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Grading the 49ers’ wild opening week of free agency and what’s next

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After all those months of worrying, knowing the salary cap would come falling back to earth, it didn’t seem to affect the 49ers’ business nearly as much as we had thought. To be sure, there were players, like Kendrick Bourne, and backup quarterback options, who they clearly would have been more significant players for without the precipitous loss of $16 million in cap space, but that was a league-wide issue.

What really changed the game for San Francisco was an under-the-radar change which was out of their control. Thanks to the horrors of the 2020 season, the 49ers actually netted roughly $13 million from last season, carrying over about $1.9 million in unused cap space and $11 million in adjustments. It’s those adjustments that had a monumental impact.

In essence, there were so many players with likely-to-be-earned incentives (defined as likely by completing that benchmark in the prior season) which counted against the salary cap. When those injuries wrecked the 49ers’ season, many of those incentives were wiped out.

Those adjustments gave the 49ers roughly $26 million in space plus another roughly $7 million from restructuring Weston Richburg’s contract. Richburg is expected to retire.

And then there was Dee Ford, whose remaining three years were converted into a reported two-year, $24 million deal, which is likely fully, or nearly fully guaranteed, as Ford had about $14 million in guaranteed money and was closing in on April 1, when $11.6 million of his salary would have guaranteed. The breakdown of those two years is not yet clear, but it’s likely a heavier year two cap hit, which could mean something like $8 million in 2021 and $16 million in 2022.

Re-signing Trent Williams to a deal which hits for just $8 million in year one? That’s absolute cap genius.

The upshot of all of this is that the 49ers were not and are not just playing defense in free agency. They have been proactive; knowing Ford is unlikely to be healthy, at least for the majority of the regular season, they added a what they hope to be Ford-lite in Samson Ebukam on a two-year, $12 million and up to $13.5 million deal. Richburg’s pending retirement (he would have been cut otherwise) left an Alex Mack-sized hole for a three-year deal which is reportedly $5.5 million in year one, and a move which was predicted by roughly everyone following the team.

Having addressed all their major needs, the remaining spots of need are now slot receiver, backup quarterback and defensive back. With nine draft picks, the 49ers are primed to not only address those needs but swing high on some value positions, like defensive end.

Overall Grade: A-

My only knock here is that the 49ers eschewed a viable backup quarterback. Most of those options were, understandably, out of their preferred price range. That is, all of them but Mitchell Trubisky. If you groan when you hear Trubisky, I get it. He’s exceedingly meme-able and has looked out of his depth on so many occasions that the Bears decided to go with Andy Dalton rather than trying to bring him back after betting that he was the future of the franchise.

But Trubisky, the player, is a more than capable backup who is 26 years old, with physical upside that’s still worth making a bet on. If you were a Sam Darnold person, you’re basically making the exact same bet with Trubisky, but on a guy who doesn’t cost a draft pick and only cost the Buffalo Bills $2.5 million.

$2.5 million is absolutely worth it for a backup who has a 64-to-37 touchdown-to-interception ratio played in two playoff games. When you’re playing with limited money, you’re taking swings on flawed goods. Trubisky absolutely would have been worth it at that price.

The only explanation for not making that move is Trubisky saw what Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has done with Josh Allen and thought “I want me some of that,” which is a reasonable bet on his part, to spend a year with someone who can maximize his skillset before he hits free agency again in a year in which the cap will open back up a bit.

Trent Williams: Reported six-year, $130.06 million deal which is really two separate three-year deals worth $60.75 million and another three-year option worth $77.31 million.

Great deal. Williams only costs $8.23 million in year one and $14.12 million in year two. That $26.27 million in year three is massive, but that’s in 2023, when that sweet, sweet TV money will start coursing through the veins of NFL teams and the cap should explode.

The structure of the deal gives the 49ers both short-term cap flexibility and allows them to get out in 2024 if Williams’ performance or health suffers. Keep in mind that the left tackle market will surely be re-set again by that time, so $26.92 million, $29.37 million and $33.06 million figures may be more reasonable than they appear now. And if Williams is still playing at this level then, it will be worth it.

And keep in mind that there is $6.02 million guaranteed in 2024 and 2025, with nothing guaranteed in 2026. That means cutting him, even if the option is picked up, would remain viable.

Kyle Juszczyk: Reported five-year, $27 million deal

Juszczcyk said that if the 49ers reached the number he had in mind, he’d sign. They did, and one of the more mutually beneficial partnerships in the NFL remains intact. No offense can maximize Juszczyk like the 49ers’ can, and it feels like last season may be a sign to come, with more receiving and perhaps rushing opportunities in the cards.

