With the nearing offseason looming large, the San Francisco 49ers roster is poised for a relatively major shakeup in the coming weeks and months. The 49ers currently have 28 players scheduled to hit free agency, with 21 of them being unrestricted free agents who are free to negotiate with any team on the open market. This includes impact starters like DJ Jones, Jaquiski Tartt, Laken Tomlinson, K’Waun Williams, and Raheem Mostert.
As of this moment, per overthecap.com, the 49ers are currently $4,478,456 over the cap, with 44 players who are under contract for the 2022 season. This includes quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and his team-high $25,550,000 cap hit, which will likely be off the books as all signs point to Garoppolo being traded in the immediate future.
That leaves the 49ers with a little north of 20 million in cap space before any restructures/extensions take place (you can be almost assured there will be money moved around in some form or another to free up more cap space). Not to mention that they are without a first-round draft pick for the next two seasons as well.
On the surface, this obviously looks less than ideal. The 49ers were a game away from the Super Bowl and now face the challenge of filling a sizeable amount of roster spots with a fairly limited amount of financial flexibility.
For most teams, this would likely be a cause for concern. But based on the way the 49ers have been able to maximize value in recent years, this is just another chance for the brain trust to show off their ability in an area that has arguably been their greatest strength—getting something out of next to nothing.
There is a common misconception that the best way to build a roster is by drafting first-round picks which have a lot of buzz or making splash signings in free agency by paying big money to some household names.
But the truth is, the 49ers have found some of their greatest success constructing this roster by utilizing much less heralded resources and banking on their own developmental staff to maximize the value of lesser-known commodities, turning undrafted free agents and perceived depth signings into impact starters on the biggest stage.
So as the 49ers prepare to tackle a high volume of roster turnover with limited resources, I can’t help but think about all the times this front office has been able to get a tremendous return on a somewhat limited investment.
These are the kind of moves the 49ers are going to HAVE to hit on if they are to maintain any hope of seriously contending in 2022 and beyond, and I think their track record should invite a healthy dose of optimism that they are up to the task.
The results that they have produced have come in many forms, from hitting home runs on team-friendly deals in free agency to flipping late-round draft picks for young impact players. I’m going to pick a few specific examples and why it should give you the confidence that this regime is beyond capable of navigating the challenging offseason that is currently ahead of them.
49ers sign Arden Key to a 1-year 1,045,000 contract
I’m going to start with this one because it’s the kind of move the 49ers are going to need to hit on during the coming offseason, given the uncertainty surrounding their cap space situation.
This is exactly the mold the 49ers should try to emulate moving forward, taking chances on uber-athletic players in their mid 20’s who may have been held back due to a problem with scheme/organizational fit at their previous stop.
The 49ers signed Key after he spent the first three seasons of his career with the Las Vegas Raider, which is far from the poster child of a functional football franchise. After only recording three sacks in his first three seasons combined, Key burst onto the scene with the 49ers and recorded 8 sacks and 39 pressures in 2021.
Beyond the numbers, Key’s presence rushing from the interior unlocked a level of play from the entire defensive line that ultimately helped propel the 49ers on a deep playoff run.
At just a little over a million dollars against the cap, Key was not only one of the best value signings on the team, but he was also one of the greatest value signings around the ENTIRE league.
The success that Key found likely leads to a larger payday (whether it comes from the 49ers or not remains to be seen), but it also paves the way for other free agents who fit that archetype to come to San Francisco on a prove-it deal of sorts in an attempt to rebuild their value before cashing out the following offseason.
The ability to sell quality players on coming to YOUR team is something that is not easily earned, and its value is even more immense in a salary cap league like the NFL. The 49ers now have a tangible success story to sway potential free agents, to pair with the already tantalizing prospect of working with Kris Kocurek and rushing on the same defensive line as Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead.
49ers trade 2019 5th round pick to the Detroit Lions in exchange for Laken Tomlinson
This was way back in August of 2017 before the 49ers ever played a regular-season snap under the current regime. At the time, Tomlinson was viewed as an underachieving former first-round pick, and the 49ers took a gamble on a player who had potential but who had yet to really establish themselves at the NFL level.
What a gamble that turned out to be, as the 49ers effectively flipped a day three pick and turned it into a five-year starter that was the definition of reliable during his stint in San Francisco. Tomlinson has started 86 consecutive games for the 49ers and capped off his most recent campaign with a pro bowl nod.
