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Arik Armstead switch to edge means a higher fifth year option salary

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The 49ers have a decision to make by May 3rd with regard to Arik Armstead.

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The San Francisco 49ers have until May 3 to decide if they want to exercise the fifth-year option on Arik Armstead‘s rookie contract. He is under contract for 2018, with the option covering his 2019 season. And it turns out the 49ers decision to switch to a 4-3 and try and convert him to the LEO role will net him a bigger raise if the 49ers exercise the option.

The fifth year option rules provide for a salary based on the position at which the player spent the most time during his third NFL season. In Armstead’s rookie season, he played 84 percent of his snaps on the defensive interior. In his second season, he again played 84 percent of his snaps on the defensive interior. This past season, his third in the NFL, he played 77 percent of his snaps as an edge defender, and the remaining on the defensive interior.

Fifth year option salaries for defensive linemen are split up between defensive tackles and defensive ends. A defensive end earns more on the fifth year option because of the formula for determining the fifth year salary. For a player selected picks 11 through 32 of the first round (Armstead was selected No. 17), the CBA dictates that the fifth year salary is equal to a number based on calculating the transition tender for that League Year, but using the applicable third through twenty-fifth highest salaries (as opposed to the ten highest salaries) for players at the position at which the Rookie participated in the most plays during his third League Year.

Defensive ends get paid more than defensive tackles (I assume in part because of higher sack totals), and so, any salary based on averaging that position will result in a higher salary.

We don’t yet know the fifth year option salaries, but a year ago, the fifth year option for defensive ends from picks 11-32 was worth $8,625,000, while the defensive tackle salary was $6,892,000. The 49ers decision to make Arik Armstead to end could net him a salary that is nearly $2 million higher than if he had remained an interior lineman. It is worth noting this is something that could apply to Solomon Thomas in a few years depending on how he is utilized.

The question for now is whether or not the 49ers will pick up Armstead’s option between now and May 3. Armstead is coming off a broken hand in 2017, which followed shoulder surgery in 2016. Health is a big question for him, as is whether or not he can actually take to a defensive end role. The 49ers could decide to return him inside in 2018, but we likely won’t know much about that until after the option decision is made.

Former Philadelphia Eagles scout and current media personality John Middlekauff mentioned briefly in an article at The Athletic that he would be “floored” if the 49ers picked up Armstead’s option. He was talking about Bay Area trade candidates, and in assessing Armstead, decided the 49ers “might as well get rid of him now.” He said Armstead is not a great fit in the current defense, ”and has proven to be a pretty average player.” He suggests Armstead could be had for a late round pick.

The option is only guaranteed for injury when it is exercised, but given the past two years, injury is certainly a concern. The option becomes fully guaranteed at the start of the next league year, which in this case would be March 2019. If he can pass a physical before that date, the 49ers can cut him and not be stuck for the money.

It all depends on how you (and really, the 49ers) see Armstead fitting in. I don’t think “pretty average” is an accurate description. The injuries are frustrating, but he’s been effective in creating pressure when healthy. He has not closed the deal on sacks, similar in that vein to DeForest Buckner, but with improved players around him, I could see him benefitting. But it also depends on where Robert Saleh wants to see him working on this defense.

Personally, I would be surprised if they did not exercise the option, but a trade before the end of May to a team that would look to utilize him differently is not out of the realm of the possible. I’ve got to think most anything from the past regime that’s not nailed down to the ground is available to the highest bidder.