Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
The dead period of the NFL season, the time between the Super Bowl and the start of free agency, lends itself to idle chatter. It’s a basic scientific principle: without any concrete news of player movement to occupy NFL Twitter, fans take it upon themselves to fill the space with talk of who signs where and for how much.
Among 49ers fans, much of the talk during this period centers around which of the team’s free agents will be back next year and who might be playing elsewhere. Of the 49ers’ 24 free agents, 15 are unrestricted, three are restricted free agents and six are of the Exclusive Rights variety (I wrote about the distinctions of those categories here).
This offseason will be different from others in recent Niner history. For the first time in a while, the team has players worth hanging on to and very limited salary cap space with which to do so. The 49ers currently have $12,108,031 in cap space to re-sign or sign free agents and their incoming draft class.
The 49ers’ chief contract negotiator, Paraag Marathe, will earn his paycheck this year.
The easiest decision the team faces will be what to do with their exclusive rights free agents (ERFA), many of whom contributed to the Super Bowl run and all of whom can be retained on minimum contracts.
Likewise, the restricted free agent group makes for some relatively easy decisions: bringing back wide receiver Kendrick Bourne on a second-round tender with a price tag of $3.278 million and running back Matt Breida on a $2.144 million original-round tender are pretty simple. Linebacker Elijah Lee could be a salary cap casualty, however.
Before the 49ers can realistically engage in meaningful contract talks with their unrestricted free agents, they are going to have to create some salary cap room by restructuring some contracts and extending others.
Under Marathe, the 49ers have used a pay-as-you-go strategy when it comes to the structure of their contracts, choosing to rely on roster bonuses rather than signing bonuses when providing upfront money. With a roster bonus the money is charged to the current season’s salary cap, whereas a signing bonus is paid up front but the amount of the bonus that is counted against the salary cap is spread equally over the length of the contract.
The time has come for Marathe to adjust his sails as the winds have shifted a bit.
DeForest Buckner should be first up for a new contract. Buckner is under contract for 2020 at a base salary of $14.36 million, and by extending him the Niners could significantly lower his salary cap figure in the coming year and give the team more room to fit additional contracts under the cap.
What could a potential Buckner extension look like?
There are three contracts that were recently signed that DeForest Buckner and his representatives will be looking to as the benchmarks for an extension. Aaron Donald is widely considered to be the best defensive lineman in the NFL and in August of 2018 he signed a contract extension that paid him like it. Donald’s six-year, $135 million contact includes $50 million in guaranteed money and has an average annual value (AAV) of $22.5 million, but because Donald plays more of a hybrid defensive end/defensive tackle role for his team, his deal is not a perfect comparison.
For a more direct comparison, the contracts of Fletcher Cox (six years, $102.6 million/$36.3 guaranteed/$17.1 million AAV; signed in June of 2016) and Grady Jarrett (four years, $68 million/$38 million guaranteed/$17 million AAV; signed in July of 2019) should be what the 49ers and Buckner’s agents are working from. Jarrett’s $38 million guarantee represents a high among 4-3 defensive tackles while Cox’s contract is the highest in total value and average annual value.
Paraag Marathe could work his contract wizardry on a deal for Buckner. A new six-year contract worth $108 million with $65 million guaranteed, would give Buckner the highest total value, and highest average annual value among his positional group and top Donald’s total in guaranteed money, and by including a signing bonus that encompasses the $14.36 million he was scheduled to earn this year and a smaller base salary in 2020. Buckner’s salary cap number for the 2020 season (currently $14.36 million) would be significantly lower, giving the team more cap room to maneuver.
Another player who could be in line for an extension to provide some salary cap relief is fullback Kyle Juszczyk. Juszczyk is in the final year of a four-year $21 million (total value) contract, which is two and half times larger than the next highest paid player at his position. “Juice,” as he is called by teammates and fans, has just over $5 million dollars in base salary on the books in 2020 and even though he is uniquely talented, the list of teams that use a fullback at all is very short and the list of teams that would fully utilize his talents is even shorter. Signing an extension that lowers his salary cap hit from $6.7 million this season might be preferable to hitting free agency when the options are limited.
Emmanuel Sanders came over from Denver in a mid-season trade to add stability to the receiving corps and it’s fair to say the 49ers would not have made it to the Super Bowl if they had not acquired him, but the Niners paid a hefty price (their third- and fourth-round picks for Sanders and Denver’s fifth-round pick) for a player who could leave as a free agent after the season. During his introductory press conference in Santa Clara, Sanders said, “I only got two more years left, or three more years left, of playing football” and stated that winning and being happy was more important than money at this stage of his career. Sanders has a chance to back up his words this offseason because if he is to return to the Niners it is going to be on a short term, below-market-value contract.
Sanders, who turns 33 on March 17, is a bit long in the tooth for a wide receiver, and he could see re-signing as his best opportunity to win another Super Bowl. A three-year contract in the range of $5-6 million a year with a guarantee of $9-12 million might be feasible for the 49ers to bring back a productive guy who can mentor the young receivers.
Jimmie Ward is perhaps the most complicated of the 49ers upcoming contract decisions. On one hand, Ward was a key reason the 49ers’ secondary was so much improved over 2018. On the other hand, Ward has been plagued by injuries, playing all 16 games just once in in his six-year career (his second season) and playing in just 64 of a possible 96 games. In 2019, he missed the first three games of the season with a broken finger after missing most of camp with a broken collarbone. Ward showed that he can play at a high level, but will the Niners feel comfortable investing in him? It is likely that the team allows Ward to hit the open market to see what kind of interest there is from other teams before engaging in contract talks. The safety market has been stagnant the past couple of years, so it is hard to see Ward breaking the bank. It is entirely possible that the best Ward can do is another one-year contract with a decent amount of per game roster bonuses.
Arik Armstead is literally and figuratively the biggest free agent the 49ers have; he picked the best possible time to have a career year and he is poised to cash in as a free agent. Given the make up of the roster in both the short- and long-term it is unlikely that Armstead is back on a multi-year contract, but he has expressed an openness to coming back on the franchise tag. With a likely franchise tag number of $19.316 million, even that may be difficult. At this time last year, the 49ers were the beneficiary of a similar situation between the Chiefs and Dee Ford and the Niners were able to acquire Ford for a second-round pick. If Paraag Marathe’s wizardry cannot find a way to fit Armstead under the cap, perhaps he can be traded in exchange for some desperately needed draft capital.
The most important contract that should get done this offseason is an extension for tight end George Kittle, who has one year remaining on his rookie contract. Kittle has proven himself to be the best tight end in football and is poised to completely reset the market for the position.
Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce currently has the largest contract in terms of total value (five years, $46.8 million) at the position. Kittle is looking to run through that the way he does NFL defenses. Because the 49ers are pushing the boundaries of the salary cap it makes sense for the two sides to agree to a five-year extension of Kittle’s current contract (as opposed to tearing up his current one). The 49ers are in a tricky spot with Kittle because he is the number-one receiving option and might be looking for number-one-receiver money ($16-18 million per year), which greatly exceeds the top end of the market at his position. A five-year extension of his current deal (in order to keep his 2020 cap number where it is, at $2.218 million) for $67.5 million total (a 44 percent increase over the current leader at the position), with $34 million guaranteed (a 71 percent increase), a $13.5 million average annual value, which is a 35% increase over the highest AAV currently at the position, plus a $17 million roster bonus payable in April 2021, might check enough boxes to come to an agreement.
The only thing that is certainty in the upcoming contract “season” is that Paraag Marathe is going to be very busy.
All salary and salary cap figures are courtesy of over the cap unless otherwise noted.
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