Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
This fourth part transitions the conversation from the offensive to the defensive side of the game. We will continue to look at the 2019 season performances and the players’ contracts to see who the San Francisco 49ers are most likely to keep and who may be let go or not re-signed. We’ll start out in this episode with the much-heralded defensive line.
* Denotes an fifth year team option can be added to the remaining years to the contract
Along with the wide receiver group the defensive line group is the most talked about bunch of players the 49ers employ. With five former first-round picks (DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, and Solomon Thomas) competing for four starting positions last year, the defense saw an uptick in sacks, pressures, and quarterback hurries. The trade for Ford, followed by the drafting of the legend-to-be Bosa, gave players like Armstead the ability to wreak havoc in ways they had never done before. The 49ers front office truly went into last offseason with the idea that you cannot have too many pass rushers, dedicating their 2019 first round pick (second overall) to Bosa, after trading away their 2020 second round draft pick for Ford. When both players were on the field, the defensive line, and the defense as a whole, were just simply unstoppable.
The problem was injuries. The 49ers were without a large number of their defensive linemen for varying amounts of time. Ford, D.J. Jones, Ronald Blair, and Sheldon Day all missed time, and even backup Damontre Moore, who was signed back to the club after Ford’s initial injury, played only one game before suffering a season-ending injury. Luckily for the 49ers, their continual stockpiling of DL players has created quite a large amount of depth behind those five first round draft picks.
This may come into factor with how head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch go about handling their own big-name free agent this off-season in Armstead, who is coming off of his best season of his career, something every player dreams of doing in a contract year. He led the team in sacks (10) and was second among the DL in tackles (54). His length and athletic ability make him nearly impossible to block in the run game, and his ability to beat players one-on-one, especially tight ends, makes him a tough blocking assignment in the passing game as well. His ability to play defensive tackle and defensive end make him somewhat of a premium commodity in the NFL as well.
All of those things might actually work against him actually coming back in to the organization to continue their goal of creating a dynasty. Unless he’s willing to take below-market value to continue playing next to his good friend and college teammate Buckner, the 49ers don’t even have the ability to re-sign him on the franchise tag, something they would almost certainly have to do. For his part, Armstead has spoken well of the organization and expressed a desire to return, but everyone knows that athletes cash in when the opportunity presents itself. The best chance the team has of re-signing Armstead is signing Buckner to an extension and dropping his cap hit in 2020. Doing that would allow them to re-sign Armstead and have a little bit of money left over to possibly re-sign the likes of Ronald Blair III, Sheldon Day, or Jimmie Ward at the safety position.
Some people have speculated that the team should cut Ford, which would save them nearly ten million dollars in salary cap space, but that seems pretty crazy just one year after trading away a second-round draft pick for him. The statistics also don’t back up that type of thinking. When Ford and Bosa were both on the field together, the defense was historically good. Taking Ford off of the field, for example the second half of last season, sacks and the efficiency of the pass defense overall decreased. Even though Ford has shown to struggle to stay on the field for a full 16-game season, if the team can keep his snap count to a number where he stays fresh and healthy all season, the defense is at its best.
A player they could attempt to trade and make a bit of cap savings is Solomon Thomas. He has been disappointing up to this point, but he has also been played out of position and dealt with incredible personal issues. The team may attempt to get a day-two or day-three draft pick for Thomas, cutting their losses and saving some money towards re-signing Armstead, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, and/or Ward.
Whatever the team decides to do with its pending free agents, it would be a surprise for any of the players under contract besides Thomas to not return to the team for the 2020 season, and I fully expect Lynch and Shanahan to attempt to bring back all of their defensive lineman.
The big question is: can they actually fit the gigantic Armstead under the salary cap?
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