Overview of the entire article --
Step 3. Prospective Player Trades
Today's Episode ... Step 3. Prospective Player Trades
We all know that NFL really means "Not For Long"! Competition is brutal. Circumstances change rapidly ... players get injured and sometimes don't return playing at a same high or adequate level; because of injuries, young players get opportunities to play and may develop more quickly than expected. Player's skill-sets evolve, sometimes requiring a change of position. Change ... change ... and more change.
As mentioned earlier, the Niners roster changed by 74% within the last year. That much change created playing opportunities for a number of young players, many of whom shined when given the chance. For a team in rebuilding mode such change doesn't always bode well for veterans who have become expensive or who are about to become so. Relative player value has become a far more important issue since the beginning of the salary cap era than it was previously. On a pure value basis in a highly competitive business, young players who produce at unexpected levels put huge pressure on veterans who aren't producing to their accelerated compensation levels. A team's choices in dealing with such situations are really limited ... attempt to trade the vet or simply release him outright (assuming that the dead money doesn't exceed cap savings). More often than not under-performing veterans have little trade value, leaving no alternative other than release.
As you might expect of a team coming out of a multi-year doldrum, the Niners have about 18 under-performing veterans who will be replaced in 2018 ... I have already identified 12 of them as pending free agents who will not be extended (see Step 1. of the series). There are at least an additional 6 still under contract who are at risk of not making the 2018 roster. Most of those have no trade value and will likely be released in the fall. However, there are a couple of vets still under contract who may have trade value. To wit:
DB Jimmie Ward (46.9)
Perhaps Jimmie Ward's greatest attribute is his ability to play several positions in the defensive backfield. Although his contract doesn't expire until after the 2018 season, an important decision must be made soon regarding his tenure with the Niners. The Niners picked up the 5th-year option on Ward last year with the expectation that he would be the starting single-high free safety in the 4/3 Under defensive scheme being implemented by the new coaching staff. Because of multiple injuries, among other things, that didn't work out very well. Now another important decision must be made ... after the start of the new NFL fiscal year (beginning 3/14/18) Ward's $8.5 million salary will become fully guaranteed (right now it is only guaranteed for injury). THAT is a problem for several reasons:
1. Ward has only been available to play in 65% of all the games that he has ever been paid for ... availability is a major issue for him.
2. When Ward was placed on IR at the end of October Pro Football Focus' overall rating for him for the 2017 season was 46.9, which was 72nd of 108 safeties in the NFL ... very far from good.
3. Alternatively, PFF's overall rating of Adrian Colbert for the full season was 79.1, which was 32nd of 108 safeties. That's good ... but Colbert was only a rookie. How much better is he likely to become as he develops and gains more experience? With Colbert's unexpected development, Ward may have lost his starting FS position, even if he was healthy enough to play. The "safety expert" John Lynch's opinion will probably weigh heavily in determining what happens to Jimmie Ward.
4. If the Niners were to sign an experienced free-agent CB to replace the under-performing Dontae Johnson, as I proposed in the previous episode, Ward would not likely be able to beat that addition out of the job starting at outside CB, pairing with Ahkello Witherspoon.
5. On a pure value basis, Ward doesn't play the slot CB position better enough than K'Waun Williams to justify the huge pay differential.
6. Thus, does it really make sense to retain Ward as the second highest-paid player on the entire team (based upon APY and excluding potential free agent additions) in ANY backup role?
For me, the answer to that last question is "no". But then if you consider the extent of Ward's injury history and lost playing time (IR in three of his four seasons) and believe that that situation may continue in the future, the answer to the question becomes a resounding "no". Still further, as Matt Maiocco recently pointed out, if paying Ward that much prevents the Niners from signing a free-agent CB, Pass Rusher, OL or WR then it is a huge issue.
Accordingly, I see only two viable solutions: (1) if at all possible, trade Ward to another club which is seeking starting-safety help and has the cap capacity to take on Ward's contract; or (2) release him before the start of the new fiscal year when his salary becomes fully guaranteed (there would be no dead money and the entire $8.5 million would be saved).
On January 7th, Peter Panacy wrote an article in Niner Noise entitled "Three Trades to Explore During This Off-Season". Panacy proposes trading Jimmie Ward for a 4th-round draft pick. He says: "One team in need of safety help is the Washington Redskins. Starting safety Montae Nicholson ended up on IR after beginning the year. His replacement, Deshazor Everett, finished the year with a 51.5 overall grade, per PFF. Washington needs both depth and a possible upgrade here. And with their own pick in Round 4, #109 overall, they'd fill this need." I like this solution IF the trade can be made ... it's certainly better than getting nothing in return and would add significantly to our cap room, enabling addressing other positional needs.
DL Arik Armstead (78.9)
The Niners must decide by 5/3/18 whether to exercise the 5th-year option on Armstead's contract, or not. If they choose to exercise, Armstead's compensation for the 2019 season will be fixed at somewhere in the neighborhood of $9 million, an amount about equal to what he earned in total during his first four years with the team. Thus, we have another potential Jimmie Ward situation forthcoming ... does Armstead's play in his career to date justify that level of pay? Perhaps more important questions are: what position will he play and will he be a full-time starter or a rotational guy?
IMO the Arik-at-LEO experiment wasn't very successful ... I think that his more natural position is to play defensive end in a 3/4 scheme or at Big End in a 4/3 scheme. But does he play better enough than Carradine and/or perhaps Blair to justify the huge compensation difference? Beyond that, do you extend him after that (and at what cost?) or do you just let him walk after 2019? If the latter, does it then make sense to pay him $9 million for 2019? Is that how you really want to allocate available cap space in light of other forthcoming extensions in addition to the Garoppolo hit?
In the Peter Panacy/Niner Noise article that I referenced above, Panacy says: "With a true edge-rushing presence needed ... Arik Armstead becomes something of an excess commodity. One team in desperate need of outside pass-rushers is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They finished dead last with just 22 sacks (and their total defense was also dead last at #32), and defensive ends Ryan Russell and William Gholston finished with PFF overall grades of 42.6 and 47.5, respectively. Most of Armstead's success came as a 3/4 defensive end but the PFF pass-rush productivity prior to 2017 can't be ignored." He then references a table which shows Armstead as the single most productive pass-rushing 3/4 DE in the entire NFL prior to 2017. "Armed with all of their picks between Rounds 1 through 6, a third rounder wouldn't be too difficult to ask for." Panacy then proposes the trade of Armstead to Tampa Bay in exchange for Pick #3/69 overall. Once again, I think that this proposed trade makes sense for both teams and would give Tampa Bay a year to decide upon an appropriate contract extension. Alternatively, there are several other teams (Atlanta, Buffalo, Detroit, Minnesota) looking to strengthen their defensive lines who might be interested in a trade for Armstead.
Though my opinions concerning Ward and Armstead may be unpopular with those who "think with their heart", from a business standpoint (and this is a business whether we like it or not), moving on with younger prospects makes the most business sense for an emerging team.
Next Episode: Step 4. Resulting Draft Needs and Alternative Draft Strategies