A major challenge for NFL teams this offseason has been dealing with the reduction in the salary cap. The league set the cap at $182.5 million for the 2021 season, down from $198.2 million for the 2020 campaign.
The reduction impacted several NFL teams. For example, the Atlanta Falcons traded All-Pro receiver Julio Jones in order to have enough money to sign their incoming 2021 draft class, while the Los Angeles Rams let several key pieces from their No. 1 ranked defense from a year ago walk in free agency.
The San Francisco 49ers — and cap guru Paraag Marathe — did a good job navigating the tough landscape. The 49ers retained Pro Bowlers Trent Williams and Kyle Juszczyk while also re-signing many of their own free agents.
Marathe and general manager John Lynch were also able to restructure Dee Ford’s hefty contract, which gave the 49ers roughly $11 million in space, per Over the Cap. They were also able to get some extra savings once center Weston Richburg officially retired.
Every NFL GM had to alter their plans this offseason due to the pandemic. Without abundant cap space, it was difficult for teams to add major talent in free agency. The New England Patriots, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets, and Cincinnati Bengals were among the franchises with the most cap space going into the negotiating period and wound up being four of the seven biggest spenders on the open market. The 49ers spent the second most in free agency, but a bulk of that was used on retaining their own talent. The New York Giants and Tennessee Titans rounded out the top seven.
The researchers at NFL.com pooled together to come up with their ultimate 53-man roster while staying under the league’s 2021 salary cap. The 49ers are well represented, with four players making the cut.
The researchers built up a star-studded tight end group with George Kittle, Travis Kelce, and Rob Gronkowski.
Stacking Kelce and Kittle makes this offense almost impossible to defend. In 2018, Kittle set an NFL record with 1,377 receiving yards at tight end. Last season, Kelce eclipsed that mark with 1,416 receiving yards in just 15 games. The Chiefs star outpaced every wide receiver outside of Stefon Diggs (1,535) in the category. Kittle missed eight games in 2020, but he still averaged 79.3 receiving yards per, good for second among tight ends behind Kelce (94.4). Kittle can provide elite receiving and run-after-catch ability, while also being a devastating run blocker. Gronkowski is a shell of his former self, but he can still contribute as a receiver (see: two touchdowns in Super Bowl LV) and as a blocker. Plus, a locker room with Kelce, Kittle and Gronk would be a happy one.
Williams got the nod as the ultimate team’s left tackle, which is no surprise considering he has been named to the Pro Bowl every season he has stepped on the field since 2012. The only time Williams wasn't given the honors was in 2019 when he sat out while under contract with the Washington Football Team.
On defense, the researchers took two-thirds of the middle of the 49ers’ defense. Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw were listed as two of the three starters for the ultimate team’s linebacking group.
Warner is an absolute steal for a third-round pick. An elite coverage linebacker, the Niners standout finally got his rightful due with Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods in 2020.
Greenlaw is a depth player who has plus coverage skills and can also contribute on special teams.
The most obvious omission from the ultimate team is pass-rusher Nick Bosa. Instead, the writers went with edge rushers Myles Garrett, Chase Young, Shaquil Barrett, Markus Golden, Maxx Crosby, and former Niner Kerry Hyder.
Bosa put up great numbers his rookie year, finishing with 9 sacks, 47 tackles, including 16 for a loss, en route to winning the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year. Unfortunately, his sophomore season was cut short when he tore his ACL in the Week 2 blowout win over the New York Jets.
The 23-year-old’s cap hit for next season is a little more than $9.3 million (per Spotrac) before jumping up to $10.6 million for 2022. The 49ers will surely pick up Bosa’s fifth-year option, and he will be in line for a massive extension once the 2021 campaign wraps up.