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The 49ers came agonizingly close to winning a Super Bowl in 2019, and bringing the squad back to make another run seems to be the most popular sentiment coming out of Santa Clara, but is that possible?
By all accounts, the 49ers had an exceptional locker room last season; there were no reports of anyone wanting out or anything of the sort, everyone appears to be ready for the legendary revenge tour. Heading into the 2020 league year, the 49ers have more free agents (22) than salary cap space ($13.1 million), so prioritizing their free agents is going to be key to the team’s success going forward. NFL free agents are divided into three categories, unrestricted, restricted, and exclusive-rights.
When it comes to prioritizing there are many theories on how to order a “to-do” list to be most effective. For the purposes of this exercise, the easiest decisions come first and those are the exclusive rights free agents. Exclusive rights free agents (ERFA) are players with fewer than three years accrued service time whose contracts have expired. Players falling into this category have no negotiating rights with other teams, so they will either be tendered a contract at the league minimum salary for their service time or they will be released making them free to negotiate with other teams.
The 49ers have six ERFAs this year:
Nick Mullens, quarterback
Jeff Wilson, running back
Ross Dwelley, tight end
Emmanuel Moseley, cornerback
Andrew Lauderdale, right guard
Daniel Brunskill, offensive lineman
For the Niners, it is a no-brainer decision to bring all of their exclusive-rights free agents back.
When it comes to the team’s three restricted free agents, Kendrick Bourne, Matt Breida, and Elijah Lee, the decisions are made slightly more difficult because there is an extra variable involved. The 49ers can retain the right to match another team’s offer to one of their restricted free agents by placing either a first-, second- or original-round tender on the player, and if the Niners decide not to match they would receive draft pick compensation that matches the tender e.g., a first-, second- or original-round (a draft pick from the same round the player was drafted; if the player was undrafted there would be no compensation).
The salary structure of the restricted free agent tenders gives the 49ers cost certainty while trying to budget for the unrestricted free agents. Kendrick Bourne will be an interesting player to watch in the couple of weeks. Bourne has been productive enough to warrant a second-round tender, which would pay him approximately $3.278 million in 2020, but not so productive that the 49ers would match another team’s offer. A second-round draft pick, in this draft, with this receiver class would be difficult to turndown.
At the midway point of the 2019 season, Matt Breida would have been a lock to get second-round tender, but after some fumbling issues and some time in Kyle Shanahan’s doghouse an original-round tender might be the best-case scenario for him. The 49ers would run the risk of losing Breida without compensation, but the $1.1 million in salary cap savings is worth the risk.
Linebacker Elijah Lee, the third of the team’s restricted free agents is most likely a non-tender candidate at this point in his career, especially for a team that will be looking to save money against the salary cap wherever possible. Lee’s production can easily be replaced by a draft pick with more upside.
The unrestricted free agent class is where the real prioritizing takes place because the team is not going to be able to keep everyone. The thirteen unrestricted free agents can be broken down into three categories for the purposes of this exercise:
The “Replaceables” are players that will be allowed to test the market and, in all likelihood, find new homes:
The “better to have and not need than to need and not have” are players that can be signed for the veteran minimum salary but are not a lock to make the initial 53-man roster:
The remaining free agents should be ordered like the menu at a Chinese food restaurant: “one from column A and one from column B.” In this scenario, Arik Armstead is in “column A.” Armstead was a big part of the 49ers defense in 2019 and there is no question that the team wants him back, but re-signing Armstead, who led the Niners in sacks last season, will likely stress the 49ers already bulging salary cap to the point where there is not much room for anything else. Emmanuel Sanders, Jimmie Ward, and Ronald Blair comprise column “B,” and an argument could be made that keeping two of these three (or perhaps all three) might have a bigger impact on the team than keeping Armstead alone.
Sanders solidified the wide receiver group after being acquired from Denver mid-season and the team is without an in-house option to fill that role. Jimmie Ward was a steadying presence for the secondary, but the 49ers could turn to Tarvarius Moore, who started the first three games in Ward’s absence last year, to fill that spot should Ward leave in free agency, and the season-ending injury suffered by Ronald Blair was a tremendous blow to the team and greatly affected the defensive line depth down the stretch and in the playoffs.
The calculus for the 49ers is going to come down to weighing depth versus frontline talent and the ability to replace the talent that leaves. The priority should be to get the Arik Armstead situation resolved first, which would likely mean that they will franchise tag and trade him (unless the Sacramento, California, native takes a deep discount to stay with his hometown team). Once the Armstead situation has been resolved the others should fall into place.
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