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49ers sitting veterans might offer hints as to 2019 offseason plans

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Shanahan: “Those guys understand the business, and they understand how it works.”

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The San Francisco 49ers rolled out a host of young players on both sides of the ball on Sunday, with both injuries and a need for evaluation opening the door. We’ve seen a transition of young players getting into action, but Week 14 vs. the Denver Broncos saw the biggest group yet.

Pierre Garçon and K’Waun Williams were inactive with injuries, Marquise Goodwin was active, but returning from a multi-week absence, and Malcolm Smith and Earl Mitchell were active, but played no defensive snaps. This resulted in Dante Pettis, Kendrick Bourne, D.J. Reed, Elijah Lee, and D.J. Jones all getting extra work. There is plenty to discuss just with the rookies, but it was a combination of first and second year players seeing more opportunities.

The decision to sit Mitchell and Smith was the most notable given their respective statuses. Smith has been dealing with Achilles soreness, and head coach Kyle Shanahan has repeatedly said it’s been a slog for him to get on the field. He said that again on Monday. He’s been in and out of the lineup with the injury, and so they decided to give Elijah Lee the start and have Malcolm available in case of emergency.

“When it came to Malcolm, I think you guys are aware of what Malcolm has been battling all year. That’s why he has been coming out a lot during games, regardless of who is in just because it’s tough for him to play for four quarters. We thought it would get better over the Bye week after we did some things. It hasn’t, and he came to us a couple days before the game saying he was really struggling to get through it. We agreed with him. So, we went into it starting Elijah for that reason. We were ready to bring Malcolm in if need be. But, Elijah handled it very well and did a good job, so nothing happened.”

Earl Mitchell has been healthy all season, getting a veterans day a couple weeks ago, but otherwise never showing up on the injury report. Shanahan said on Monday that the team wanted to see more of Jones and talked to Mitchell about it before the game.

“Earl, I think has had a very good year. I think Earl has been better this year than last year, and I think Earl played good last year. It’s very hard to get a number of noses up on game day. So, having Earl up throughout the year is why D.J. hasn’t been up very much. If Earl ever fell off and D.J. was doing a lot better, we would’ve made that change. But, Earl’s played well throughout the year. But, it came a time and had to sit Earl down and tell him it was nothing against him but we needed to see what D.J. can do. Earl has done well throughout this year, but in order to get D.J. some playing time, we told Earl that he was probably going to have to sit down.”

Jones ended up grading out as the 49ers best defensive player over at Pro Football Focus. Both his tackles resulted in run stops, and he also added a quarterback hit and hurry. It’s only one game, but he’s likely earned a second start this weekend against the Seattle Seahawks. Their ground game has been impressive this season, and they are coming off a game in which they rushed for 214 yards, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. The nose tackle will be busy on Sunday.

Shanahan acknowledged on Monday that the team needs to find ways to evaluate players as they begin figuring out plans for 2019 and beyond. Mitchell and Garçon are over 30, and Smith turns 30 next offseason. They likely all have something still to contribute if they can get healthy, but the 49ers have some business decisions to make.

“Those guys understand the business, and they understand how it works. That’s stuff that you don’t ignore. That’s why you guys are asking the questions. It’s obvious. I talked about that with those guys. Those guys aren’t done. What, one guy in particular, what I said with Earl, he’s played very well this year. So, there’s a lot of football left in him. Malcolm and Pierre are battling through injuries that are legit injuries that have lingered all year, which you would like to as a coaching staff, or even a personnel department, you’d love for them to get healthy. Then, to let them go out and play so you can truly judge them because they are getting older, yes.

“But, they do still have some good football in them if they’re healthy. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to get healthy throughout this year. We’ve waited on Pierre for a bit. It was going very positive for a while. That’s why we felt real good about it. But, came back from that Bye week and it had gotten worse. We tried our hardest last week. He went out and went full-go Wednesday, it swelled up on him, caused him a lot of pain. After having that same thing through almost most of the year, especially it was the week before the Green Bay game that it really started coming, it was just lingering too long where P knew he had to get something done, a scope. So, we had to shut him down. Now, I saw P in training camp when his knee wasn’t bothering him. He was playing at a high level. It’s very hard to do that when you’re not healthy, especially the age these guys are at.

“Hopefully, they can get healthy this offseason and then you’ve got to make decisions. You don’t just get rid of people to get rid of people. They’re all good players, good people, people we love here. But, you’re always trying to improve and get better and that’s what we see. What’s the competition you can create? What are the options out there?”

All three of those veterans are signed through at least 2020. The 49ers have plenty of cap space to take on dead money, so releases of one or more of those three are not out of the question. Here’s a quick look at salary cap implications of releasing each this coming offseason.

Pierre Garçon: A regular cut would cost the 49ers $7.2 million in dead money, and clear $1.2 million in cap space. If they designated him a June 1st cut, they would carry $2.4 million in dead money in 2019 and $4.8 million in dead money in 2020, and save $6 million in cap space this year. A reminder that a June 1st cut can happen before June 1st, but the cap savings don’t kick in until June 1st.

Earl Mitchell: A regular cut would cost the 49ers $1.5 million in dead money and save them $2.95 million in cap space. If they designated him a June 1st cut, they would carry $750,000 in 2019 dead money and $750,000 in 2020 dead money, while saving $3.7 million in cap space this year.

Malcolm Smith: A regular cut would cost the 49ers $4.2 million in dead money and save them $1.25 million in cap space. If they designated him a June 1st cut, they would carry $1.4 million in 2019 dead money and $2.8 million in 2020 dead money, while saving $4.05 million in cap space this year.

The 49ers are currently projected to have $66,239,795 in cap space next offseason. If they cut all three players without the June 1st designation, they would have a projected $71,639,795 in cap space.

June 1st designations would provide them with more potential carry-over from 2019 to 2020, but they have to decide when they’ll be most likely to spend another big chunk of change. DeForest Buckner is eligible for a contract extension after this season, but they also control his rights through 2020 with the fifth year option. If they’re comfortable waiting, they might be inclined to roll up more dead money this offseason.

Even with all the dead money that would come from cutting without the June 1st designation, they’d have plenty of room to work with this offseason. They are currently projected to have the eighth most cap space in 2019. That will change as roster cuts happen, but their decisions around guys like Garçon, Mitchell, and Smith will be on the radar heading into the offseason.