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With seventeen of twenty-two starters returning, 2020 was supposed to be all about taking advantage of a Super Bowl that was opened by a 13-2 season and a run to the big game. Instead of ransacking their way back to the Super Bowl on a “Revenge Tour,” the 49ers had to seek temporary refuge in the home of a division rival thanks to a global pandemic and wound-up quarantining with the injury bug.
The 49ers are 5-8 with three weeks left in an all-but-lost season. When it ends will it also be the end of the team’s championship window?
For the first time since the salary cap was implemented in 1994, the cap is scheduled to be lower than it was the year before, which could create some issues for the Niners who have 33 players under contract for the 2021 season.
The brain trust that is the 49ers front office will have their work cut out for them this off-season identifying and holding onto the players that will comprise the core of the team for not just the coming season but for years to come.
Among the team’s 39 unrestricted, restricted and exclusive rights free agents, Trent Williams is priority number one. The 49ers traded a fifth-round pick in 2020 and a third-round pick in 2021 for Williams in order to replace the retired Joe Staley. Williams, who turned 32 in July, is on the short list of top offensive tackles in the NFL and needs to be one of the core pieces for the next three to four seasons.
A desire for Williams to spend the rest of his career in a 49er uniform appears to be something that both Williams and the team have in common.
A newly signed Williams would join George Kittle and Nick Bosa as core members of the team under contract for at least the next three seasons (Bosa is slated to be an unrestricted free agent in 2023 if the team does not pick up his fifth-year option).
Fred Warner’s rookie contract expires at the end of the 2021 season, so an extension for Warner, so that he can join Kittle, Bosa and hopefully Williams as a member of the long-term core, should be priority 1-b. Warner, a third-round pick out of BYU, has earned the respect of his teammates and opponents, playing his way to the top of the heap for NFL linebackers. Warner is set to become the league’s highest paid player the position whether he inks a new this off-season or next the only question is: how much will it cost? The longer the 49ers wait, the more Warner’s price will go up.
A trio of players on their rookie contracts are among the core players the Niners will be building around going forward: wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, and defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw.
Samuel, in his second year out of the University of South Carolina, is a true tone-setter for the offense with his versatile and physical play. The difference in the 49ers’ offense when Samuel is in the lineup versus when he has missed games is apparent to the naked eye, no analytics are needed. The only thing that would keep Samuel from being a core piece going forward will be injuries.
Brandon Aiyuk, who turned a lot of heads in training camp with the number of passes that were thrown his way, was considered a reach by some when the 49ers traded up to the 25th selection to take him, but after a slow start Aiyuk is within reach of Jerry Rice’s team record for receiving yards by a rookie, needing 267 yards in the final three games. Aiyuk, whom Kyle Shanahan compared to Pro Football Hall of Famer Isaac Bruce, is on track to be the true wide receiver one that the fans have been clamoring for since Terrell Owens left.
Javon Kinlaw came into this season with unfortunate task of having to directly fill the shoes of DeForest Buckner, who was a cornerstone of the 49ers defense a year ago, and all the expectations that come along with it. Kinlaw, who has tremendous physical gifts but is also raw in terms of his technique, has steadily progressed throughout the season. While it may still be too early to anoint Kinlaw at this point, he is bull-rushing his way towards being a big part of the team’s future.
Conspicuously absent from this discussion of the core pieces of future 49er teams has been the quarterback. All signs point to the starting quarterback of the 2023 49ers not currently being on the roster. Jimmy Garoppolo’s contract has two years remaining on it, but his struggles with consistency and injuries have cast doubt on his future with the team. After the 2020 season the Niners can move on from Garoppolo with a small dead cap charge of $2.8 million and a net cap savings of $24.1 million. The fact that the 49ers did not restructure Garoppolo’s deal to give themselves more cap space, especially in a season in which they ran out of cap space, speaks more loudly than some are willing to acknowledge. Until the 49ers find a quarterback worth putting at the center of the solid core they have amassed, the core will be incomplete.
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