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The cold reality of the 49ers’ offseason is about to set in, and here’s what it’s going to look like

 

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

 


Monday was another rainy day in the Bay and it damn sure felt appropriate. There was undeniable relief from the 49ers as they returned home to Santa Clara on Sunday night and Levi’s Stadium for the first time since the start of December. But it wasn’t joyous. Not by any stretch.

It wasn’t quite funeral-esque, either, but there was a foreboding sense that this team is heading into the future without the same clarity of the past three seasons. There were tears shed and far more held back at the realization that at least a handful of the team’s core pieces will not be returning.

Perhaps the greatest surprise and bellwether of the mood was Kyle Juszczyk, who had the opening presser of the day.

The most expensive and dynamic fullback in the league always comes prepared for media appearances with perpetually spiked hair, a grin and stately, but insightful answers. He was the first defining move of the Lynch and Shanahan era, having signed a four-year, $21 million deal; the largest ever for a fullback.

Though his price is far ahead of his cohorts at the position, he’s always appeared well worth the cost in a Shanahan offense in which he’s not just a Swiss Army knife, but a bona fide offensive weapon. His skillset and intelligence, as the lead athletic blocker who can slip out as a receiver, or grab you a few rushing yards in a pinch, is not easily replaceable. Ross Dwelley at his best last year couldn’t hold a candle to Juszczyk (though that might say more about Dwelley).

When asked about him, George Kittle was, as usual, effusive in his praise of Juszczyk, and his sui generis, “one of one” makeup. He pointed to the obvious things, like the key run blocks and eye-popping receptions, but also the things that go unseen, like the missed blocking assignments Juszczyk so frequently cleans up.

“He is one of the main reasons our run game is the way that it is and then he also makes plays in the pass game that you don’t see fullbacks making,” Kittle said. “In my opinion, he’s a one of one. I don’t know if there’s anyone that does the things that he does on a football field… he’s not really just a cog in the machine that you can just fill his spot because of all the extra stuff that he does.”

All of a sudden, it seems not just possible, but realistic that Juszczyk could depart this offseason. He was quickly choked up talking about the 49ers, and seemed to insinuate—though not as directly as Richard Sherman, who has all but ruled out a return—that his time in Santa Clara might be over.

“To be totally honest with you, it’s a sense of unsure,” Juszczyk said. “Not totally sure what’s ahead for me. I don’t want it to be a sense of finality. Honestly, it’s been a lot of emotions the last few weeks.”

He said he’s had discussions with general manager John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan, who have both assured Juszczyk of how highly they value him.

But this offseason is not about Juszczyk.

The coming months may be brutal from a business perspective. That has been abundantly clear during the course of the year and was reaffirmed in talking to the two heads of the franchise on Monday.

Lynch said the 49ers are operating under the premise that the salary cap will be set at the lowest possible figure: $175 million. That would represent a $23.2 million drop from this season, and more realistically, a roughly $33 million drop from where they expected the cap to be when negotiating most of these deals.

Since being instituted in 1994, the NFL salary cap has only ever decreased once, but not from year-to-year. After an uncapped year in 2010, the cap dropped from $123 million in 2009 to $120 million in 2011, and it took until 2013 for it to get back to $123 million. Given the losses the league is likely to sustain this year, a similar scenario of a sharp decrease before incremental growth is very possible.

With that doomsday scenario in play, Lynch said the team’s plans have changed, whereas, if growth had continued, they could have continued to re-sign players across the board.

“You always budget for it to maybe increase by $20 million, and instead it went down significantly, so that delta, that change is significant,” Lynch said. “That alters some plans. We were built to be sustainable to the point where we could pretty much decide all these good players—we could prioritize, certainly. But we were set up to have just about everyone back. Now we just have to be a little more creative in doing so. And I think we’ll figure some things out.”

