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The 49ers, Deebo Samuel, and being the “highest-paid” non-QB in the NFL

Deebo Samuel reportedly wants to be the highest-paid non-QB in the NFL, but that’s not as hard for the 49ers to do as it sounds.

Deebo Samuel #19 of the San Francisco 49ers stays inside the boundary while running the ball during the game against the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship Game at SoFi Stadium on January 30, 2022 in Inglewood, California. Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

San Francisco 49ers star wide receiver Deebo Samuel could be eyeing an even larger contract extension than previously believed, according to a report by Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter Clarence Hill Jr. Hill, who primarily covers the Cowboys, tweeted on Thursday that Samuel “wants to be the highest-paid non-quarterback” in the NFL.

Samuel is entering the final year of his rookie deal and is hoping to land a new contract with the 49ers after emerging as one of the best offensive weapons in the NFL last season. Up to this point, however, the Niners have been unable to reach a deal with their 2019 second-round pick.

There’s reason to remain cautious about overreacting to any Samuel contract rumors. Under head coach Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco has waited until July and August to agree to large extensions with stars like tight end George Kittle and linebacker Fred Warner. Still, Shanahan’s regime also opted to trade All-Pro defensive lineman DeForrest Buckner in a trade that shocked the NFL.

If Samuel is unwilling to accept a contract that does not make him the highest-paid non-quarterback in the NFL, it could force the 49ers into a difficult situation. With several other premium talents due for big contracts, they might become more enticed with trading Samuel for a massive haul from a team like the New York Jets.

However, the NFL’s unique (and complicated) contract structure means there are multiple ways to make Samuel the highest-paid non-quarterback, including ones that have less impact on the Niners’ salary cap.

For one, the average annual value of contracts is inflated by the way their reported. Suppose a player is under contract for one more season, as most players are when they sign premium extensions.

In that case, reporters will usually only report the money and years added to an already existing deal. For example, when Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt signed a record-setting extension last September, it was reported as a four-year, $112 million contract. However, his overall deal with Pittsburgh was actually a five-year, $122 million pact.

Why the disparity? Because he was already under contract in 2021 for a roughly $10 million base salary.

Watt’s extension had an average annual value of more than $28 million, the highest for a defensive player in league history. However, that’s not how it will impact the Steelers’ salary cap. Instead, they converted virtually all of his 2021 salary into a massive $35 million signing bonus that will be spread over the five-year length of the contract.

Tyreek Hill technically received the largest contract for a non-quarterback in terms of average annual value through the four-year, $120 million contract extension he signed with the Dolphins this offseason. However, a significant portion of the contract’s value is baked into a non-guaranteed $43.9 million base salary in 2026. The deal itself really only pays Hill roughly $23 million a season over the next four years.

Nothing prevents the 49ers from doing a similar thing with Samuel. That kind of structure would give Samuel some added leverage in any future contract negotiations if he remains an elite player but would also give the front office a lot of flexibility.

Davante Adams is currently the only other non-quarterback with a contract that has an average annual value of at least $28 million. However, a closer look reveals that number is more for show than practicality. As a result, the Raiders could release Adams after this season, having paid him just $23.6 million, and not be on the hook for a dollar more.

Even if they hold onto him through next season (when some additional guarantees in his contract trigger), Adams is slated to receive just under $67.8 million over the next three seasons (roughly $22.6 million per year) and count for even less against the cap. Like Hill, most of Adams’ contract’s value is baked into non-guaranteed base salaries north of $35 million in 2025 and 2026.

Watt’s contract technically has the lowest potential total value between his, Adams, and Hill’s, but it is easily the most secure of the three. Every dollar in the first three years of Watt’s deal (2021-2023) was fully guaranteed, and his contract is not as heavily backloaded, meaning more of the money reported is guaranteed. Watt will receive $80 million over the first three years of the deal, but notice, even that, is slightly less than the reported value of his extension.

This is no guarantee that Samuel will come to an agreement with the 49ers anytime soon. It’s still possible he insists on a deal that leads the franchise to trade him. However, the Niners will not get to that place because they are unwilling to make him the highest-paid receiver (or non-quarterback) in the NFL. That means little beyond bragging rights for Samuel and his agent. If San Francisco does get to that, it will be because of contract structure and guarantees.

The reality is in the world of the NFL. Contracts are rarely as costly to teams as advertised. That’s why until proven otherwise, there’s no reason to believe the 49ers will not get a deal done with a star like Deebo Samuel.

For more on Samuel, check out our own Kyle Posey discussing the human element and whether Samuel has a legitimate beef with the 49ers below with former KNBR host Larry Krueger: