Since San Francisco’s Super Bowl appearance in 2019, John Lynch and the front office have used an aggressive approach to upgrading the roster, which is now one of, if not the most, talented squads in the NFL.
There have been several key trades that most personnel departments would only be able to dream up on Madden. They haven’t been perfect in the draft, but have found plenty of young gems to keep their team atop the standings and in position to contend for the championship.
But the question for every team is how do you keep the Super Bowl window open? We can find recent examples of the “all-in” strategy to roster building that can put a franchise over the top (2021 Rams, 2020 Bucs). But we are also seeing how quickly that can all crumble due to cap constraints. Of course, the ring is worth it, but the question of sustainability is a unique problem, especially when you haven’t yet raised the Lombardi.
Which is why this chart from ESPN’s Bill Barnwell piqued my interest.
Snap-adjusted age so far for 2023— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) November 4, 2023
Five oldest teams: Saints, Eagles, Broncos, 49ers, Raiders
Five youngest teams: Packers, Giants, Bears, Colts, Cardinals pic.twitter.com/T8CrN9gNNP
The 49ers are the fourth-oldest roster when adjusted for playing time. For the record, at the end of pre-season when roster cuts were completed, San Francisco’s average age (not adjusted) of their full 53-man unit was 26 years, 7 months, the 12th oldest in the league.
To be clear, this isn’t some overwhelming issue that is plaguing the long-term health of the organization and needs to be addressed. San Francisco still feels like a young team.
Nick Bosa, Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, Brandon Aiyuk, and Talanoa Hufanga are pro-bowlers 26 years old or younger. Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, and Charvarius Ward join the list if extended another year. And they might still find a way to hold on to Chase Young (24) in the off-season, giving them plenty of cornerstone pieces for the future.
Oh, and did we mention Brock Purdy? Perhaps the biggest advantage the 49ers have to roster construction is that they have a franchise quarterback on a rookie deal. Not just a rookie deal, but the cheapest starting quarterback salary in the league.
That isn’t something the team will be able to claim for long, as Purdy’s play will be worthy of a hefty extension within the next two off-seasons (even though his contract isn’t up until 2026).
And that’s why the talent + age of the 49ers roster could be a double-edged sword. Credit again to the Niners ownership and executives (especially Paraag Marathe, who has been instrumental in the cap flexibility) for structuring their deals to a point where they are paying the highest or second-highest-paid EDGE, RB, FB, and LT and still have the most cap-space in 2023.
At some point, they will have to pay the piper. Young might be the priority in the 2024 off-season, as one of only two unrestricted free agents that are primary starters (the other being Tashaun Gipson). Or the team could choose to play it safe this cycle to roll over into next year and provide some cap relief, or provide the resources for bigger contracts in 2025 (Aiyuk, Greenlaw, and Hufanga will all need new deals).
Still, these metrics indicate there needs to be some forward-thinking to how the roster is shaped out after they potentially win the whole damn thing in February. The Niners have 13 players over 30 years old, including Arik Armstead who just crossed the threshold (November 15th). Eight of that group are starters.
- Trent Williams (35)
- Tashaun Gipson (33)
- Kyle Juszczyk (32)
- Kerry Hyder (32)
- Brandon Allen (31)
- Jake Brendel (31)
- Jon Feliciano (31)
- Mitch Wishnowsky (31)
- George Kittle (30)
- Javon Hargrave (30)
- Randy Gregory (30)
- George Odum (30)
- Arik Armstead (30)
Williams and Gipson have both made remarks regarding their uncertainty about playing past this season. A retirement from Williams would create an impossible hole to replace on the 49ers offensive line.
It would immediately become priority numero uno for the front office to find a quality suitor to protect Purdy’s blindside. But matching the level of play Williams brings isn’t realistic. The only positive would be that it would clear up some available funds. Gipson doesn’t command a high price-tag. Plus, the team is likely betting on the development of third rounder Ji’Ayir Brown to become the new starter if/when Gipson calls it quits.
So what about the competition? It should be noted, even if obvious, that there is almost no correlation to average roster age and success. The five youngest teams on Barnwell’s list have a combined 15-34 record this season. The general fan consensus is that the NFC lacks the true contenders the AFC claims. But that could change over the course of one off-season.
Nine of the 11 youngest snaps-adjusted teams are in the Niners conference. We could see a few of these teams go through a development spurt and push to contend with the front-runners. The top five teams, and seven of the top ten, in current 2024 NFL Draft value also come from the NFC.
So some franchises may find new centerpieces for a quick turnaround. This is far from guaranteeing these bottom feeders complete a rebuild overnight, but a new Mahomes or Burrow could find a home and quickly settle into the upper echelon of the conference.
Side note about those 11 youngest teams: all three of the 49ers division foes are among that group. Plus, two specific franchises that really stick out: Detroit and Kansas City. Both are among the top ten youngest teams and in prime positions to battle for a Super Bowl spot right now. They could provide fierce competition for San Francisco come January or February, and both teams' roster construction process is worthy of respect.