“I think we’ll figure some things out”

What’s awaiting the 49ers is at least 45 free agents and a cap situation that’s less than promising. Currently, OverTheCap has a projection of $178.52 million cap for the 2021 season. Some projections, like a report from ProFootballTalk, has those numbers closer to $195 million. Lynch has said he expects it to be in the range of $180 million to $195 million. Using the first OTC figure, the 49ers have about $20 million in current cap space and the following players expiring:

  • Quarterbacks: QB C.J. Beathard, QB Nick Mullens (RFA), QB Josh Rosen (RFA)
  • Backfield: RB Tevin Coleman, RB Jerick McKinnon, RB Jeff Wilson Jr. (RFA), RB Austin Walter (ERFA)
  • Receiving positions: WR Kendrick Bourne, WR River Cracraft (ERFA), WR Trent Taylor, WR Shawn Poindexter (ERFA), TE Jordan Reed, TE Ross Dwelley (RFA), TE Chase Harrell
  • O-line: LT Trent Williams, C Ben Garland, C Hroniss Grasu, C Tony Bergstrom, C/RG Daniel Brunskill (ERFA), RG Tom Compton
  • D-line: DE Kerry Hyder, DE Jordan Willis, DE Ronald Blair III, DE Ezekiel Ansah, DE Dion Jordan, DE Alex Barret (ERFA), DT Solomon Thomas, DT D.J. Jones
  • Linebackers: LB Joe Walker
  • Secondary: CB Richard Sherman, CB Jason Verrett, CB Ahkello Witherspoon, CB Dontae Johnson, CB Emmanuel Moseley (RFA), CB Ken Webster (ERFA), NB K’Waun Williams, NB Jamar Taylor, S Jaquiski Tartt, S Marcell Harris (RFA), S Jared Mayden (ERFA), S Kai Nacua (ERFA)
  • Special teams: LS Taybor Pepper (RFA), LS Colin Holba (ERFA)

Trent Williams alone will cost about $20 million per year to re-sign… which is just about the entire cap space under those doomsday figures. That, however, does not include Robbie Gould’s new deal, which will likely save the 49ers something in the range of $1-2 million. There are the following cuts/trades available:

  • Jimmy Garoppolo: Saves $24.1 million
  • Dee Ford: Saves $6.43 million
  • Weston Richburg: Saves $4.89 million
  • Mark Nzeocha: Saves $1.6 million

One major hiccup here is Dee Ford. Lynch did not express even the most remote optimism about the sudden back injury which ended his season in Week 2, and said it’s something the 49ers are “looking for clarity on.” He has a partial injury guarantee in 2021, according to OverTheCap.

“When you’re dealing with that part of your body, the back, sometimes these things take more time,” Lynch said. “I think Dee tries to stay encouraged, but I think it’s been a struggle for him and we try to stay encouraged as well. But, I can’t tell you with absolute [certainty] that yeah, he’s going to be ready. We’re working hard and he is working hard to try to get there.”

In total, if Ford can get healthy enough to pass a physical before April 1 (when $11.6 million of his $15.15 million base salary guarantees), that’s a potential savings of about $36 million among those four players. If the 49ers elect to use a June 1 cut on Richburg, that number can grow to roughly $40 million. Without Ford, those numbers are roughly $30 million and $34 million, respectively

Ford getting healthy enough to pass a physical seems… unlikely. The 49ers may cut Ford regardless, but depending on how much of his salary is guaranteed for injury, they may have to stick with him for another year.

With the weirdness of the impending cap drop and many teams expected to cut valuable veterans in order to cut costs, there may actually be a decent free agent market still intact in June, meaning leaving Richburg until June 1 could be more appealing than normal.

June 1 cuts haven’t been exceedingly common in the past because teams are limited to two of them, and they only come into play after the main rush to grab marquee free agents is over. Using a June 1 cut may let the 49ers delay their negotiations or execution of, say, a Fred Warner extension until just before camp.

Among those 45 free agent contracts above, there are a few that stand out besides Williams are Juszczyk and… the entire secondary excluding the free safety position. The 49ers aren’t going to let all those guys walk in free agency. Below is a rough guesstimate of what the free agents will garner in free agency, and who will return to Santa Clara. The uncertainty of free agency with an undetermined, but lower salary cap might cause some numbers to drop.

Unrestricted free agents:

  • LT Trent Williams – Re-signs on four-year, $82 million deal, takes $15 million in first year.
  • CB Richard Sherman – $9 million per year for two years with third-year option triggered by performance, signs elsewhere
  • SS Jaquiski Tartt – $7.5 million per year for three years, signs elsewhere
  • CB Jason Verrett – Re-signs on two-year, $12 million deal, with cheaper, but fully guaranteed first year (around $5 million, and $7 million, partially-guaranteed second year)
  • NB K’Waun Williams – Signs with whatever team Robert Saleh goes too on three-year, $16.5 million deal. Injury-prone, so he protects himself in year two (something like a fully guaranteed $4 million in Y1, then $7 million partially guaranteed in Y2 and $5.5 million in Y3)
  • CB Ahkello Witherspoon – Can’t even make an appropriate guess at his market value ($3 million, maybe?), signs elsewhere
  • FB Kyle Juszczyk – Re-signs with three-year, $16 million deal, strongly guaranteed in first two years (about $4 million in Y1, $5.5 million in Y2, $6.5 million in Y3)
  • WR Kendrick Bourne – Signs elsewhere on three-year, $15 million deal (second and third years very lightly guaranteed)
  • TE Jordan Reed – Signs elsewhere on one-year, $2.5 million deal
  • C Ben Garland – Re-signs one-year, $1.3 million, slightly more than minimum
  • DE Kerry Hyder – Signs elsewhere for something like $6 million
  • DE Jordan Willis – Signs elsewhere on a slightly more than minimum one-year deal, roughly $1.25 million
  • DE Ronald Blair III – Re-signs on same veteran deal that pays him roughly $2 million, but costs $1 million, unless Saleh steals him
  • DE Ezekiel Ansah – Signs elsewhere
  • DE Dion Jordan – Re-signs for minimum, $1 million deal
  • DT Solomon Thomas – Signs elsewhere one a one-year, $3.5 million deal
  • DT D.J. Jones – Signs elsewhere for $3 million per year

That’s the following players re-signed: Trent Williams, Jason Verrett, Kyle Juszczyk, Ben Garland, Dion Jordan, Ronald Blair III for a combined 2021 cost of $27 million.

Restricted free agents

Most of these guys, excluding Rosen, went undrafted, meaning the 49ers would have to use at least the second-round tender for a one-year deal, or negotiate something longer:
First Round tender: $4,873,000
Second Round Tender: $3,422,000

Original Round Tender (Rosen): $2,240,000

Below are guesses at what the 49ers will offer. Every tender provides the right of first refusal.

  • Jeff Wilson Jr. – Second Round, $3,422,000
  • Emmanuel Moseley – Second Round, $3,422,000
  • Nick Mullens – Non-tender, offered cheap deal to return – Second Round tender is also a possibility
  • Josh Rosen – Non-tender, offer minimum deal, he signs elsewhere
  • Ross Dwelley – Non-tender, one year minimum deal
  • Marcell Harris – Non-tender, two-year minimum deal
  • Taybor Pepper – Non-tender, three-year, non-guaranteed deal

That’s a combined roughly $10 million for those restricted free agents.

In total, it’s a roughly $37 million outlay, leaving holes in the secondary and at defensive end. Using OverTheCap’s projections, that’s… about $3 million in cap space if Garoppolo stays.

There are other ways to create space if he does stay, namely with restructures. Jimmie Ward is due $11 million next year, and will have $5.5 million total guaranteed on April 1. Restructuring his deal to tack onto a voidable fourth year is an enticing option which could save up to nearly $5 million.

Laken Tomlinson is set to make $6.5 million, so a two- or three-year extension for him could encourage him to drop that figure, and save $2-3 million. Just those two moves alone would allow the 49ers to make all the moves listed above and have about $10 million in cap space.

