We are less than two weeks into the NFL’s new league year, but it feels like the San Francisco 49ers have been making moves for the past few months.
General manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan knew they had a ton of work to do once the season ended. The Niners entered free agency with up to 40 players who could have hit the open market, including stud left tackle Trent Williams.
The circumstances made the challenge of locking up key talent seem daunting. The salary cap fell by roughly eight percent due to the pandemic's economic fallout, hamstringing several NFL teams.
San Francisco entered the offseason with roughly $23 million in cap space, and the feeling was that the bulk of the available funds would be allocated to re-signing Williams. The Faithful were prepared to lose several players in free agency, but that never happened.
Instead, Lynch and co. locked up Williams, Kyle Juszczyk, Jason Verrett, Emmanuel Moseley, Jaquiski Tartt, and K’Waun Williams, allowing the franchise to run it back with many of the core components from the 2019 NFC winning squad. Verrett, Moseley, Tartt, and Williams signed one-year deals, signifying Lynch and Shanahan believe the 49ers can reach the top of the mountain next season.
The Niners also went outside the building to bring in some new pieces. With Weston Richburg going through another surgery, the 49ers signed veteran center Alex Mack to anchor the offensive line's interior. San Francisco also addressed the pass-rush by signing Samsom Ebukam.
San Francisco also restructured Dee Ford’s contract to add $11 million in cap space this offseason. Although it is difficult to project Ford will be healthy enough to contribute next season, Lynch did provide some reason for optimism during Monday’s media availability.
“Well, Dee’s doing well. With that type of injury, you don’t want to get too high or too low, and I think he’s really in a good place,” Lynch said. “He’s working. He’s been here every day. He’s working extremely hard. It’s encouraging to look out my window and see things progress, but I think we’ll leave it at that.”
After all of these moves, the 49ers had something precious to a contending team, flexibility. Because of all of the ninja work the Niners’ brass did early in the offseason, it opened up numerous possibilities with the 12th pick of the 2021 NFL Draft. San Francisco was in a position to go after the best player available or make a move up the board to select the player it covets the most. The 49ers chose the latter, swinging a deal with the Miami Dolphins to move all the way up to No. 3.
“This was made with a lot of deliberation, a lot of study, a lot of opinions from multiple people, and we ultimately arrived that we thought it was worth it,” Lynch said. “We also, I think, paid somewhat of a premium for doing it early, and why was that important to us? Because, well, one thing I always remember [former San Francisco 49ers head coach] Bill Walsh, one thing he used to talk about a lot when I was at Stanford was you’ve got to beat your opponent to the punch.”
The Niners still have a shade less than $20 million in cap space, per Over the Cap.
With somewhere around half of that allocated for the incoming 2021 draft picks, San Francisco could still add some veteran pieces still on the open market. The 49ers could add some depth to the secondary with players like Richard Sherman, Brian Poole, and Quinton Dunbar still un-signed. They could also look at a free-agent tight end like Jordan Reed, Trey Burton, or Tyler Eifert.
But most importantly, it gives the organization flexibility at the quarterback position. Jimmy Garoppolo is under contract for two more seasons with little guaranteed money. The 49ers went 13-3 and made it to the Super Bowl when Garoppolo was healthy for the entirety of the 2019 campaign. But Garoppolo has suffered long-term injuries in two of the last three seasons, which torpedoed San Francisco’s chances of competing.
Shanahan acknowledged that Garoppolo wasn’t thrilled when he was notified about the trade.
“I’m sure Jimmy was a little pissed off from it, just like I would be, too, but me knowing Jimmy, he’ll be fired up and come in, and he’ll work his butt off,” Shanahan said. “Knowing Jimmy, the more mad Jimmy gets, usually the better he gets.”
One thing we can say for sure is that the trade shows us Lynch and Shanahan aren’t sold on Garoppolo being the long-term answer, but they allowed themselves the option to give him the reigns in the short-term.
The 49ers are loaded with talent on the roster, with the likes of Williams, Nick Bosa, George Kittle, Fred Warner, and Deebo Samuel being the nucleus. First-year quarterbacks haven’t produced any championships, so keeping Garoppolo (for now) gives the organization an experienced option who has shown he can help lead a team all the way to the Big Game.
There are too many scenarios that could play out between now and Week 1. Garoppolo could assert himself as the starter with a strong training camp while playing the role of mentor to whichever QB the Niners select.
We could also see one of Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Trey Lance, or Mac Jones blow away the coaching staff in July enough that Lynch and Shanahan decide to cut Jimmy G, with only $2.8 million in dead money on the books.
The point is that San Francisco has left itself with outs for the coming years. If Garoppolo comes back and helps the team to a Super Bowl title in 2021, the 49ers could certainly run it back with him in 2022 and give the rookie another year to learn.
If Garoppolo struggles or can’t stay healthy, Shanahan will at least have a backup that he feels he can still win games with while also building for the future.
There are just too many outcomes to this situation to plan for. San Francisco’s leadership seems content to let things play out as they may and then make the best decision from there.
This long quote from Lynch illustrates what the Niners were thinking coming into the offseason.
“I think [president of 49ers enterprises & executive vice president of football operations] Paraag [Marathe], [vice president, football administration] Brian Hampton, that crew has done a tremendous job of leaving us some flexibility. We went to ownership said, ‘Hey, things are looking good. We’d like to make this move, but we also don’t want to say goodbye to Jimmy. We think Jimmy, we’ve shown we can get to a Super Bowl with him. We can play at a high level and we don’t think those two things have to be mutually exclusive.’ So, the opportunity to trade up and possibly get a guy that can be a big part of our future and keep Jimmy who we’re very high on and I think some positive things are happening in this offseason for, that’s kind of the plan we arrived at. We’re very excited. It was a stated goal that we needed to come out with the quarterback position being stronger this year and I think we’ve put ourselves in an opportunity to make that happen with this move.”
Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated provided some insight into why San Francisco made its move this offseason as opposed to waiting until after the 2021 campaign.
“San Francisco also got a picture from its scouts of the 2022 draft at the position, and it was bleak in comparison to ‘21. That meant not taking one they liked this year would likely mean going into ‘22, the final year of Garoppolo’s contract, with far fewer options on the table.”
The 49ers have done what any good organization would do, give itself options and flexibility both in the short and long term.