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Will DeForest Buckner go through the franchise tag game?

There is no rush on this, but maybe the Jimmy Garoppolo situation is instructive.

We are very much in the dead period of the NFL offseason. The close of minicamp meant six weeks until training camp got going. During that six weeks, the NFL has the Supplemental Draft on July 11th and the franchise tag deadline set for July 16th. The Supplemental Draft rarely results in a player being selected, and the franchise tag deadline rarely results in a contract extension.

That being said, the franchise tag deadline did get me thinking. San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle DeForest Buckner is entering the third season of his rookie contract. The collective bargaining agreements states that draft picks are not allowed to start negotiating a new contract until after the close of their third year. Next offseason, the 49ers could work out a new deal with Buckner, but if that doesn’t work out, they will have until May to exercise the fifth year option on his rookie contract.

If Buckner is able to figure out that extra step that turns quarterback pressures and hits into sacks, he could jump on the radar as a premier NFL defensive lineman. The talent is there, and he has performed quite well, but he remains under the radar to a certain extent.

The 49ers are going to exercise his fifth year option, but what happens between the end of this season and the offseason following the 2020 season is a bit of a question mark. If he performs like we think and hope, he could push himself into a position to cash in in a big way. The question then is, do the 49ers play the franchise tag game? They conceivably could exercise his option after the 2018 season, have him play his fifth year (2020) on that option, and then franchise him for the 2021 season. Realistically, they could retain basic player control for at least four more years.

I realize it is way too early to know anything with certainty, but I was thinking about the Jimmy Garoppolo extension. The 49ers signed him to a nine-figure contract after five starts. They could have franchised him and seen what he does with a full year under his belt, but they were comfortable and figured his price tag would only go up. Do we see something similar with Buckner?

One thing worth noting in this hypothetical: the CBA ends after the 2020 season. Buckner’s first franchise tag year would be the first season of a new CBA. There are so many question marks about that, including if there is a work stoppage, how television contracts impact the revenue model, and of course, if the franchise tag even exists. I would bet a lot of money the franchise tag does not go away, but anything is possible.

But let’s just work with what we do know at this point. If Buckner builds on last year and actually moves up near double digit sacks, do we see John Lynch and Co. try and get him extended. Buckner and his agent might be more comfortable playing this out through the franchise tag process, but the 49ers have shown plenty willingness to pay big bucks in the right situation. They get it structured on their terms more often than not, but money has not been a big concern when it comes to signing the guys they like.

There’s a lot of time to make something happen. Buckner’s fifth year option would not even happen until 2020, so the team could wait and see what a 2019 performance brings. But would it be all that surprising to see the team pay up before the franchise tag comes into play if Buckner continues to improve as a defensive tackle?