If they move up in the draft, for say, the second overall pick (keeping Garoppolo), that would cost a projected $4.3 million, and leave them with roughly $6 million in space. If the 49ers held the 12th pick and their 44th overall pick, they’d have about $7 million in space.

Fred Warner also needs a new deal. If Garoppolo leaves, a K’Waun Williams re-signing (and you can even add Jaquiski Tartt and maybe even Kendrick Bourne) immediately becomes viable. It all revolves around the Garoppolo decision and just as crucially, where the cap lands. If it’s that $195 million figure, a lot of these re-signings become realistic again.

They could, of course, restructure Garoppolo’s deal, but they’ve thus far shown an (understandable) unwillingness to touch his contract. If they were willing to restructure it last year, they could have kept DeForest Buckner. Lynch said (as if anything he or Shanahan say about the quarterback can be taken at face value) that the 49ers don’t need to think about restructuring his deal at the moment, but could do it later on.

“We don’t need room right now,” Lynch said, speaking very literally about the second he answered the question. “As we start to go through and prioritize and we’re in the process of doing that right now, when we start signing those players, that might be necessary.”

Front office

That’s just the players. The 49ers are almost certainly going to lose Robert Saleh, and they may well lose two of their best front office minds, too. Saleh already has three interviews set up with the Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions and Jacksonville Jaguars. He’ll get a head coaching job this year unless owners are obsessed with offensive minds or college coaches, which is not entirely out of the question.

The executives are both of the 49ers’ vice presidents of player personnel. There’s Adam Peters, who has an interview with the Carolina Panthers, and Martin Mayhew, who Lynch said is expected to interview for at least one general manager spot. Peters is also likely to interview at his old stomping grounds, where he spent eight years: Denver. John Elway just vacated the general manager job on Monday and Peters is surely a candidate there.

Both are viewed as elite scouting minds, with Peters perhaps the more likely one to get a GM job in this cycle, especially given his Denver connection. Losing either would be seen as substantial losses to the 49ers’ scouting apparatus.

When Saleh leaves, he’s likely to take some coaches with him. As far as offensive coordinators go, he may tip one of the Mikes: Lafleur or McDaniel, who are passing game and run game coordinators, respectively (read about them here).

One notable connection is that Matt Lafleur, the head coach of the Green Bay Packers, was Saleh’s best man at his wedding. He is a key part of the 49ers’ offensive game planning. McDaniel, meanwhile, has some deep, darn-near familial ties going back to the start of his coaching career with Shanahan, and has admitted he is indebted to him. He’s arguably the better mind of the two, but Lafleur is the more likely bet to join Saleh.

According to Mike Silver of NFL Network, that’s exactly how it’s expected to play out, with Lafleur “likely” to join Saleh if he gets a head coaching job. He also reported Raheem Morris, who has had at least two head coaching interviews, would try to bring in McDaniel as his offensive coordinator.

That seems decidedly less likely, given how close McDaniel is to Shanahan. Would he really leave Kyle at the same time Lafleur does? I have a hard time buying that. It also relies on Morris getting a head coaching job.

Saleh could also take someone on the 49ers’ offensive line staff, where there is a glut of coaching. The team basically has two offensive line coaches in John Benton and Chris Foerster and an assistant in Zach Yenser.

He could also tip assistant defensive line coach Aaron Whitecotton for his first out-and-out defensive line coaching opportunity. Whitecotton worked with Saleh in Jacksonville from 2014-16. He was a defensive assistant there from 2013-15 and was promoted to assistant defensive line coach in 2016, before coaching with the Bills for three years, prior to signing with the 49ers.

The quarterback

Best for last, right? We didn’t get any answers about the quarterback position on Monday. A real shock, I know.

The supposed franchise quarterback didn’t come out and say he wasn’t going to be back and the general manager and head coach stood by their dude, again.

