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49ers offseason plan, PT IV: What the roster might look like if the team cannot move on from Dee Ford

San Francisco could be hamstrung because of Dee Ford’s contract. Because of that, we project some potential moves as the team tries to work around Ford’s deal.

NFL: Super Bowl LIV-NFC Champions-Press Conference Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The goal in the NFL is to win. No matter what decision the San Francisco 49ers make this offseason at cornerback, quarterback, left tackle, or fullback, they’ll have one goal in mind: winning.

We’ve gone through three offseason plans so far:

  1. Keep Jimmy Garoppolo. Draft Trey Lance
  2. Trade for Matthew Stafford
  3. Move up in the draft to select Ohio St. QB Justin Fields

Today, San Francisco acquires the flavor of the week at quarterback. As much as I would’ve preferred to keep Garoppolo in this scenario as the hypothetical general manager, I would’ve gone into Week 1 in the red as far as the salary cap goes.

I’m not “kicking the can down the road” by restructuring his deal. In the wake of all of the Sam Darnold rumors, we decided to put together a hypothetical offseason plan to see if it’s possible that the 49ers could assemble a better roster without the QB, who helped them reach the Super Bowl.

Who stays?

  • Trent Williams
  • Ahkello Witherspoon
  • Solomon Thomas

We re-signed Williams for a contract that pays him just north of $21 million a year. Trent’s cap hit for 2021 is just north of $8 million, as Paarage Marathe works his magic once again, and the Niners retain arguably the best free agent available.

The selling point for Ahkello was that he gets one final shot on a prove-it deal. “If you can beat out Emmanuel Moseley or a draft pick, the spot is yours.”

Solly returns on a veteran minimum deal and no longer faces the pressure that comes with his rookie contract. Thomas would likely be a rotational player.

In this offseason plan, D.J. Jones goes to Cleveland and reunites with former 49ers defensive coordinator Joe Woods. There was no betting against history. Therefore Jason Verrett wasn’t offered a contract. I don’t believe he’ll receive as much as some fans seem to think.

49ers east, aka the Jets, sign K’Waun Williams and Kyle Juszczyk, while Richard Sherman couldn’t resist Jon Gruden and heads to Las Vegas. Kendrick Bourne signs a modest deal with Washington after general manager Martin Mayhew adds a former Niner. Robert Saleh signs a few big-named pass rushers, meaning Kerry Hyder lands in Houston.

Who signs from outside of the building?

  • Edge rusher Haason Reddick
  • CB A.J. Bouye
  • C Alex Mack
  • S Keanu Neal

Arizona signing J.J. Watt tells us that Reddick is on his way out. The 49ers take advantage of the “one-year wonder” and sign Reddick to a deal worth $5 million this season. After playing edge rusher full-time for the first time in his career, Reddick finally looked like a first-round pick.

Reddick’s total points saved in 2020 (47) were more than Hyder's (28) and Arik Armstead’s (18) total points saved combined. He also adds much-needed athleticism on the edge and would allow the Niners to get home with four rushers, as they did so often during the 2019 season.

Bouye was a name we discussed on The Shanaplan as a Verrett replacement. It’s imperative for the 49ers to have a veteran cornerback who could show the young players who to practice and go about their day-to-day football activities. It’s also a big deal for San Francisco to find a good player at cornerback. Bouye is both.

Bouye ranked fifth in Sports Info Solution’s total points saved in 2016 among all cornerbacks. He was ninth in 2017 and 14th in 2018. Bouye didn’t have a year up to his standards in 2019 before being suspended for six games this past season for PEDs. Because of those trends and the suspension, we signed Bouye on a $3 million deal.

There’s nothing new we have to say about Mack. He signs a deal worth $4 million and helps solve a good portion of the Niners' issues upfront.

Neal started to look like his pre-injury self toward the end of the 2020 season. He’d be signed for a cheap deal and brought in to compete with Tarvarius Moore. This is under the expectation that we see more three-safety looks under DeMeco Ryans, who figures to blitz more, thus use more defensive backs.

Extensions, restructures, and releases

  • Fred Warner extension
  • Mike McGlinchey extension
  • Laken Tomlinson extension
  • Weston Richburg release

Warner gets extended because he’s the best player in the league at his position, and with the way the NFL is trending, do-it-all players like Warner can rush the passer, cover a receiver, and stop the run are few and far between. There aren’t five defenders who excel in each of those areas, so paying Warner should be a formality.

