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Predicting who stays and who goes in 49ers’ trickiest offseason yet

© David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports


It’s a pretty brutal time for the 49ers to be running into a salary cap crunch. Right now, we don’t know where the cap will land. Suggestions seem to be that it will be at least at $180 million, but the floor is $175 million, and it will almost certainly decrease from the $198.2 million figure from this season.

Normally, teams budget for an increase. Every year since 2013, the cap has increased steadily, by at least $10 million. In other words, even if the cap stays the same, teams are already losing about $10 million they’d normally expect to have.

Below is the full list of the 49ers free agents (RFA stands for restricted free agents, meaning the 49ers can match any deal as long as they use a tender, and ERFA stands for early restricted free agents, representing players who are forced to stay with the team and not really free agents at all).

  • 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)

Here’s a look at what might happen with most of the team’s key free agents:

Jimmy Garoppolo: Stays, unless the 49ers trade for Deshaun Watson or Matthew Stafford

This is the only non-free agent on this list and he’s here because in evaluating the quarterback class, only two appear like they could be ready for Kyle Shanahan’s offense from Day 1: Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson. Justin Fields has all the arm talent in the world, but is far too deliberate, and Trey Lance isn’t even close to ready to start in the NFL. You could argue maybe Mac Jones or a later quarterback like Tanner Morgan are options, too, but in terms of swinging on elite talent that could compete with Garoppolo from the jump, the options are limited.

Shanahan has seen three(ish) years of Jimmy. You can be sure he’d like to get an improvement over Garoppolo, but is he really willing to undergo a project? At this point, my guess is Garoppolo stays unless the 49ers can trade for Deshaun Watson or Matthew Stafford, or Zach Wilson falls past five, and San Francisco can trade up for him efficiently.

Trent Williams: Re-signs on four-year, $85 million extension

Williams, as Richard Sherman said earlier this season, will be getting $20 million in free agency. And it really will be free agency, unless the 49ers persuade Williams, who said he’s interested to see what his value is on the open market, to re-sign before the new year starts. When the team reworked his deal at the start of the season in a goodwill move to guarantee him more money up front, they also agreed they wouldn’t use the franchise tag on him.

There’s no safety net. The 49ers are just going to have to pay Williams what he’s worth.

The last three elite left tackle deals were: David Bakhtiari, Ronnie Stanley, Laremy Tunsil. Bakhtiari and Stanley, by the way, suffered season-ending injuries this year. 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.

Losing Williams would be a monumental failure on the 49ers’ part. He wants to stay, and paying him roughly $20 million per year is how you accomplish that. Now, because of that relationship, you may be able to negotiate the deal where Williams’ first year is in a more favorable range, of, say, $15-16 million. That could do wonders for the 49ers’ cap situation in 2021.

Richard Sherman: Signs elsewhere on three-year, $25 million deal

This is effectively a two-year contract with a mostly non-guaranteed third year that is triggered by playtime or accolade incentives. Something like a fully, or nearly fully-guaranteed first year for $10 million, then a partially guaranteed second year at $8 million, and the third year at $8 million, with something like $2 million in pro-rated bonus money guaranteed.

One really intriguing option here? Robert Saleh on the Los Angeles Chargers. Saleh started experimenting with Sherman at safety, and Sherman has expressed an openness to potential switching to a centerfielder role later in his career.

Sherman’s already stated the 49ers can’t, or at least won’t pay him what he’s worth, but didn’t seem to carry much resentment. The cap situation makes it exceedingly difficult to retain him.

Jaquiski Tartt: Signs elsewhere on three-year, $22 million deal

If Tartt was not an injury concern, he could be getting paid near the upper echelon of safeties, but his injury history makes that impossible. It’s clear how many busts there are in coverage when he’s not on the field, and while he’s not necessarily the flashy safety that some people fall in love with, he’s a reliable coverage defender and tackler who is positionally flexible.

Tartt’s yearly average has a pretty wide range based on his injuries, and how teams assess his worth. If you’re a team that believes you’re just a reliable coverage safety away from becoming an elite defense, you might pay Tartt closer to $9-10 million per year. But it’s also a weird, potentially down year in the market, so there’s a chance he could have a floor of $6 million per year.

Safety is one of those positions where the guys who are off the market first get paid their due, but if you linger, like Tre Boston has for so many years, you get locked into a cycle of those one-year, $3 or $4 million deals. Tartt, to me, finds something in the $7.5 million per year range for three years, with the first year fully guaranteed and second year heavily guaranteed.

