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49ers offseason primer: What big decisions will Niners’ brass face this summer?

With the 49ers season over, here’s an early look at the challenges awaiting them this offseason.

49ers linemen Trent Williams and Laken Tomlinson block Bengals pass rusher B.J. Hill while Jimmy Garoppolo throws a pass Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

After falling to the Los Angeles Rams 20-17 in the NFC Championship Game, the San Francisco 49ers season is over. It was an up-and-down regular season for the Niners that fueled plenty of debate amongst the faithful. Head coach Kyle Shanahan righted the ship for another deep postseason run that ultimately fell just short of reaching the Super Bowl. Now, Shanahan and general manager John Lynch will dedicate their focus to preparing for the offseason.

With two weeks until the Super Bowl, there is still some time before the 49ers are likely to make any significant moves, although that could change if one of their top coaches or executives are hired by another franchise. But otherwise, Shanahan and the Niners' top executives should have some time to map out their plan for free agency and the draft.

Here's an early look at the biggest decisions they will have to make:

49ers Cap Situation

Projected Salary Cap: Current $209.2 million
Current 2022 Salary Commitments: $204.1 million
Current Projected Space: $5.1 million
Players Under Contract: 32
(All cap estimates per Over the Cap)

The 49ers will enter the offseason with just a couple million dollars in rollover cap space from 2021, but with so many players hitting free agency, their current cap space will evaporate as soon as they fill out their roster with minimum salary players. Only the 51 highest cap hits count against a team's cap during the offseason, but with just 33 players currently under contract for next season, the Niners have a lot of work to do.

Some fairly obvious moves are available to the Niners, giving them enough flexibility to retain most of their free agents and possibly make a notable addition. However, San Francisco will have to be more creative to make any significant acquisitions beyond that.

Likely Cap Casualties

  1. Jimmy Garoppolo
  2. Dee Ford

The 49ers do not have many prominent salary-cap casualties on their roster, but the two at the top offer significant cap relief the franchise needs. Jimmy Garoppolo and Dee Ford are almost guaranteed to be moved this offseason for those reasons.

Garoppolo has almost assuredly played his final game in a 49ers uniform despite leading another playoff run. After the Niners selected quarterback Trey Lance out of North Dakota State with the third overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the clock started ticking down on Jimmy G's tenure in San Francisco.

Even if he had led the 49ers to the Super Bowl, his current contract would have made it nearly impossible for San Francisco to keep him and remain competitive.

The bigger question is whether the 49ers will find a trade partner for Garoppolo or be forced to release him. Regardless, the cap implications for the Niners are equivalent. The Niners will create roughly $25.5 million in salary-cap space in either scenario.

Ford has a cap hit worth just over $11.9 million in the final year of his contract. The 49ers will incur a nearly $10 million cap hit if they release him at the start of the offseason. However, by releasing him with a June 1st designation, the 49ers would take on a cap hit of just over $4.9 million in 2022 and 2023, which would create exactly $7 million in cap savings this offseason. With Ford coming off another injury-riddled season, he will likely be the Niners' lone cap casualty.

Top 10 Impending Free Agents

  1. Laken Tomlinson
  2. Jaquiski Tartt
  3. D.J. Jones
  4. Azeez Al-Shaair (RFA)
  5. Raheem Mostert
  6. Jason Verrett
  7. Arden Key
  8. K'Waun Williams
  9. Jauan Jennings (ERFA)
  10. Tom Compton

The 49ers shrewdly planned for a massive spike in the salary cap once the league signed their new TV deals this past year. However, league ownership used the COVID-19 pandemic to leverage the NFLPA into a less favorable deal in the latest CBA. The deal delayed a spike in the salary cap and has created some difficult decisions for the franchise.

The Niners technically have possible internal replacements for every major free agent, even before adding talent through the draft. For example, the 49ers drafted guard Aaron Banks in the second round of last year's draft, presumably preparing for Laken Tomlinson's possible departure. Rookie Talanoa Hufanga, a fifth-round pick, received significant playing time as the primary backup safety to Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward. The return of Javon Kinlaw from knee surgery could technically fill in for D.J. Jones on the interior defensive line as well.

With that said, the Niners will hope to retain as many of their best free agents as possible. Assuming Garoppolo and Ford are released/traded, the 49ers front office will have about $15 million-$20 million to play with (while they would have nearly $40 million in space, most of that will be needed to fill out their roster).

Jauan Jennings will be retained on an exclusive-rights tender early in the offseason, but the 49ers will have an interesting decision to make with Azeez Al-Shaair. The Niners will likely have to offer Al-Shaair a second-round tender, worth nearly $4 million, to keep another team from trying to sign him away from San Francisco.

Al-Shaair's situation is comparable to Emmanuel Moseley, who signed a two-year, $9 million deal last offseason. So it would not be surprising to see Al-Shaair and the Niners agree to a similar contract extension.

Running back Raheem Mostert and cornerback Jason Verrett were both poised to play their way out of the 49ers' price range but had severe injuries prevent them from doing so. Now, cheap reunions seem plausible.

Next season, the opportunity to pair Mostert with Elijah Mitchell in the 49ers backfield would be a tantalizing proposition.

Retaining Verrett as a depth option at cornerback would seem like a similar low-risk, high-reward opportunity for San Francisco.

On the other hand, San Francisco's free-agent linemen are where things get harder to predict. Laken Tomlinson has been one of the most consistent guards in the NFL over his five seasons with the 49ers.

The free-agent market for guards has exploded over the past five years. Above-average starters have gone from averaging about $6 million per year to recent free-agent guards netting contracts with average cap hits well north of $10 million.

Tomlinson is clearly an above-average guard, but he has never received much attention for his play. He’s an elite run blocker but has always struggled in pass protection. Teams are less likely to pay for that skill set in the modern NFL.

The 49ers will likely try to retain Tomlinson on a multi-year deal with a $7 million to $9 million AAV. However, if he follows recent top free-agent guards and receives offers of $12 million to potentially even $15 million per year, it’s hard to imagine the 49ers making a competitive offer.

Young defensive lineman Arden Key had a breakout season this year, recording 17 quarterback hits, 6.5 sacks, and 5 tackles for loss playing both inside and off the edge.

D.J. Jones was a force on the Niners' interior defensive line, racking up 56 tackles, including 10 tackles for loss and 2 sacks.

Nose tackles, like Jones, rarely receive big money on the market, often settling for $4 million to $7 million average annual value (AAV) deals. However, after his career year with teams like the Chargers out there, desperate to improve their rushing defense, his market could push north of $10 million per year.

Suppose the 49ers re-sign Tomlinson and Jones has several other interested teams. In that case, the Niners might have to roll the dice on Kinlaw's return from injury alongside cheaper veteran alternatives and a low-round draft pick.

Key's market will not be as active, but the former third-round pick should not have to settle for anything close to a minimum salary either. The ceiling for Key's market is probably around $5 million a year, which should give the 49ers flexibility to backload his contract to keep him in San Francisco. He probably will settle for a two-year, $7 million or three-year, $12 million deal with just a $2.5 million cap hit in the first year of the agreement.

In the secondary, neither Jaquiski Tartt nor K'Waun Williams generated much free-agent interest last offseason and returned to the 49ers on minimum-salary deals. Perhaps coming off an NFC Championship run, both will receive more interest from outside teams.

Given how much playing time the Niners gave Hufanga this season, it seems likely they will let Tartt walk unless he accepts an extremely team-friendly deal. Williams is probably in a similar situation but will be less likely to receive an outside offer as a slot corner who struggles in man coverage.

Tom Compton fell apart in the playoffs but was fairly effective, filling in for Mike McGlinchey at right tackle this season. With Jaylon Moore and Justin Skule already under contract for next season, though, the 49ers should not be looking to retain Compton unless it comes for the minimum. Given his years of experience, it seems likely that someone will offer Compton a one-year, $3.5 million type-deal to compete for a starting spot elsewhere.

Other notable 49ers free agents include right guard Daniel Brunskill, edge rusher Jordan Willis, wide receiver Trent Sherfield, and defensive lineman Kentavius Street. Both Brunskill and Street are restricted free agents.

Trade Candidates

  1. Jimmy Garoppolo
  2. Samson Ebukam
  3. Mike McGlinchey

The cap implications of trading or releasing Garoppolo are equivalent for the 49ers. Obviously, San Francisco will hope to recoup at least a minimal return for their current starting quarterback. But for better or worse, the 49ers cannot afford to keep him on their books in 2022.

Star quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson will likely be shopped this offseason, and rumors have hinted that Derek Carr and Kirk Cousins could be on the market as well. Each one that gets traded will take away a potential landing spot for Garoppolo, making it even harder for the Niners to find a trade partner.

Of course, the unpredictability of the NFL quarterback market keeps the faithful's hopes of a big trade package alive. After all, Carson Wentz netted a third and first-round pick coming off a terrible 2020 season with a less team-friendly contract than Garoppolo last offseason. Even Sam Darnold, one of the worst statistical quarterbacks of this century, was traded for a second, fourth, and sixth-rounder last summer.

