As soon as the 49ers coaches and front office boarded the plane home from Miami after an agonizing defeat in the Super Bowl, their focus shifted to 2020 and how to avenge an awful feeling. Between that moment and March 13 — when free agency commences — San Francisco’s brain trust will be turning every stone to try and upgrade their roster in any way possible.
The good news? The 49ers’ foundation has been carefully laid brick by brick, and there aren’t gaping holes that need to be filled as in years past.
The bad part? San Francisco will only have $13.1M to spend in free agency and will only have one selection in the first four rounds of the NFL Draft.
In the NFL, it’s tough to keep a contender together for an extended period. It requires some tough choices and productive draft picks to keep a Super Bowl window open for as long as possible.
The 49ers have needs at the interior offensive line, wide receiver and safety positions this offseason. They will need to spend the next few weeks trying to load up on the ammunition to address these needs in the draft of free agency.
Here are some bold moves that general manager John Lynch has to consider to keep the 49ers in Super Bowl contention in 2020 and beyond.
1. Franchise-Tag-and-Trade DL Arik Armstead
This has become a more common occurrence in the NFL for higher-priced free agents, which allow teams to recoup assets in return for a player that’s about to leave during this open signing period.
San Francisco had the best defensive line in the NFL last season, and former first-round pick Arik Armstead was a large part of that.
49ers’ defensive lineman DeForest Buckner is entering the final year of his contract and will be up for a big payday in 2021. Dee Ford was just brought in last season and is already commanding a huge salary.
Lynch and Shanahan have a tough choice, but I think they should build defensive line depth, rather than pushing all their eggs into Armstead’s basket. The former Oregon defender is also their best trade chip because he will be in high demand.
Armstead was more productive than Ford, but won’t command the attention that Clark did in the open market. If the 49ers’ front office can get a first-round pick for Armstead, it’s a no-brainer. Realistically, I think that San Francisco will get multiple Day Two picks, and it’s a decent haul.
San Francisco doesn’t have any second, third or fourth-round picks and could move Armstead in a deal to gain more darts during the NFL Draft.
2. Release LT Joe Staley as a Salary Cap casualty
This one isn’t going to fly well among the 49ers’ fans who have stuck by Joe Staley since he was drafted into this organization in 2007. He’s revered like running back Frank Gore in this franchise, but just hear me out here.
San Francisco only has $13.1M in cap space and is looking to increase that number in any way possible. They’ve got key free agents all over the roster from safety Jimmie Ward to wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to defensive lineman Arik Armstead and trying to pay all of them is impossible with their current cap situation.
The easiest way to add extra spending arsenal is to release veteran players who have large salary cap hits but low dead cap numbers. In Staley’s case, the left tackle is due for an $11.75M cap number and $1M dead cap number — meaning the 49ers can save $10.75M if they were to cut him before June 1.
While Staley was stellar down the stretch, Dan Brunskill was solid when he stepped in this season. The 49ers could also add a lineman via draft if they wanted to. Staley only has one more year on his deal left, and his long-term future with the team is in question.
In these situations, I always think “WWBD?” (What would [Bill] Belichick do?) and in this case, I think he would release Staley and spread that use the cap savings to address other needs. It’s hard for fans to release players that have been loyal to the franchise for a long time, but it’s the smart move to maintain salary cap flexibility.
3. Re-build the 49ers’ running back corps
As long as Kyle Shanahan and Bobby Turner are in charge of the running backs, it will always be running-back-by-committee. The most important revelation from this past season is that San Francisco found its lead back — Raheem Mostert.
Matt Breida is a restricted free agent, and I think he’ll be back with the team, despite finishing the season in Shanahan’s dog house after fumbling issues. Jeff Wilson Jr. spent most of the season on the game-day in-actives list but flashed in his moments on the field — including at the end of the first half in the Super Bowl.
Releasing Tevin Coleman and Jerick McKinnon could save the 49ers $9.45M. McKinnon hasn’t taken a single regular-season snap since signing a massive contract with San Francisco two seasons ago. Coleman’s was a solid pickup last season, but clearing his $4.9M off the books could help the 49ers plug holes in other areas.
If San Francisco releases McKinnon, Coleman, and Staley, their $13.1M in cap room increases to $31.8M before other potential moves and restructures.
There’s constant roster turnover in the NFL, and there are tough decisions that shape franchises every offseason. It’s going to be difficult for San Francisco to return to the Super Bowl, given their limited arsenal in free agency and the draft.
Making these bold moves will enable them to potentially build another powerhouse that can make a run for the Lombardi Trophy in 2020.