Jason Verrett: Re-signs on two-year, $12 million deal

Verrett’s play warrants more than this, but his health probably prevents him from signing any contract longer than two years. He played at a Pro Bowl, or borderline All-Pro level this season, and was crucial in keeping the 49ers’ defense afloat.

This probably looks, for cap purposes, like a fully guaranteed $5 million in 2021. The 49ers give him $8 million fully guaranteed over the two years, and if he hits playtime incentives, his $3 million salary in 2022 becomes fully guaranteed, too, in addition to the remaining $4 million. That’s a bet on the cap getting back, at least somewhat to normal in 2022.

K’Waun Williams: Signs elsewhere on three-year, $17 million deal

If Saleh does leave, Williams following seems like a fair bet. When healthy, he’s arguably the best nickel corner in the league. But, it’s still a not-every-down position, so that comes with limitations. Because he’s injury-prone, he protects himself in year two. It depends what sort of cap space the team is working with, but the structure could work with a fully guaranteed $4 million in year one, then $7 million partially guaranteed in Y2 and $6 million in year three, which can guarantee based on year two incentives, but which probably has $3 million or less guaranteed.

Ahkello Witherspoon: Signs elsewhere on two-year, $8 million deal

Listen, I don’t have the slightest clue with Witherspoon. After being benched for three-straight weeks, I’d imagine he and the 49ers would view a change of scenery as best for his career. But is he a one-year, $3 million guy? Or, with an aging corner market, does someone take a swing on Witherspoon, who has flashed elite coverage abilities but never sustained those bursts. At age 26, there’s still a lot for teams to like, so if something like $5 million-plus per year it wouldn’t be completely shocking

Kyle Juszczyk: Re-signs on three-year, $16 million deal 

Juszczyk was nearly brought to tears by the prospect of leaving the 49ers, which seemed to indicate that is likely. Still, this offense realizes so heavily on a dynamic fullback, and going with a rookie is a harrowing prospect. The assignments Juszczyk is responsible for have become second nature, and he’s had his most efficient rushing and scoring year yet.

He doesn’t want to leave, and while he’ll have a market, I have trouble seeing him sign elsewhere. This would be strongly guaranteed in the first two years, say $4 million in the first year, $5.5 million in year two and $6.5 million in year three. The 49ers outbid themselves the first time they signed Juszczyk and this is basically the same yearly average for another three seasons.

Kerry Hyder: Signs elsewhere on one-year, $6.5 million deal

It’s time for Kerry Hyder to get paid. The fact that he’s earned just $4,287,288 in his six-year career is stunning. It’s time for him to double that and more this offseason. He should get at least one year and $5 million nearly fully guaranteed at a minimum.

He was the lone source of consistent pass rush pressure the 49ers had this season, and it wasn’t remotely close. Hyder had 8.5 sacks and Arik Armstead was next-closest with 3.5. And it wasn’t like Armstead was setting it up and Hyder was reaping the rewards. It was largely Hyder’s own doing.

Kendrick Bourne: Signs elsewhere on three-year, $15 million deal 

Bourne drops too many passes, but he’s there when it counts, and doesn’t always get the ball when he’s open, like many 49ers receivers. He is just an elite third-down pass-catcher, and quietly put together a solid season of 49 catches for 667 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

His 13.6 yards-per-catch average trailed only Richie James Jr. (17.1 yards per catch). He was tied for fifth in the NFL with seven first-down catches on 3rd and more than 7 yards to go. Of his 74 targets, 34 catches were first downs (47.3 percent) which ranks 18th in the NFL. Nearly 70 percent of his catches were for first downs.

Someone will pay for a semi-reliable third-down guy, which should cost about $5 million per year. The structure, though, will probably favor the team, making the second and third years lightly guaranteed.

Solomon Thomas: Signs elsewhere on one-year, $3 million deal

It’s tough to know what to make of Thomas. He’s not remotely as bad as he’s made out to be, but he’s obviously been a huge disappointment as a No. 3 overall pick. He started to show flashes at the end of last season and in training camp that a 3-technique, interior role is probably a better fit for him. It might be time for a change of scenery on a one-year flier elsewhere.

TE Jordan Reed: Signs elsewhere on one-year, $2.5 million deal

Reed obviously enjoys playing with Kyle Shanahan, though his time with Nick Mullens may have soured that and cost him some money. He clearly still has some explosion left, but his health is still a major concern, and the 49ers probably won’t have the cap room even for a cheap deal like this one. Returning is definitely in play, but it’s unclear what Reed’s outlook is.

C Ben Garland – Re-signs one-year, $1.3 million deal

Garland was the team’s safety valve at center until he wasn’t. Still, he’s not going to command a massive salary and is a very useful piece when healthy. If San Francisco can’t find a long-term answer at center, he provides a mostly reliable backup option.

