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The obvious and under-the-radar moves that propelled 49ers to the playoffs

© Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers made the playoffs. Therefore, this season is at worst a mild success. You can get into the nuance of every decision and plenty of the many failures that happened, but a season is generally not wasted if it results in a playoff berth.

How this team arrived here is largely the product of hitting on (and extending) elite-level players in the draft: George Kittle in 2017, Fred Warner in 2018, Nick Bosa and Deebo Samuel in 2019, Brandon Aiyuk (probably a tier below those players) in 2020.

The obvious moves

Some of these moves are long standing, like the 2018 mega extension to Jimmy Garoppolo. There were the Arik Armstead and Jimmie Ward extensions in the 2020 offseason, which also saw DeForest Buckner and Emmanuel Sanders depart.

The 49ers decided on Armstead and Javon Kinlaw over Buckner, and Aiyuk over Sanders. The latter looks much more favorable than the former, but Armstead has performed well and hasn’t missed a single game since 2018.

Then there were the Kittle and Warner extensions, with Kittle re-setting the tight end market, and Warner becoming the second-most highly paid linebacker in the NFL.

The position-leading deal to keep Trent Williams from heading to Kansas City last offseason is the most obvious, major move of this offseason, and comes with just an $8.18 million cap hit this year.

Keeping Williams on a six-year, $138.06 million deal was fair and necessary value for a future Hall of Fame player. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded player ever with a 98.2 grade.

Williams performed unteachable, peerless feats on an every-down basis and nearly had a first-career touchdown. He’s the best left tackle in football and a top-10 player in the league.

With Williams’ signing came the addition of six-time Pro Bowler Alex Mack on a three-year deal which counts for just $2.98 million on the cap this year.

While he had some shaky moments, especially early in the season, he’s been a very steady, reliable cog in the 49ers’ offensive line and for once, provided consistency at the center position after years of the oft-injured Weston Richburg turning it into a revolving door. Remember Hroniss Grasu? No more.

And of course Kyle Juszczyk signed a five-year, $27 million deal, similar to the 4-year, $21 million deal he signed when he joined in 2017.

There was also the two-year, $12 million signing of Samson Ebukam, which has him with a $3.72 million cap hit this season. He got off to a rough start, but has become an important part of the rotation in the second half of the season.

In total, the 49ers have given position-leading deals to Williams, Kittle, Juszczyk and a near-leading deal to Warner. Arik Armstead and Jimmy Garoppolo are roughly top-10 at their position.

But some of the more under-the-radar moves are what really made this roster tick.

Under-the-radar moves

Because of the constricted salary cap issues from the mostly fan-less 2020, there was a substantial number of players who were screwed out of deals they deserved.

That worked to the 49ers’ benefit, as they moneyballed their way to a roster which should have cost significantly more.

Jaquiski Tartt, who has been a lynchpin of the backend of the defense, but has dealt with injury issues, signed for less than $1 million.

K’Waun Williams found himself in a similar spot, but benefited from taking one of the flex, veteran deals that the NFL offers for players who stay with one team for a significant amount of time. He’s making $2.24 million, but his cap hit is half of that.

The fact that they retained a top-10 slot corner and arguably a top-20 safety for bargain-bin prices is nonsensical.

Also coming in at that roughly minimum price was Arden Key, the former Raiders third-rounder who was all too happy to leave an organization he (understandably) called dysfunctional, saying they misused him.

That is hard to argue, as Key finished as one of the NFL’s best pass rushers. After topping out at 2.0 sacks in his sophomore season, he finished with 6.5 sacks this season and was a leader in some advanced metrics.

In looking at pressures (QB hits, hurries and sacks) per opportunity (opportunities being snaps that weren’t nullified by penalty), Key was elite. He created pressure on 15 percent of his opportunities, good for 16th in the NFL, out of 205 qualified players.

On true pass sets, Key created pressure 23.36 percent of the time, ninth-best in the NFL, and one spot behind Nick Bosa.

