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Barnwell: The 49ers should let Armstead walk

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Super Bowl LIV - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

ESPN’s Bill Barnwell went through five offseason moves for each team in the NFL. As it stands, the San Francisco 49ers are just under $20 million in cap space after Kwon Alexander’s restructure. The team is still expected to make a few moves that will free up as much as $17 million in cap space. The unknown of this offseason should make this an entertaining month or so. Speaking of fun, here are Barnwell’s five moves.

1. Listen for whispers from Tom Brady. Yes, it’s silly and there’s approximately a .01% chance of it happening. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Jimmy Garoppolo, and if he had pulled up about 1 yard on that fourth-quarter throw to Emmanuel Sanders, he probably would have been both a Super Bowl winner and Super Bowl MVP already. If it were just about any other veteran quarterback, it wouldn’t be worth discussing.

Tom Brady, though, is Tom Brady. The future Hall of Famer grew up in the Bay Area with Joe Montana as his hero. He has been left in a vulnerable position with the Patriots, who don’t have the sort of weapons and/or offensive line that can help compensate for Brady’s decline. The 49ers have a better line, better weapons and just as good of a defense. They almost certainly have a better offensive playcaller

We are not going to throw a pity party for Brady. Evaluate the play and not the name on the back of the jerseys. If we’re using advanced stats like completion percentage over expectation or EPA—which both have their limitations, Jimmy Garoppolo was, and I cannot emphasize this enough, significantly better than Brady. Jimmy G’s CPOE was around 3.0, while Brady was around -1.0. Jimmy’s EPA was about .24, while Brady was roughly -.07. Traditional stats or counting stats favor Jimmy as well. Spare me on the “Brady is Brady.” One player will likely improve in 2020, while the other will not. You take a guess which one is which.

2. Decline Solomon Thomas’ fifth-year option. John Lynch’s debut draft in 2017 is a reminder of just how ridiculous roster-building can be. This was unquestionably a great draft for the 49ers when you consider just one pick in superstar tight end George Kittle. The 49ers also found players like D.J. Jones and Trent Taylor in the later rounds.

As a top-10 pick, Thomas’ fifth-year option is equivalent to the average of the top 10 salaries at his position. It’s difficult to imagine the 49ers seeing that as reasonable value for someone who played only 41% of the defensive snaps in 2019, down from 60% in 2018. He also suited up for just 32% of the defensive snaps during the postseason. The 49ers are unusually blessed up front, but Thomas hasn’t been forcing them to give him more playing time. He could break out in Year 4, but the 49ers probably need to be realistic here.

I predicted Thomas wouldn’t be on the roster come Week 1. Barnwell has a good point about the 49ers being realistic. Can Thomas breakout? Sure. The odds that he has a better season than Ronald Blair, or whoever the 49ers choose as a depth piece, are slim. Nothing we’ve seen in three years suggests Thomas can make an impact. Because of that, it’s probably best for a fresh start for both sides.

3. Let Arik Armstead walk. One way Thomas could end up seeing more snaps would be if the 49ers aren’t able to retain Armstead. The fellow former first-round pick impressed as a run-defender on the edge in 2018, but he followed things up with a career year as a pass-rusher in 2019. After putting up nine sacks and 29 knockdowns over his first four seasons, he had 10 sacks and 18 knockdowns last season.

As an impact player against both the pass and run, Armstead is going to attract significant interest in free agency; it would hardly be shocking if he came away with a four-year, $70 million contract. One option for the Niners would be to spread around the Armstead money to keep their depth up front. Sheldon Day, Anthony Zettel and Ronald Blair are all free agents — they would rather have Armstead than any of those three, but they might be able to keep all three with room to spare versus paying Armstead.

The decision to move on from Thomas should be independent of whatever decision you make about Armstead. I do not envy the front office. Armstead is more valuable to the 49ers than Barnwell is leading on when you consider that he can dominate at two positions, and you can count on Arik being on the field every game. If anyone knows the value of being available, it’s the Niners.

We’ve talked about what to do with Armstead ad nauseam, and that’s not going to slow down anytime soon. I’m ready for free agency so we can see what the 49ers plan is. If they let Armstead walk, who will replace him? If there’s no concrete solution, he has to be back.

4. Lock up DeForest Buckner. Buckner, on the other hand, isn’t going anywhere. The former Oregon star is under contract for 2020 on his fifth-year option at $14.4 million, but the 49ers will almost certainly use the offseason to negotiate a new deal. He’s not going to come cheap.

Buckner can’t realistically expect to look toward Aaron Donald’s six-year, $135 million deal, but after generating 28.5 sacks and 74 knockdowns over his first four seasons, he can expect more than Grady Jarrett’s $17 million average annual salary. Something in the $18 million to $19 million range makes sense.

5. Pay George Kittle too. He is going to blow away the tight end market. Jimmy Graham is the only tight end in the league to hit $10 million per season in average annual salary, having done it on each of his last two deals. The only question is whether Kittle, Austin Hooper or Hunter Henry resets it first.

Of those three, Kittle is by far the best player. He’s a much more significant blocker than either of the others and has been healthier than Henry. With Rob Gronkowski retiring, there’s nobody else in the league like Kittle, and there’s nobody this 49ers offense could plug in to take his place. The 49ers averaged 5.0 yards per carry and turned 24.1% of their runs into first downs with Kittle on the field. Without him, they averaged 3.5 yards per carry and converted 16.1% of their runs into first downs.

I do wonder how much of the decision to retain Armstead plays a factor in what the team does with Buckner, either this offseason or next. Buckner has to be extended. There isn’t another player like him on the roster.

As for Kittle, give him a blank check and have him sign it. Calling Kittle special or transcendent is still not doing him justice.