Extending McGlinchey was an easy decision. The Niners avoid paying him $10.88 million in 2022 by extending McGlinchey and not picking up his fifth-year option. I don’t think it’s fair to assume that we’ve seen the best version of McGlinchey. Nobody would argue that he needs to improve as a pass protector.

McGlinchey can’t have those brutal whiffs on third downs moving forward. It’s unreasonable to expect an offensive lineman to not get beaten a couple of times in a span of 35 plays. That’s normal.

Kyle Shanahan should bet on his coaching staff, scheme, and that 2020 was the worst-case scenario for a right tackle playing in his third season. McGlinchey is one of the most dominant run-blocking offensive linemen in the NFL. McGlinchey ranked 13th among all offensive linemen in Sports Info Solutions “run block points earned.” He’s a good player and doing exactly what he was drafted to do: be a proficient run blocker.

San Francisco just saves under $3 million in cap space this season by extending Tomlinson. Tomlinson didn’t have his best season, but he never misses a game. Before 2020, Tomlinson played as you’d expect a late first-round pick to perform. Having an offseason to work with Williams and Mack is only going to make Laken that much better.

Releasing Richburg pre-June-1 means roughly $7 million in dead money with a cap savings of $4.4 million. The 49ers needed to gain every penny they could because...

Ford is uncuttable

The reason I had to move on from Jimmy in this hypothetical is the same reason why we’re entertaining Darnold to the 49ers: The team cannot cut Dee Ford until he passes a physical. Ford’s 2021 salary has a partial guarantee for injury.

In January, general manager John Lynch said that Ford isn’t guaranteed to be ready for the start of the 2021 season because of ongoing back problems:

“I can’t tell you with great (certainty) that, yeah, he’s going to be ready for 2021. We’re working hard — and he is working hard — to try to get there.

When you’re dealing with a part of your body — the back — sometimes these things take more time. I think Dee tries to stay encouraged. But I think it’s been a struggle for him. And we try to stay encouraged as well.”

If you’ve ever had back problems, then you’re aware that those issues don’t just go away. After one game this past season, a surgeon said that Ford had neck stiffness and neck spasms.

Neck and ongoing back issues?

Eventually, Ford may get healthy before June 1 — when, but San Francisco has to be aware of Ford’s current condition. The Niners would save about $10.5 million if they release Ford after June 1 but wouldn’t have access to that cap space until June 2.

The team restructured Ford during the 2020 regular season. That money was already guaranteed. Ford’s $11.6 million injury guarantee if he cannot pass a physical will handcuff San Francisco this offseason. Pairing Ford’s injury guarantee with his prorated signing bonus of $4.7 million would mean a pre-June-1 release would cost the team $5.9 million. So, yeah, Ford isn’t going anywhere.

If desperate times call for desperate measures, the front office could continue to push out Ford’s guaranteed money into future years with another restructure. That would save the Niners $9.4 million in 2021. I imagine that’d be the last-case scenario for San Francisco.

Trades

49ers send picks No. 43, No. 172, and No. 180 from this year’s draft to the Jets for Sam Darnold and pick No. 98 from the 2021 NFL Draft.

49ers send Garoppolo and pick No. 193 to the Patriots in exchange for pick No. 96.

In this hypothetical, think of the Rams trading Jared Goff to the Lions. One of those first-round picks Los Angeles sent was to unload Goff’s salary. The Niners aren’t sending the Jets a top-50 pick here solely because they believe Darnold is the second coming. Part of the reason is that your starting quarterback goes from having a cap hit of $26.4 million in 2021 to a $4.7 million cap hit.

If San Francisco picks up Darnold’s fifth-year option, his price tag would be $18.8 million in 2022. In this hypothetical, the team doesn’t exercise the option and takes advantage of Darnold’s low cost for one season. If Darnold improves with better coaching and looks like the player New York thought they drafted in 2018, then great.

Darnold goes from throwing to Breshad Perriman, Denzel Mims, and Jamison Crowder with Adam Gase calling plays and the fourth-worst rushing attack, to Shanahan, Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, plus a top-10 defense. All of this to gain over $20 million in cap space for a 23-year-old first-round QB while only giving up pick No. 43, and that’s not counting the pick you get back for Jimmy.

