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Potential salary cap casualties who could become 49ers targets

© Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

We are likely in for a ruthless offseason of cost cutting. As of February 18, based on a recent report from ESPN’s Adam Schefter that the 2021 salary cap will be set between $180-181 million, OverTheCap projects 12 teams to be over the salary cap and eight to be $18 million or more over the cap. There are 13 teams projected to have $18 million cap space or more, and four with $60 million-plus.

The 49ers are currently projected to have roughly $13 million in space.

What this all means is that with a cap figure that may cost teams roughly $23 million (and more like $33 million, given that the cap has gone up by about $10 million every season since 2013), there will be more cuts than usual, of players who would normally be retained.

This also presents the option for a later-than-usual market in June. Each team is allowed two post-June 1 cuts. The basic difference in post-June 1 cuts is that they save teams more money in the current season. The drawback is that the money is only available in June, when most free agents have signed. Here’s a basic example:

Player X: Three years, $30 million contract, $10 million per year. $15 million is pro-rated bonus money, fully guaranteed; $5 million in each of the next three years.

  • Normal roster cut: $15 million in pro-rated bonus money comes due immediately. Net cap affect: -$5 million in 2021
  • Post-June 1 cut: $5 million in pro-rated bonus money is due. $10 million is next season. Net cap affect: Saves $5 million in 2021, no savings/loss in 2022

There is a chance that a smaller, secondary market emerges after June 1 for teams to maximize savings, especially if they need money for extensions. Below is a list of players who (mostly) are still under contract, but are likely or possibly going to be cut to free up cap space.

Zach Ertz, TE, Eagles

  • Team’s projected team cap: -$49 million
  • Cap hit: $12.47 million
  • Cap savings pre-June 1: $4.70 million
  • Cap savings post-June 1: $8.25 million

What’s crucial to remember about the tight end position is that George Kittle is fighting a war of attrition on every snap and Kyle Shanahan very much wants a No. 2 option next to him; he reportedly pursued Austin Hooper last offseason before Hooper signed with the Cleveland Browns. Kittle has dealt with fractures in back-to-back seasons, which, while both freak injuries against the Arizona Cardinals, aren’t surprising for a man who’s had a torn labrum for two years which he refuses to get repaired, and who loves run blocking as much as any human on the planet.

This isn’t to say Kittle is going to just break down and suddenly become a shell of himself. But few players put their body on the line in the way he does on a down-in, down-out basis, and having someone who can take the load off him in some fashion could be significant for Kittle’s longevity. Just as importantly, it raises the ceiling of the 49ers offense.

Having a bona fide No. 2 tight end who isn’t a blocking liability and is a consistent receiving threat provides the option to use 22 or 12 personnel more often; Shanahan clearly wants some version of that, and sought it out with Jordan Reed when he couldn’t get Austin Hooper last offseason. The problem was Kittle and Reed never found the field at the same time. In Ertz, you effectively replace Kendrick Bourne while adding the second tight end Shanahan wants.

Reports have long suggested the Eagles will cut him and retain the far more affordable Dallas Goedert. The question for San Francisco, clearly, is what the market for Ertz looks like. If it’s a plus-$5 million per year market, they may be out on him. But if Kyle Juszczyk and Kendrick Bourne both leave, that might not be such an absurd price to pay.

You can also offer Ertz the chance to play back in his home state of California, and in the Bay Area, where he grew up (Danville). Going after Ertz and swinging on a tight end with H-back/fullback experience in the draft could be the next step for the offense if Juszczyk heads to the Jets.

Geno Atkins, DT, Bengals

  • Team’s projected team cap: $38.03 million
  • Cap hit: $14.7 million
  • Cap savings pre-June 1: $9.5 million
  • Cap savings post-June 1: $12.1 million

Sheldon Richardson, DT, Browns

  • Team’s projected team cap: $21.81 million
  • Cap hit: $13.17 million
  • Cap savings pre-June 1: $11.5 million

Both Atkins and Richardson are veteran defensive tackles who wreak havok on the inside. They are both unlikely signings, but listed here for posterity given the uncertainty in the market this year. Maybe defensive tackles come cheap and the 49ers make a move if D.J. Jones departs. Again, it’s doubtful, but both of these players are clear, easy cut options, so it’s worth tracking.

Stephen Weatherly, DE, Panthers

  • Team’s projected team cap: $20.1 million
  • Cap hit: $7.91 million
  • Cap savings pre-June 1: $5.91 million

This team needs depth on the edge, and Weatherly is an obvious cut candidate for the Panthers. He failed to secure a sack in 2020 after two three-sack seasons in Minnesota in 2018 and 2019. Weatherly would be a cheap flier with athletic upside. Again, it’s moneyball season, so you look for value where yo ucan find it.

Danny Shelton, DT, Lions

  • Team’s projected team cap: $6.2 million
  • Cap hit: $5.25 million
  • Cap savings pre-June 1: $4 million

Shelton would basically be a one-for-one D.J. Jones replacement who’s flashed similar upside and is a former first-round pick, which the 49ers absolutely love. He’s just a big ole nose tackle. Maybe not in the mold of what the 49ers normally look for, but the bet is bringing in a reliable space eater for cheap.

Levine Toilolo, TE, Giants

  • Team’s projected team cap: $1.34 million
  • Cap hit: $2.95 million
  • Cap savings pre-June 1: $2.95 million

It’s clear that Toilolo’s stable blocking presence was missed, and with the Giants likely to cut him, he could be a sensible, cheap depth options to take some of the blocking load off Kittle’s shoulders. He’s also still tight with players on the team; he spent some time with George Kittle, Ben Garland, Trent Taylor, T.J. Hockenson and their wives on vacation after the season.

Jimmy Graham, TE, Bears

  • Team’s projected team cap: -$6.07 million
  • Cap hit: $10 million
  • Cap savings pre-June 1: $7 million

Mentally, it feels like Jimmy Graham has been done for a decade. But he’s still putting up numbers and is clearly not sticking around in Chicago. He had his most efficient touchdown receiving season since his last Pro Bowl year in 2017, with Seattle, catching 50 passes for 456 yards and 8 touchdowns last season. The logic is the same as with Ertz; add another threat at tight end and lessen the load on Kittle.

Buster Skrine, CB, Bears

  • Team’s projected team cap: -$6.07 million
  • Cap hit: $6.04 million
  • Cap savings pre-June 1: $2.74 million
  • Cap savings post-June 1: $4.94 million

Skrine has been underwhelming for the Browns as a nickel corner, but he’s flashed massive upside at times in his career. If K’Waun Williams leaves, he’s a veteran option to step in that role for cheap. He’s one of the more practical targets here.

A’Shawn Robinson, DT, Rams

  • Team’s projected team cap: -$26.64 million
  • Cap hit: $5.25 million
  • Cap savings pre-June 1: $750,000
  • Cap savings post-June 1: $3.75 million

Robinson started his career with the Detroit Lions and defensive line coach Kris Kocurek. If he is cut by the Rams, it would likely be in that post-June 1 window. That might present a uniquely intriguing opportunity for the 49ers if, say, they cut Weston Richburg or Dee Ford with a post-June 1 designation, and open up space for that second, limited free agent wave. The former first-round pick is still just 26 years old, and a reunion with Kocurek could appeal to both sides.

Marquise Goodwin, WR, Eagles

  • Team’s projected team cap: -$49.05 million
  • Cap hit: $4.28 million
  • Cap savings pre-June 1: $4.28 million

Yeah, I know. This is a desperation play. But after sitting out for a year (COVID-19) and having limited production in recent years, it’s hard to imagine there’s much market for him, and taking a veteran flier, whether on Goodwin or someone else, might be in the cards.

Kwon Alexander, LB, Saints

  • Team’s projected team cap: -$69.09 million
  • Cap hit: $13.17 million
  • Cap savings pre-June 1: $13.17 million

Alexander will be cut by the Saints. It’s a formality. The market for him is unclear after suffering a torn Achilles, but it’s evident that he’s well-loved in Santa Clara, and bringing him back on a minimum deal for the year, if only for his energy, has value. His energy and optimism were infectious, and it’s unlikely he plays at all next year. What you’re paying for is positivity from a guy who’s already great friends with most of the locker room.

Janoris Jenkins, CB, Saints

  • Team’s projected team cap: -$69.09 million
  • Cap hit: $14.2 million
  • Cap savings pre-June 1: $7 million
  • Cap savings post-June 1: $10 million

With so much uncertainty about the 49ers’ secondary, it’s hard to rule much out. Patrick Peterson is a free agent, too. The 49ers are going to have to pay somebody to play corner for them, and while the odds point towards that being Jason Verrett, Jenkins will be on the market, too, and at age 33, likely isn’t getting the $14.2 million he was scheduled to.

Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Saints

  • Team’s projected team cap: -$69.09 million
  • Cap hit: $10 million
  • Cap savings pre-June 1: $4 million
  • Cap savings post-June 1: $6 million

Sanders, like Alexander, is absolutely getting cut. The Saints are in salary cap hell, and he’s gone. At age 33, in a brutal marketplace, you have to wonder if a reunion makes sense if Kendrick Bourne departs. Last year, though, Sanders said he wanted to play in a “pass-happy offense,” clearly indicating that’s not what he had in Santa Clara and that at his age, the blocking requirements take their toll. But if the money’s right, and he’s used in a more limited role, this could be an option.


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