Since Week 8, when Arik Armstead moved inside full time, those numbers got even more absurd. His 18.53 percent pressure per opportunity rate was second in the NFL in that final, 11-game stretch, second only to Micah Parsons. His 26.32 pressure per opportunity rate on true pass sets was fifth in the NFL.

There are a number of other moves, like signing Azeez Al-Shaair to a three-year deal after going undrafted, signing stellar long snapper Taybor Pepper to a two-year deal, and keeping Daniel Brunskill around, which have all made significant impacts.

Paying $3.45 million for D.J. Jones, the most effective run stopper in the NFL, per ESPN with a 48 percent run stop win rate — and a solid pass rusher on his limited opportunities — seems like a bargain. He’s in line for a major deal this offseason.

The Emmanuel Moseley two-year extension is in that same realm. His cap hit is just $2.65 million this season and with him healthy, finally, going in to the playoffs, the 49ers have the steadiest cornerback group they’ve had all year, with Ambry Thomas finally appearing confident and comfortable.

The Charles Omenihu trade, too, provided a cheap rotational edge presence who cost less than $500,000 to the 49ers this season, and will cost less than $1 million next season. He finished with a 19.35 percent pass rush win rate, which was 15th-best in the NFL (among 205 qualified players), right behind Chris Jones. He was a top-31 player in win rate and pressure per opportunity on regular and true pass sets.

Keeping JaMycal Hasty over Wayne Gallman was a 50-50 proposition, and while Hasty hasn’t been the most consistent target — with Garoppolo struggling often to connect with him — he’s become the third-down and two-minute back.

On Sunday, he broke a tackle on a short pass on second-and-2, turning upfield for eight yards. It helped get the 49ers in field goal range to end the first half. On the opening drive of the third quarter, he caught a pass on third-and-3 and turned it into a 13-yard gain. That drive ended four plays later with the 49ers’ first touchdown of the game. He also converted a fullback dive on third-and-1 on their next touchdown drive.

But there were two other moves which have had a stunning, outsized impact.

Bringing in Tom Compton, a 32-year-old veteran guard for most of his career, was a negligible move in training camp. He was actually the butt of the joke at right tackle, getting harangued in one-on-ones, looking like his better days were clearly behind him.

But he outright won the right tackle job from Jaylon Moore after Mike McGlinchey’s season-ending knee injury, and has been a revelation. He’s been an above average pass blocker for the most part, but in the run game, he’s been elite. His 92.2 PFF grade was the second-highest in the NFL for a tackle… right behind Trent Williams, with a 98.5 grade. His effectiveness has been monumentally important.

Lastly, there’s the retention of Jauan Jennings. Kyle Shanahan lamented that he suffered an injury setback last season and never got his opportunity, right as the 49ers believed he was turning a corner.

San Francisco cut him, then brought him back on the practice squad last season, before signing him to a reserve/future deal before training camp.

Then Jennings made the roster, and while Mohamed Sanu was the slot receiver to open the year, with Trent Sherfield — both decent, cheap signings to fill out the receiver room — also in the mix, Sanu suffered a knee sprain and Sherfield fell to the end of the rotation.

Jennings, though, climbed the ladder and has since taken on the Kendrick Bourne role. He’s a stellar slot receiver who gets one-on-one matchups on third downs and carves out just enough space for Jimmy Garoppolo to look his way. That’s happened increasingly often, and he’s getting the ball seemingly only in key situations.

Against the Rams, he caught two touchdowns, and had six total catches for 94 yards, including three third-down conversions. After scoring the game-tying touchdown, he broke off a tackle and rumbled for 34 yards to put the 49ers in field goal range in overtime. Three plays later, he extended the drive with a third-and-3 conversion.

This is all without mentioning the energy and effort he provides. His ability as a blocker is unparalleled, and he ranks fourth among wide receivers with an 84.9 PFF run block grade. San Francisco found their in-the-clutch, go-to slot receiver who also helps turn runs into explosives, and they did so for $660,000.

There was a host of moves that got the 49ers to where they are this week, but it was the bargains at the back end of the roster that loom ever so large right now.


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