This is a more extreme example of successfully working within the margins, as the production Tomlinson gave the 49ers is something that you’d be thrilled to receive from a first-round pick, let alone getting that kind of value for a future fifth-round pick. Regardless of how Tomlinson’s pending free agency shakes out, the value the 49ers got from him over the last five seasons far exceeded the draft pick they parted with to acquire him.
49ers trade a pair of 6th round picks for Jordan Willis and Charles Omenihu
I’ve touched on this a good deal in the past, and for a good reason. These are the kinds of moves that potentially put teams over the top, as productive edge rushers are always going to be at a premium in this league.
The 49ers flipped day three picks (which have a very low percentage when it comes to turning those picks into an impact player/starter) into a pair of quality depth pieces who developed into an integral part of a deep pass rush this past season.
Both of these players left their stamp on a playoff run we won’t forget anytime soon. Omenihu led the 49ers in sacks and pressures in their wild-card round win over the Dallas Cowboys, which is even more impressive when you consider he did most of his damage against All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith.
Willis logged some big-time pressures, but nothing will stick in the memory of 49ers fans more than his pivotal punt block on the frozen Lambeau tundra.
These acquisitions in back-to-back seasons suggest the 49ers have a very specific blueprint in mind when addressing the depth on their defensive line. The 49ers have had tremendous success methodically in seeking out supremely athletic edge rushers who possess the tools but lack the production.
This allows them to acquire said players for a bargain and bank on their own coaching staff, maximizing their talents, which has led to players like Willis and Omenihu contributing far more than the price to acquire them would indicate.
49ers trade Eli Harold to the Detroit Lions for a conditional 2020 7th round pick
I bet you haven’t heard that name in a while, have you? When the 49ers traded Eli Harold in August of 2018, it would have been fair to assume the return likely wouldn’t net much by the time they would be making that selection in the 7th round two years down the line. Guess what? It did. The 49ers ended up selecting wide receiver Jauan Jennings with the pick Detroit had sent them two years earlier.
The 49ers were able to turn the 217th pick in the 2020 draft into a vital piece of their offense in 2022. Jennings only recorded 27 total receptions this past season, but 23 of those went for either a first down or a touchdown.
He just seemed to have a knack for the big play, consistently being a part of plays that either moved the sticks or put the ball in the end zone. The production may not be eye-popping, but the magnitude of the majority of his touches certainly was.
The best part is, the 49ers were only even in a position to draft Jennings due to their proactive decision to move on from a player who hasn’t played in the NFL for the past three seasons. The 49ers netted a bonafide playmaker on offense, and all it cost them was a player who is out of the league and now plays for the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL. Between the late-round picks for the edge rushers, and flipping players like Harold, the 49ers have gotten some tremendous value with their day three draft capital.
Developing undrafted free agents
While the return usually takes the longest to manifest (assuming you hit on the player and develop properly) compared to the methods/examples listed above, this is the kind of move that has put the 49ers in a position to be a strong contender now as well as moving forward. The 49ers have two defensive starters who came in as undrafted free agents, who worked their way into those roles after being drafted and developed in-house by the 49ers.
Emmanuel Moseley went from a player who was undrafted and spending time on the practice squad to now being objectively the best cornerback on the 49ers roster as of this moment. Azeez Al-Shaair is another undrafted player who has made a significant impact, already quickly becoming one of the most dependable, and frankly flat out skilled defenders on a tremendous defense,
He’s not with the team anymore, but Kendrick Bourne is another example of a player the 49ers were able to develop in-house. When evaluating the undrafted class slated to hit free agency, the 49ers don’t need to produce a bonafide starter like Al-Shaair or Moseley, they just need to find some players who could provide some solid depth options.
To summarize, the 49ers have done a very good job turning something small (whether it is a draft pick or team-friendly deal, etc.) and flipping that into a viable asset for themselves. This team doesn’t need to make a monster move in free agency or aggressively trade up to the first round to find value that can help keep their roster in the elite tier where it currently stands.
The way this team has generated results from acquisitions that cost next has bought this front office a tremendous amount of equity when it comes to speculating how they will handle the coming weeks. Nobody knows what the future holds, but while everyone is freaking out about the 49ers not having cap space or first-round picks, maybe just maybe this team is finding its next impact player for pennies on the dollar.