Will a team be willing to sacrifice draft capital for Garoppolo and his $25 million cap hit when they could probably sign a free agent like Marcus Mariota, Tyrod Taylor, Jameis Winston, or Teddy Bridgewater for less than $5 million? Again, the answer is probably yes. But will they be willing to give up more than a mid-round pick? That's harder to know.

Still, all the 49ers need is one team to believe Garoppolo is their ticket to contention. With a notably thin quarterback draft class and several notable retirements, it could be a seller's market for the Niners.

The Pittsburgh Steelers remain the best on-paper fit. Pittsburgh made the playoffs with one of the most limited quarterbacks in the NFL last season and built an offense around Ben Roethlisberger's inability to push the ball downfield. Garoppolo is essentially a better version of what they already had. The Washington Football Team, Denver Broncos, and New York Giants are other potential landing spots.

The Steelers probably will not have the trade chips to make a run at one of the premium quarterbacks that could hit the trade market, but they have the cap flexibility to absorb Garoppolo's contract easily.

It could also make sense for both sides to agree to a new three-year, $65 million contract that converts $15 million of Garoppolo's 2022 base salary into a signing bonus. The Steelers could then lower his cap hit next season to $15 million while giving them the flexibility to move on from him without significant dead money in the subsequent seasons.

The likelihood of either Ebukam or McGlinchey changing teams this offseason remains incredibly low, but there's a case to be made that the 49ers could trade either player for some added draft capital alongside some cap relief. Trading Ebukam would create $6.25 million in cap space, while trading McGlinchey would create nearly $10.9 million in room.

Moving Ebukam would depend on how many of the 49ers' defensive linemen they can retain this offseason. If they can re-sign Key and Willis for less than $6 million in cap hits for 2022, it might not be unreasonable to see if they could move Ebukam and free up some space to add pieces elsewhere. Ebukam seemed to turn a corner late in the season, but he also finished 2022 with relatively equivalent numbers to his last two years with the Rams.

The depth of edge talent in this year's draft class is another reason trading Ebukam, even if only for a late-round pick, could appeal to the 49ers. PFF, NFL Tankathon, and Bleacher Report all have at least 13 edge rushers among the top 100 prospects in this year's draft (with Tankathon ranking 16).

In addition, a vast majority of the prospects are currently projected to go in rounds 2 or 3, where San Francisco has picks and flexibility to make trades. With Charles Omenihu already slated to line up opposite of Nick Bosa next season, re-signing Willis and adding an edge rusher in the draft could be enough to justify trying to save $6.25 million by moving Ebukam.

Moving McGlinchey looked more feasible when Compton was holding his own at right tackle in the regular season, but it's still not beyond the realm of possibilities. If the 49ers do not believe Aaron Banks will live up to his second-round selection, they might be more confident in their ability to replace McGlinchey than Tomlinson.

After next season, McGlinchey will be a free agent and will be due for a sizable contract. Are the 49ers high enough on McGlinchey to want to pay him $15 million a year in 2023 and beyond?

McGlinchey's season-ending injury would prevent the Niners from receiving maximum value for the former first-round pick, but recouping at least a third-round pick for a reasonably priced tackle seems well within the realm of possibility. McGlinchey would be a clear upgrade for teams like the Dolphins, Steelers, and Jaguars and could be intriguing to the Bengals, Chargers, or Jets as well. All six of those teams will have the cap space to take on McGlinchey's salary.

Moving McGlinchey would give the 49ers plenty of cap space to re-sign Tomlinson or make an addition elsewhere. Of course, it would require that the Niners retain Compton or add another viable veteran. Still, rookie Jaylon Moore looked passable in his brief stints at both tackle spots this season, and San Francisco could let him compete for the right tackle job as well.

5 Extension/Restructure Candidates

  1. Nick Bosa
  2. Deebo Samuel
  3. Jimmie Ward
  4. Mike McGlinchey
  5. Arik Armstead

Nick Bosa and Deebo Samuel were the 49ers' best players this season. Reaching extension eligibility could not have come at a better time for either player. This should not be complicated for the 49ers. They will have to pay both of them. The question is, how much?

Both Samuel and Bosa have earned extensions with the potential to be worth more than $100 million (Bosa's will probably come in north of $150 million). The 49ers will need to backload both extensions to avoid hamstringing their rosters in 2022 and 2023, but Samuel and Bosa will rightfully want substantial guarantees in return.