The necessity for an intelligent blockers who can navigate tight spaces and understands angles is absolutely crucial in this offense, and while he is a 30-year-old fullback, he’s not taking the same wear that a player like his old predecessor, Vonta Leach, took. The price of Juszczyk, and not having to worry about a likely rookie or a Josh Hokit trying to learn the system, with just a $2.28 million year one cap hit, is absolutely worth it.

Jason Verrett: Reported one-year, $5.31 million deal

Necessary, and the right price. With Verrett, you are assuming the risk that comes with a player who has spent most of his career rehabbing from injuries, but you have to move forward believing that he’ll replicate last season. Verrett was elite without a pass rush. Envisioning him in the 49ers’ defense with Nick Bosa, Samson Ebukam and Jaelan Phillips (my bet for the 49ers’ draft pick) and one of the best linebacking duos in football is tantalizing.

You also don’t have many other options if you’re the 49ers, and you’re keeping an incredibly well-respected veteran in the defensive back group, a necessity when you’re losing Richard Sherman. It’s a fair price for a player, who, if healthy, will be a bargain.

Alex Mack: Reported three-year, $14.85 million deal

Fantastic move. Center is the one position that has killed the 49ers over the last few years. Chris Jones ran riot on Ben Garland in the Super Bowl, and San Francisco got down to Daniel Brunskill, effectively their fifth-choice center last year. It’s a position Kyle Shanahan prioritizes, and it’s one he prefers a veteran to occupy.

The bet on Weston Richburg went wrong in every conceivable way, but Mack, 36, is a nine-time Pro Bowler who has excelled with Kyle Shanahan, and has played under him and Mike McDaniel with both the Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons. He knows the nuances of the scheme, and fills out the most glaring need of the offensive line. Now, offensive line becomes a developmental luxury in the draft, and you can afford some risk.

His deal, also, is very affordable. The first year checks in at $3 million, while year’s two and three are $6.73 million and $5.08 million respectively… but with just $1.25 million guaranteed in each year. So if Mack looks like a shell of himself this year, which doesn’t seem likely, or suffers a brutal injury, the 49ers can recoup roughly $4 million in cap space in each of the next two years.

Samson Ebukam: Reported two-year, $12 million and up to $13.5 million deal

The philosophy behind this move is straightforward and brilliant. You move forward assuming Dee Ford won’t be there, knowing that you cannot afford to sign a top-tier free agent, but need to attempt to replicate that value. In Ebukam, you’re signing a 25-year-old speedy, domineering edge rusher who admitted he’s basically a raw talent, and in four years has never missed a game.

That should, in theory, ensure you have a partner for Nick Bosa, with an improved Javon Kinlaw and an Arik Armstead who isn’t the sole focus of offensive lines and can slide back into that three-technique role he tends to thrive in.

You’re bringing him into a scheme where he’s no longer a stand-up pass rusher, which allows him to get into the face of tackles quicker, and something he believes he’ll excel at. Kris Kocurek has shown a knack for getting the best out of perhaps undervalued talents, and Ebukam feels like a perfect fit to be a Dee Ford-lite.

Perhaps as crucially, it means you don’t have as pressing of a need at defensive end. Now, I still believe the 49ers will got that route and probably draft Miami’s Jaelan Phillips, but it gives you some plausible deniability in the draft, and maybe allows you to draft a defensive end later on, or in a trade back.

Emmanuel Moseley: Reported two-year, $9.38 million deal worth up to $10.1 million

Moseley deserved this contract and alongside Verrett, assures a likely starting corner tandem. Moseley can also play at nickel, where the 49ers have often employed him in training camp. You’re paying for a guy who played with a level of reliability (excluding that play from the Super Bowl) that’s crucial in a thinning secondary and who will turn 25 at the end of March.

He’ll hit the cap for just $2.65 million this season and has $1.74 million guaranteed next year. His $4.4 million salary next year will likely vest in to a full guarantee thanks to an injury/skill guarantee vesting date of April 1. That $6.73 million salary might end up being a bit steep, especially is Moseley has an off year, and is one of the only contract details in these deals that seems like a questionable decision.

D.J. Jones: Reported one-year deal, unknown compensation

We don’t know what Jones will make, but it’s almost assuredly less than $3 million. The issue with him has been that the same raw power and athleticism that comes out of his roughly 6-foot, 319-point frame, generally precludes him from staying healthy, with a barrage of soft tissues injuries plaguing him over the last few years.

The positive side is that Jones has only become increasingly available each year.

2017: 9 games

2018: 10 games

2019: 11 games

2020: 14 games

When healthy, he is unquestionably one of the better nose tackles in the NFL. He has a freakishly-quick get-off, and plug gaps in the run game. He’s a key piece of the defensive line and provides security on the interior.


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