This, though, was unlike last season, when it didn’t feel like a charade; Garoppolo was coming off his first full season and somewhere in the range of the 12th-best quarterback in the league. This year, he was injured again, and played one good half of football when he was on the field… against the New York Jets.

This is the question that will loom over this team until the end of April, once the NFL Draft concludes. It’s not some out-of-touch media fascination. Garoppolo has been injured all too often, the cap could potentially shrink to desperate levels and cutting him would save $24.1 million, and most importantly, at his best, he’s just not that great.

There is a reason that when coaches and players praise Garoppolo, it’s always about intangibles: leadership, winning, his jawline. Kittle attempted to address this, by saying leadership is important, but he also didn’t describe Garoppolo as having elite arm talent, or for his ability to read defenses, look off defenders, etc.

“I think sometimes he gets flack because everyone’s like, ‘Well his leadership is the first thing everyone brings up.’ I mean leadership is kind of a big deal when it comes to football,” Kittle said. “If you don’t have guys that lead the right way and lead by example and also lead know with their voice, especially at the quarterback position, I don’t think you have the best shot of winning. Jimmy’s attributes that he brings on top of the leadership and the types of passes that he throws and getting us into the right plays, I mean everything that he does, he just kind of elevates the level of play around everybody around him.”

When healthy, the sum of his play is as a slightly above average quarterback. He leans more towards being an above average quarterback than a below average one, and while there’s no doubt he’s made some unbelievably good throws and has won the overwhelming majority of the games in which he’s started, his arm talent is subpar and his processing of the game is languorous. There are countless balls he’s thrown into double coverage that haven’t penalized him or the 49ers with interceptions.

He has a tendency to lock into reads, and when panicked, move off them too quickly. He might benefit from a change of scenery (a Chicago or New England homecoming, perhaps?) as much as the 49ers would benefit from moving on from him.

This team, in drafting someone like Justin Fields, would reset the cap clock. They’d be saving a net of roughly $20 million from Garoppolo (depending on who else they were to bring in) and secure, for once, a quarterback with elite athleticism and arm talent. Sure, add Zach Wilson and Trey Lance in there, too, but they feel more likely to be need a year or two (especially Lance) to get an NFL system in their grasp.

Wilson might have more immediate upside, but his tendency to scramble under pressure, and having not faced much against mostly weak competition is worrisome.

And as for that great Garoppolo quality: leadership? If you watched that CFB Semifinal in which Fields came back from what was either a bruised or cracked ribs to finish with six touchdowns, or read how his teammates feel about him, you’re not worried about his leadership.

Fields has already worked with Shanahan at the QB Collective summit Shanahan runs with other NFL coaches to develop quarterback prospects.

Fields is athletic without a doubt, but at his core, he’s a pocket passer. The question is really whether Jacksonville, who are reportedly looking at Ohio State head coaches former and present, Urban Meyer and Ryan Day, will choose Fields over Trevor Lawrence.

If you’re the 49ers, give the Jets or Jaguars whatever they want. When Saleh gets a job, that’s a 2021 and 2022 compensatory third-round pick. There’s also a compensatory fifth-rounder coming in from Emmanuel Sanders.

Jets get: 2021 first (12th overall), 2021 2nd (44th overall), 2022 1st, 2022 2nd, 2022 3rd (from Saleh), 2023 2nd

49ers get: 2021 first (2nd overall), 2022 5th

If you keep Garoppolo, you can’t keep much of the core together besides Trent Williams. If you get rid of him, those key re-signings become much easier, and there’s even a chance to make a sneaky signing or two at corner or edge.

This is not saying that Garoppolo is a bad quarterback, or that the 49ers can’t win with him. He has proven he’s not and they have proven they can go to the Super Bowl with him.

But they don’t have the same cap space and roster they did in 2018, and his ceiling is the 49ers’ ceiling. With someone like Fields, you shatter that ceiling for the next decade. That’s what the 49ers are faced with this offseason.

 

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