Sometimes, the 49ers still have the capacity to surprise.
On Monday, they reportedly signed Eagles defensive tackle Javon Hargrave to a four-year, $84 million deal with $40 million guaranteed.
It is a massive addition at a position where San Francisco was exposed in the playoffs last season. It’s the second-straight offseason they’ve made a major addition at a position they struggled in the postseason, following the three-year, $40.5 million deal they gave to Charvarius Ward in 2022.
It’s a stunner because this has been an offseason that was predicted to be something of a penny-pinching one.
The 49ers are working with roughly $6.5 million in cap space, per OverTheCap. They can create substantial cap space by restructuring the deals of their star players and will likely save somewhere in the range of $5-10 million in year one when Nick Bosa signs an extension.
It was evident from the start of training camp last year that the 49ers’ interior defensive line depth was severely lacking. There were myriad capable edge rushers and tweener players who could slot inside, but gap-holding, space-eating behemoths who could consistently clog run lanes and close the pocket? Not quite.
Hassan Ridgeway, somehow, held the defense together. He wasn’t stellar, but he was a gap-plugging lineman capable of holding his gap.
With him gone, the Eagles ran riot over San Francisco in the NFC Championship.
The 49ers’ bet on Javon Kinlaw has failed. That much is evident.
The signing of Hargrave, on a similar contract to DeForest Buckner, begs a lot of questions. Isn’t it clear now that San Francisco should have signed Buckner in the first place? Should there be concerns that Hargrave, at age 30, is older and not at Buckner’s level?
There’s a lot to wonder.
One thing to commend is that the 49ers do not subscribe to the sunk cost fallacy. Kinlaw has not worked out. Injuries have derailed his career and his tape in the NFC Championship was horrific.
He has incredibly long legs which make his center of gravity very high, so he continues to struggle for pad level. Against squattier, athletic interior players, and without him consistently demonstrating the same burst he had coming out of college, it’s been a recipe for him getting moved off the ball with regularity.
The 49ers recognized that he is not a sustainable option on the interior. Hargrave is more of a pass-rushing presence than an elite run stopper, but he doesn’t often get tossed around. He had had the third-highest pass rush win rate (17 percent) on the interior defensive line last season per ESPN along with 11 sacks, and has missed just three games in seven years.
His run defense has definitely come into question, but as Greg Cosell points out here, he’s not losing on double teams at an uncommon rate. It’s obvious, though, that he’s an addition to bring teeth back to the 49ers’ pass rush in the well-rounded fashion they had in 2019. Given the cheap production they’ve gotten out of decent interior run defenders, there’s probably a belief that value can be found again.
But as far as the Buckner vs. Hargrave discourse, let’s look back.
A key difference now is that the 49ers are in a window with rookie quarterbacks totaling about $10 million in 2023 cap liabilities, as opposed to having Jimmy Garoppolo’s contract, which hit for $26.6 million in 2020 (plus $2 million combined from C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens), when they traded DeForest Buckner.
San Francisco does not operate like the New Orleans Saints. While they could have moved money around to keep all of Buckner, Arik Armstead and Jimmie Ward, it would have meant restructuring money they did not want to touch.
The easiest route would have been to restructure Jimmy Garoppolo’s contract. He had just $2.4 million in guaranteed money remaining. San Francisco could have created an immediate $20-plus million chunk to carve out cap space for Buckner.
Clearly, they didn’t want to guarantee that money to Garoppolo… but then kept him and paid him all that money anyway. Restructuring Garoppolo would likely have led to dead money now, but it wouldn’t really have affected extensions for the likes of Fred Warner, Deebo Samuel and George Kittle.
They ended up paying $33.05 million in 2021 to Garoppolo and Trey Lance. That would have been tricky to navigate financially with Buckner around. They also spent north of $22 million on those two and Purdy last season.
Even if they didn’t want to touch Garoppolo’s money, they obviously could have kept Buckner over Armstead.
Buckner, though, costs $21 million per year four years versus Armstead’s $17 million over five years. Armstead is also more positionally flexible than Buckner, but he’s not the same player and far more injury prone.
At the time, though, the 49ers had D.J. Jones next to Armstead to play nose. Solomon Thomas (groans) had started to show some capability at playing 3-technique and there were some other back end depth pieces. That 2020 season was a nightmare, but there was at least a capable option next to Armstead.
There no longer is that option.
The Hargrave deal, one would assume, will be more of a three-year deal with an out in year four. It’s got substantially less guaranteed money than with Buckner.
Buckner got a four-year, $84 million extension. $56.378 million guaranteed on top of a first-year cap hit of $23.38 million. It was effectively a five-year, $107.38 million deal with $79.76 million guaranteed.
Hargrave got four years, $84 million with $40 million guaranteed.
This is not to say Buckner’s not worth what he got or that the 49ers shouldn’t have worked harder to keep him. Buckner said he never got a competitive offer from the 49ers, which still boggles the mind. But these are different deals.
That was three years ago. The cap has gone up by $26.6 million since the 2020 season and would’ve gone up further if not for the pandemic. Giving Hargrave that deal is substantial, but it’s still not the Buckner deal.
San Francisco’s bet was that by trading Buckner, they could replace him in the draft, likely with Kinlaw, or draft a tackle like Tristan Wirfs (who they obviously should have drafted) and keep around both Armstead and Jimmie Ward, who have been major, positive contributors, without committing more money to Jimmy Garoppolo.
If that trade had not be made, the 49ers also wouldn’t have Brandon Aiyuk.
During the draft, the 49ers moved from 13 to 14, acquiring pick No. 117 and sending pick No. 245 to Tampa Bay.
They were slated to pick at 31, but moved up to 25 by sending the Minnesota Vikings 31, 117 and 176.
Pick No. 25 became Brandon Aiyuk. San Francisco’s only other draft picks were No. 153 (Colton McKivitz), No. 190 (Charlie Woerner) and No. 217 (Jauan Jennings).
Without the Buckner trade, and the trade down to get Kinlaw as opposed to taking Wirfs, the 49ers wouldn’t have their top receiver from a season ago. Maybe you’d prefer that — and the Vikings found a solid receiver in K.J. Osborn with the 176th pick — but it’s hard to see where the team would be without Aiyuk.
That’s a lot of history.
What matters now is that the 49ers decided to make a major addition to the their defense at a place of glaring weakness. Hargrave is a very, very good player who will be an enormous upgrade of Kinlaw.
Is he DeForest Buckner? No. He also won’t cost as much as Buckner, and it’s a deal doled out three years after Buckner got his.
Should they have kept Buckner? Probably. But if they did, they wouldn’t have Aiyuk, Armstead and missed Jimmie Ward’s production over the last few seasons. It’s a tricky proposition trying to rewrite history, and to the 49ers’ credit, they’ve recognized that what they though they could get from Kinlaw in replacing Buckner has not come to pass.
They needed to fix improve interior defensive line. This move — despite the old wounds it opens up — does that.