Jimmie Ward has a cap hit of nearly $13 million in the final year of his contract, and a simple restructure could push almost $6 million onto the 2023 books. However, with Tartt probably on his way out, the Niners might be prioritizing keeping Ward long-term. If that's the case, signing Ward to an extension that gives both sides long-term security and lowers his 2022 cap hit would make sense for both sides.

If the 49ers view McGlinchey as part of their long-term plans, they should be proactive in trying to extend him. Added risk always comes with signing a player coming off a severe injury, but assuming McGlinchey returns to form in 2022, the Niners will have less and less leverage the longer they wait.

Currently owed a $10.88 million base salary in 2022, a backloaded five-year, $65 million deal could provide McGlinchey with some guarantees if he struggles to come off his injury while also giving the Niners a little bit more cap space in 2022 and some long-term certainty at right tackle.

Arik Armstead has validated the Niners' decision to give him a five-year. $85 million contract following the 49ers' 2019 Super Bowl run. Armstead still has three years remaining on that contract at fairly team-friendly terms. However, that means the 49ers could be inclined to restructure his contract if they want to create some cap space. While it might not be advisable to use all of that flexibility this year, the Niners could save themselves nearly $10 million in cap space if they converted most of his base salary into a signing bonus.

Draft Picks:

  1. Round 2 (61st overall)
  2. Round 3 (93rd overall)
  3. Round 4 (132nd overall)
  4. Round 5 (171st overall)
  5. Round 6 (185th overall)
  6. Round 7 Compensatory (251st overall)
  7. Round 7 Compensatory (254th overall)
  8. Round 7 Compensatory (261st overall)

This season, the 49ers do not have their first-round pick or third-round compensatory pick due to their trade for Trey Lance last year. Still, even after trading for defensive linemen Charles Omenihu this season, they will have control of selections in each of the remaining rounds.

The 49ers could get another boost in draft capital if Ran Carthon becomes the top front-office executive for another NFL franchise or one of their coordinators (DeMeco Ryans and Mike McDaniel) are hired as a head coach.

The Niners already received a compensatory third-round pick in 2021-2023 for the departures of Martin Mayhew and Robert Saleh last offseason and could be in a position to gain another in 2022 and 2023 if one of Carthon, Ryans, or McDaniel lands a top job elsewhere.

It seems likely, though, that San Francisco will add at least one more pick this season when they trade Garoppolo. Even if they do not go all-in for cap space and picks by shopping McGlinchey and Ebukam, Garoppolo should conservatively net the 49ers another fourth-round pick.

5 Biggest Needs

  1. Interior offensive line
  2. Cornerback
  3. Defensive Line
  4. Slot/3rd Wide Receiver
  5. Safety

With both starting guards (Tomlinson and Brunskill) set for free agency, returning center Alex Mack entering his 14th NFL season, and rookie 2nd round pick Aaron Banks failing to impress, the 49ers interior offensive line has a lot of question marks heading into the offseason. Brunskill is a restricted free agent, and, assuming he re-signs, the Niners will need to either retain Tomlinson or add at least one other viable starting guard to compete with Banks.

Emmanuel Moseley, Ambry Thomas, and Deommodore Lenoir are the only 49ers cornerbacks under contract through next season. Thomas' late-season emergence has transformed how desperate the 49ers need to be this offseason, but depth remains a massive problem.

The 49ers should not have to scramble for midseason castoff veterans like Josh Norman and Dre Kirkpatrick for two seasons in a row. Even if they think Moseley and Thomas can start on the outside with Lenoir in the slot, they need to bring in some legitimate veteran competition. Re-signing Verrett, as good as he's been when healthy, probably is not enough.

Jauan Jennings has slowly emerged as a promising young third receiver but has struggled with drops throughout the season. Jennings hauled in just 24 receptions for 282 yards this year. More importantly, most of the Niners veteran receivers (Travis Benjamin, Mohammed Sanu, etc.) are free agents. The 49ers should retain some of their veteran depth, but adding better insurance for a potential injury to Samuel or Brandon Aiyuk might not be a bad idea either.

The 49ers have been preparing Hufanga to replace Tartt, but that's easier said than done. Tartt will be most remembered for his dropped interception in the NFC Championship game, but he was a well-rounded player that gave defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans plenty of flexibility. Hufanga had his flashes as a rookie but got burned quite a bit in coverage. Even if Tartt leaves in free agency, the 49ers need to bring in a proven veteran alternative.