draft a corner last year. The one sign that would point towards it being likelier this year is that Ahkello Witherspoon is clearly on the outs, having been made inactive for the past two games.
It depends what they do at quarterback and tackle, two positions that would probably take priority over a corner in Round 1, but if they feel comfortable with Garoppolo or trade for a veteran and re-sign Trent Williams, a corner or safety in Round 1 could be in play.
Nick N. asks on Instagram: Who do we re-sign next year? Can we afford Trent Williams?
Yes, Trent Williams can be afforded. DeForest Buckner could have been afforded, too. It’s a matter of how much value the 49ers place at every position and what their limit is. And that limit is going to be tested.
Look at the last three left tackle deals: David Bakhtiari, Ronnie Stanley, Laremy Tunsil. Stanley’s getting $19.75 million per year, Tunsil’s getting $22 million per year and Bakhtiari is getting $23 million per year. It can be argued, and fairly easily, that Williams is the best left tackle in the game and has been for about a decade.
The one thing working in the 49ers’ favor from a negotiations perspective is that he’s turning 33 in July. If he were 26 like Tunsil or Stanley, there’s no question he’s setting a record. But as it stands, it’s probably safe to bet he’ll be a roughly $20 million per year guy. The question, if you’re San Francisco, is whether you’re willing to pay that, and how long you’re willing to pay that to a man, who, again, is 33.
Some guys, like Andrew Whitworth, can play until they’re 100. Williams seems like he could be one of those guys. The safest bet for Williams is a four-year, roughly $80 million deal.
At last check, the 49ers had $3.55 million in cap space, per the NFLPA. That’s sure to shrink with practice squad activations, but may leave a couple million to roll over into next year’s salary cap. Lynch, per an interview with KNBR’s Greg Papa, said he expects the salary cap to be set in the range of $180 million to $195 million.
Assuming the cap is set at the worst figure in that scenario, $180 million, the 49ers would have $23.5 million in cap space. There are a number of ways to clear much, more more. Here are a few:
- Jimmy Garoppolo: Saves $24.1 million
- Dee Ford: Saves $6.43 million
- Weston Richburg: Saves $4.89 million
- Robbie Gould: Saves $3.75 million
- Mark Nzeocha: Saves $1.6 million
(Note: Because the NFL uses the Top-51 rule which counts just the 51 most expensive salaries on the cap there’s usually around a $600,000 discrepancy. So, for example, if Nzeocha is cut, it would save the team closer to $1 million, because the first player outside of the top-51 would be bumped up in his place).
Cutting both Laken Tomlinson and Raheem Mostert would save more than $7 million combined, but both are going to be around next year. Those five cuts would give the 49ers roughly $64 million in cap space.
That’s enough for Trent Williams (let’s say $20 million per year), Richard Sherman, K’Waun Williams, Jaquiski Tartt (let’s assume those three combined cost somewhere around $25 million) and Kyle Juszczyk (let’s say $4 million per year). All of a sudden, though, you’re down to $15 million. Depending on how they finish the season and the trades they make in the draft, they’ll have to budget somewhere from $3 million to $5 million for draft picks.
That leaves about $10-12 million for extensions and free agent signings. Keep in mind other expiring contracts: Solomon Thomas, Kendrick Bourne, Ben Garland, Kerry Hyder, Ronald Blair, Ezekiel Ansah, Jordan Reed, Jason Verrett, Ahkello Witherspoon, Jamar Taylor, C.J. Beathard, Jordan Willis, Tevin Coleman, Jerick McKinnon… and the restricted free agents in Nick Mullens, Ross Dwelley, Jeff Wilson Jr., Daniel Brunskill, Emmanuel Moseley, D.J. Jones, Marcell Harris.
Think about that restricted free agent group.
They can negotiate with that group outside of the restricted free agent tenders, but that leaves those players open to poaching. All of those guys, with the exception of Jones and Harris (both sixth-rounders), went undrafted. OverTheCap projects the first round tender at $4.87 million, the second round tender at $3.42 million and the original round tender at $2.24 million.
There’s going to be league-wide interest in Wilson, Brunskill, Moseley and even Mullens and Harris. Navigating retention of that group is a tricky and potentially expensive proposition.
- Extend Trent Williams for four years (assuming it’s $20 million or less per year and there’s an easy fourth-year out).
- Extend Fred Warner for five years.
- Retain Richard Sherman, Jaquiski Tartt, Jason Verrett, K’Waun Williams, Kyle Juszczyk, D.J. Jones, Daniel Brunskill, Emmanuel Moseley, Jeff Wilson Jr. and Kerry Hyder (if he’s less than $4 million per year).
- Cut Jimmy Garoppolo (if no one bites on a trade), Dee Ford, Weston Richburg, Robbie Gould and Mark Nzeocha.
- Draft a rookie quarterback, sign a veteran like Jacoby Brissett or Andy Dalton.
- New rookie quarterback/cheap veteran re-sets the team’s cap clock with a cheap contract and raises the 49ers’ ceiling and staying power
- Someone new at center/right guard – Brunskill gets an extension and starts at one of the two spots, but it’s unclear what position he fits best at and whether they still think Richburg is the guy/are willing to eat another year of his deal. I think San Francisco, by restructuring Richburg’s a second time this year to remove the voidable years, is gearing up to cut him.
- There will be a new rookie tight end. Ross Dwelley is a stunningly poor blocker and Charlie Woerner hasn’t come close to cutting it. They need genuine talent at the position and while Jordan Reed is a great receiving option, even if he does return, he simply cannot be relied upon to stay healthy or block.
- I believe they’ll draft a rookie corner, but retain Richard Sherman, Jason Verrett, K’Waun Williams and Emmanuel Moseley. Ahkello Witherspoon is gone.
- My gut leans slightly towards Jaquiski Tartt staying because I see him as the glue of this defense, but that’s like a 51-49 gut feeling. If they continue to experiment with Tarvarius Moore at strong safety and like what they have there, then Tartt, who’s likely a more than $6 million a year safety, could be gone. I could see a safety added through the draft.
Sam H. asks on Facebook: What do you think is the part of your golf game you need to improve on the most?
My iron play. I leave the club face open and then it’s sliiiiiiiice time. I’ll blame it on my current irons which have way too much flex and I’ve had for almost a decade. If anyone has recommendations on a set or irons, either recently used, or new, but in the $500-600 range, shoot them this way. I’ve been looking at Sub-70 Golf, which is intriguing. I’m firmly a bogey golfer at the moment and looking for something with a grade or two more forgiveness than blades.
Steven E. asks on Facebook: Can we expect Jimmy to restructure his deal?
No. That’s one contract the 49ers have conspicuously not touched. If they restructured/extended Garoppolo, DeForest Buckner would still be here.