DT D.J. Jones – Signs elsewhere on one-year, $3 million dal

There have been moments where we’ve thought D.J. Jones was the next great nose tackle. But his frame and explosiveness, which make him so dynamic, seem tied to causing injuries. He simply can’t stay healthy, and the production San Francisco has gotten out of Kevin Givens, and with the frequency they’re able to find cheap interior talent, it seems like it’s time for the sides to part ways.

DE Jordan Willis: Re-signs on slightly more than minimum one-year deal, roughly $1.25 million

San Francisco clearly saw something in Willis, who, for the first time in his career, had more than a single sack on the year, finishing with 2.5 sacks. The bet here is a mutual one, in that Willis won’t have a massive market, and that the 49ers can maximize his skillset like with Hyder. He bets that their bet on him pays off… for him, and he cashes in in 2022.

DE Ronald Blair III: Re-signs on same veteran deal that pays him roughly $2 million, but costs $1 million, unless Saleh steals him

If Saleh gets a head coaching post, you can be sure Ronald Blair III will be high on his list. There are few players he’s raved about more frequently than Blair III, who was unable to play this season due to complications with surgery. With Blair III, the 49ers can offer him more than the minimum, but basically pay him the minimum.

He won’t get much more than the minimum elsewhere, and the new CBA allows teams to exclude as much as $1.25 million of salary for players with at least four years of service time with a team. Whatever he’s offered elsewhere, the 49ers can basically match it, while not paying an addition $1.25 million on the cap. But maybe Saleh just has to have him and the 49ers don’t want to deal with his injury history anymore.

DE Ezekiel Ansah: Signs elsewhere on one-year minimum deal

The 49ers really didn’t want to sign Ansah, who basically failed two physicals. They only relented when they had no choice, and then he tore his biceps. He’s unlikely to return.

DE Dion Jordan: Re-signs for veteran minimum, $1 million deal

Jordan, who had a putrid camp, played effectively down the stretch. I’d imagine he might want to stick around with Kris Kocurek and try to keep his fledgling career alive.

LB Joe Walker: Re-signs for veteran minimum

Gut feeling says Walker will depart, but he fills a pretty similar role as Mark Nzeocha, who has a $1.6 million salary. Cutting him, though a minor move in the grand scheme of things, saves roughly $700,000, which might be crucial if they get into another injury crunch. Bringing Walker into camp, at least, isn’t a terrible idea to feel that veteran special-teamer role.

QB C.J. Beathard: Signs elsewhere on slightly more than minimum deal

Bringing Beathard back for camp has no real downside, and he’s well-respected in the locker room, but a change of scenery would probably benefit him. It’s hard to see him commanding much more than a minimum deal, but he has starting experience and maybe someone values that more than the 49ers.

RBs Tevin Coleman, Jerick McKinnon: Sign elsewhere on single-year, $2-3 million deals

Both Coleman and McKinnon had such massive hopes when they signed with the 49ers, but the attrition of their duties as NFL running backs has worn on both. It feels like it’s time for both to look elsewhere, and they might still have a bit of value to the right teams.

WR Trent Taylor: Re-signs on minimum deal

It doesn’t seem like there’s going to be a market for Taylor, but who knows? Maybe Bill Belichick thinks he can find his next little slot guy. At the least, the 49ers probably bring him into camp to compete for a spot.

Routes for cap savings

Currently, OverTheCap projects a $178.5 million salary cap, with the 49ers currently with $22.6 million in cap space. There are paths for the 49ers to create a plethora of cap space if they part ways with Jimmy Garoppolo, and even more if they can cut Dee Ford (explained briefly below). But if they can’t, there are a few straightforward routes to opening up an additional roughly $15 million in cap space, for roughly $37 million up to $41 million in space in these scenarios.

Cuts/trades:

  • 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, who has a partial injury guarantee in 2021, according to OverTheCap. It’s unclear if he’ll play another snap, let alone be healthy enough to pass a physical before April 1, when $11.6 million of his salary guarantees. Cutting Richburg after June 1 would save $8.35 million, as opposed to the $4.9 million it would save before June 1 (bumping the total potential cap savings up to roughly $18 million).

Restructures/extension

  • Jimmie Ward: $11 million cap hit
  • Laken Tomlinson: $6.59 million cap hit

These are the two most viable candidates for contract restructures/extensions. Tomlinson isn’t signed after 2021, and the 49ers already restructured his deal this year to set up a potential extension. Extending him could save roughly $2.8 million in 2021, and restructuring Ward’s deal could save nearly $5 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 – Original Round tender is also a possibility
  • 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
 

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