San Francisco 49ers: Arrived a year too early, or right on time?

The 49ers had a stunning 2019 season. From Senior Bowl in January 2019, to the Super Bowl in February 2020, the 49ers turnaround was extremely impressive. Whilst the extent of the turnaround, resulting in a Super Bowl appearance, was perhaps beyond everyone’s expectations, the playoffs were a realistic expectation before the season. But, once in the playoffs, we all know the margins are fine.

With certain players (some now impending free agents) performing above expectations, a Super Bowl was achieved. As such, it is arguable that the 49ers, contrary to post-Super Bowl chatter, arrived at the Super Bowl right on time and not a year too early.

General Manager: John Lynch

Head Coach: Kyle Shanahan

The new (?… The Same Old?) offensive darling of the NFL’s offensive scheming and overall football intellect ensured a roster that was reeling off a well below-expectation 2018 went into 2019 confident of a serious turnaround. Their confidence in Shanahan was well-founded. Alongside continuously improving DC Robert Saleh and the rest of a gifted coaching staff, Shanahan ensured his 49ers were amongst the best coached teams in the NFL. With the vast majority of the staff returning in 2020, little should change.

Cap Space: $13.1 million

San Francisco 49ers

After being blessed with seemingly endless cap space in first three offseasons of the ShanaLynch era, the 49ers are now feeling the cap pinch. In a team that has committed substantial money early on to its quarterback, there is an element of inevitability to that.

However, unlike division rivals the LA Rams, the 49ers are somewhat better prepared for handling this cap squeeze.

Primarily, they have far more flexibility in handling some of their hefty cap hits due to Paraag Marathe’s contract structures and preference to avoid paying sizeable signing bonuses.

Firstly, the 49ers ensure they essentially have informal team options after players finish the guaranteed portions of their contracts. Signing bonuses are prorated over the contract length against the cap (giving players an element of security in sizeable dead cap hits). By not using substantial signing bonuses, the 49ers avoid that.

As such, the 49ers can in theory move on from the likes of Tevin Coleman and Jerick McKinnon fairy easily, saving the team $9.5 million against the cap. Additionally, a restructure of McKinnon could be a possibility, transforming much of his money into NLTBE bonuses. However, that latter restructure would be completely dependent on a new CBA ensuring NLTBE bonuses count to the 2021 and not the 2020 salary cap. Alternatively, McKinnon may agree to a sizeable salary reduction instead of risking hitting free agency after two full lost seasons.

Additionally, the 49ers preference to avoid large signing bonuses make it easier to restructure contracts. Whilst re-structuring Jimmy Garoppolo is perhaps unlikely (the 49ers may be keen to maintain their option to get out of that deal), the likes of Richard Sherman & Kyle Juszczyk could be extended, reducing their cap hits for this season substantially. Even an extension for DeForest Buckner could in theory lower his 2020 cap hit. It is only the extension of George Kittle that will certainly increase his 2020 cap hit.

Impending Free Agents

Arik Armstead and Jimmie Ward are the 49ers most notable free agents. Both players brought a huge amount to the team in 2019, with their versatility proving particularly valuable. Ward played all over the back end, as a deep centre-field safety, a deep-half safety, in the box or in man coverage against receivers & tight-ends. He was a crucial part of the 49ers’ disguises. Armstead meanwhile, was a base defensive end before reducing inside to defensive tackle to rush the passer.

However, they are likely to be difficult to retain. Both have a single year of truly valuable production. How does the team reconcile that with the money they may be seeking? Furthermore, Armstead’s most valuable production (as a pass rusher) came as a defensive tackle, but he will likely be looking at a franchise tag value as a DE (which is larger than DT). This will increase his salary demands.

Ward’s value is potentially reduced slightly by the fact he wasn’t the primary communicator on the back end. That was Jaquiski Tartt. However, his versatility will make him attractive on the open market in the first free agency since Tyrann Mathieu helped take the Chiefs to a Super Bowl. Ward is a similar player to Mathieu, if not the same leader.

The 49ers also face losing Ronald Blair, Damontre Moore and Sheldon Day. Their depth along the defensive line was a massive part of their success. Blair’s injury ensures none of the three will likely have a particularly strong market, but the 49ers may have to decide between bringing back Armstead or bringing back Blair & Moore. Day is perhaps the most expendable.

Otherwise, the 49ers are unlikely to be stung badly by free agent departures at any other positions. Emmanuel Sanders would add value at wide receiver and one would sense the 49ers would be keen to retain him having given up two mid-round picks in the 2020 draft to acquire him from Denver. However, the team may see other, potentially cheaper options on the market or through the draft, allowing them to direct funds elsewhere.

Team Needs

Major Need: Offensive Line

The 49ers do not have many burning needs as their run to the Super Bowl demonstrated, but they do have a few places they can look to improve. Perhaps their most concerning area was a rotating cast in the interior of their offensive line. Searching for stability and lacking their second, third and fourth round draft picks may lead the 49ers to look to address this position in free agency.

Major Need: Secondary

This is a good draft to be picking at the back end of the first round and looking for help in the secondary. There are expected to be plenty of options, especially corners available in the latter picks of the first round. The secondary corner position was a question mark and Jimmy Ward is expected to head to free agency. Therefore, addressing one of those two positions should be a priority, and given their cap situation the draft might be the place to do just that.

Scott Geelan




Image credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports