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Why tagging and trading Arik Armstead makes sense for the 49ers

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Thinking big picture, this may be the only option for the 49ers

Super Bowl LIV - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

By all accounts, the San Francisco 49ers want to bring Arik Armstead back on a long-term deal. Armstead, who is a Sacramento guy and does plenty of work with the community there, would also like to stay with the Niners. We will find out soon enough if Armstead is willing to give the team a hometown discount and take a little less to stay with the team. The closer we get to the deadline, the more I get the feeling that the 49ers will place the franchise tag on Armstead, and ultimately end up trading him.

There are so many variables that go into the decision to keep Armstead. One of those is the decision the team made last season to trade for Dee Ford. In a vacuum, if you went around the 49ers front office and asked ten people if they’d rather have Armstead or Ford over the next four years, you’d probably have Armstead be the unanimous winner. It’s not quite as simple, though. The Niners already have a second-round pick tied to Ford. While they can trade/cut Ford and save $9.5 million against the salary cap, eating $6.4 million in dead money and kissing the draft pick you spent to get him goodbye would be a tough pill to swallow. The other issue is the money the team needs to extend DeForest Buckner and George Kittle. I think everyone would agree that Buckner has consistently been better throughout his career, so he’s going to make more than Armstead when it comes time to extend him.

Armstead has leverage, as he’s an unrestricted free agent. The problem is knowing Armstead will get a better deal on the open market. Let’s say a playoff team offers Armstead a deal that includes $60 million guaranteed. He’s not turning that down for a Niners offer that, let’s say, is $50 million guaranteed. After how well Armstead played in 2019, he’s going to get paid. That’s a real-life scenario we could be looking at the next couple of weeks, and why I think Armstead ultimately ends up getting tagged and traded.

Why the tag and trade is likely

When you are looking at the 49ers cap space, they only have about $13 million in cap space. It’ll cost about four more million to keep Armstead, and that money isn’t factoring in bringing back Armstead. The Niners are faced with a decision to either bring Armstead back and perhaps one or two low-level free agents, or tag and trade him and have breathing room moving forward. I’ve seen people throw out options that the team could have Jimmy Garoppolo and a few other players restructure your deal. It sounds good in theory, but the players have to be willing to do that as well.

This is the first time in a long time the 49ers have been in this situation—a situation where they have too many good players. Down the line, you have Fred Warner, Deebo Samuel, Nick Bosa. Even Mike McGlinchey is going to make starting right tackle money. Furthermore, San Francisco will have to invest in the position that is one of the most expensive positions to invest in, cornerback. You need cornerbacks to win in this league. That is a fact. Richard Sherman was all-everything in 2019, but he’s not going to be around forever. Emmanuel Moseley is trending in the right way, but is he the long-term starter? The 49ers will likely have to invest over $13-15 million annually at the position in the next couple of seasons. History has shown us the Niners like to extend players early. All of this is going to make it incredibly difficult to keep Arik. The economics of it aren’t in favor of keeping Armstead.

Armstead’s value

John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan have been pretty vocal about wanting to keep all of the players on this team. On Thursday, the 49ers tendered five ERFA’s, and they’ve also picked up the 2020 options for Kyle Juszczyk and K’Waun Williams. I think they genuinely want to keep Armstead. Why wouldn’t you? He’s a big part of the 49ers’ culture. You can count on him being available, you can count on him showing up, and you can count on him staying out of trouble. Armstead is also very good at his job. Because the front office wants to keep Armstead doesn’t mean they will. Think about the trades that happen in the NFL, and that’s why this situation is so unique. The Chiefs didn’t want Frank Clark, so they traded him. The Giants were over Odell Beckham Jr., so they moved on. It was the same situation in Miami with Minkah Fitzpatrick. The only issue with Armstead is he costs too much.

The next question the decision-makers need to ask themselves is what Armstead’s value is. After this season, I don’t think there is any question you can get a second-round pick for Armstead. The Niners traded a second-round pick the following year for Dee Ford, who had an injury history and was coming off a career year. Armstead is coming off his best season. It’s tough to say you’ll get a first back for Armstead. You’re not getting a top-20 pick for him, and most of the picks in the 20s are either potential NFC playoff teams you’d face, or teams that don’t need to invest that much in Armstead. I think Lynch and company view this scenario as them being the ones responsible for making Armstead’s value so high. The Belichick way is to coach guys up, then flip them for good value—so it’s not a loss by any means to flip Armstead for a valuable pick and be able to keep the majority of your roster intact. If you remember, two seasons ago, everyone was ready to give up on the former Oregon Duck.

Two teams that make sense

Armstead’s sweet spot is early in the second round. A trade to Jacksonville makes sense. They need a pass rusher as Yannick Ngakoue is on the way out. He wanted $22 million a season. Armstead will be cheaper, and he’s a more complete player. A sign and trade deal where the 49ers trade Armstead and the Jaguars send back the No. 42 overall pick and perhaps another Day 3 pick is a deal that would make sense for both sides.

Why wouldn’t Cleveland pick up the phone? Their new defensive coordinator Joe Woods got a first-hand look at Armstead in 2019. Chris Kiffin is their defensive line coach, and he coached Armstead this past season as well. Woods is going to run the same type of defense, and he knows how important a pass rush is to stop an opposing offense. Many believe the Browns will cut edge rusher Olivier Vernon, which will free up $15 million in cap space. Cleveland has a second and two third-round picks in this upcoming draft. They select No. 41, so getting that pick and maybe another pick next year will get a deal done for both sides. These are two teams to keep an eye on, but we all know Paraag Marathe will work out the best possible contract, and the 49ers will do what’s best for the team, both short and long-term.

San Francisco was arguably the best team in the NFL last season. They’d be smart to bring everyone back on the revenge tour in 2020. The issue is when you’re loaded with talent, it’s not as easy to do that. Finding a way to maximize the value of your players is why Belichick and the Patriots have been dominant going on two decades. We’ll find out if Shanahan and Lynch think in the same way.