Bill Belichick gets his guy back. Let’s hope New England surrounds Garoppolo with a few weapons in this hypothetical as the Pats had one of the worst receiving cores in the NFL last season.

Reload through the draft

Updated picks for the 49ers in this hypothetical:

RD 1: No. 12

RD 3: No. 96, No. 98, No. 102

RD 4: No. 117

RD 5: No. 139

RD 7: No. 229, No. 239.

Alex Rollins just told us how well Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields would fit into Shanahan’s offense. Adding Darnold won’t prevent the 49ers from drafting a quarterback early. It will, however, prevent the team from trading up and selecting a talent such as Fields.

Which quarterback in the upcoming draft had to do the most at the line of scrimmage? Which quarterback is the most accurate? Who played with the most “NFL concepts” in addition to RPOs? The answer to each of those questions is Alabama’s, Mac Jones.

Jones is mobile in the pocket and terrific at buying time. He lacks the athleticism and upside as the other four quarterbacks mentioned in the first round, but Jones essentially ran Shanahan's offense last season. Kyle’s going to have a difficult time handing over the keys to the offense to a rookie. In this scenario, Darnold plays in 2021, and Jones takes over after unless Sam lights it up.

Losing K’Waun hurts, so I’m drafting his clone. Washington’s Elijah Molden has the same type of “dog” in him that Williams has. Molden is a superb nickel cornerback who fights through blocks and also has a nose for the football.

The 49ers don’t sign Emmanuel Sanders during free agency, but they draft my comp for him as Western Michigan’s Dwayne Eskridge solves the 49ers WR3 and kick return problems.

With the final third-round pick, I’m staying with the Huskies and drafting edge rusher Joe Tryon, who has a quick first step and a good feel to counter and win inside when offensive tackles over set against him. Tryon’s a high-energy player who the Niners can develop.

San Francisco takes OT Walker Little with the fourth-round selection because it’s been too long since John Lynch selected a player from Stanford. My fifth-round pick is Kansas’s running back/weapon Pooka Williams.

Fitting under the cap

Quarterbacks: Sam Darnold $4.7M - Mac Jones $2.2M - Josh Rosen $850K — $7.75M total

Running backs: Raheem Mostert $3.6M - Jeff Wilson $2M - JaMycal Hasty - $780,000- Pooka Williams - $710,000 — $7.09M total

Fullback - TBD UDFA $660,000

WR - Brandon Aiyuk - $2.85M - Deebo Samuel $2.1M Jalen Hurd $1.1M - Travis Benjamin $1.08M - Richie James -$940,000 - Dwayne Eskridge $790,000 - Jauan Jennings $660,000 — $9.52M total

TE - TE George Kittle $5.45M - Ross Dwelley $1.6M Charlie Woerner $830,000 *Seventh-rounder who gets inevitably hyped all offseason* $680,000 — $8.56M total

OL - Trent Williams $8M - Laken Tomlinson $3.5M - Alex Mack $4M - Daniel Brunskill $850,000 - Mike McGlinchey $4.3M - Colton McKivitz $860,000 - Walker Little $790,000 - Veteran $1.08M - Seventh-rounder $680,000 — $24.06M total

DL - Nick Bosa $9.26M - Haason Reddick $5M - Arik Armstead $12.5M - Javon Kinlaw -$3.52M - Kevin Givens $780,000 - Kentavius Street - $1M - Joe Tryon - $780,000 - Alex Barrett - $780,000 - Thomas + a veteran DL for the minimum - $2.16M UDFA $660,000 — Dee Ford $20M - $56,440,00 total

LB - Fred Warner $7M - Dre Greenlaw $930,000 - Azeez Al-Shaair -$860,000 - Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles $780,000 - Jonas Griffith $660,000 — $10.2M total

CB - A.J. Bouye $3M - Emmanuel Moseley $2M - Ahkello Witherspoon $1.5M - Elijah Molden $1.15M - Tim Harris $660,000 — $9.31M total

S - Jimmie Ward $10.9M - Keanu Neal $2M - Tarvarius Moore $1.12M - Marcell Harris - $1.25M - $15.27M total

The 49ers' salary cap comes to just over $148 million in this hypothetical and would allow them to sign another player or two with room to spare while giving the team plenty of freedom beyond 2021.