The Lynch and Shanahan strategy has been and will continue to be to win now while fielding a dominant team year after year. Sounds pretty basic but under the covers, this is very challenging in the NFL where salary caps determine how much any team can spend on players. It is significantly more complicated this year due to much lower revenues brought on by COVID thus reducing the salary cap. With the 2021 salary cap space set at $180 million, the Niners have about $16.5 million to play with. Free agency starts on March 17 and the NFL Draft takes place on April 29 – May 1. With limited dollars, the Niners must make hard decisions on which of their free agents whom they should retain, which free agents from other teams they should pursue, and whom to select in the draft.
Breaking News: The Niner cap space has been increased to $23.5 million (3/5/2021) due to players failing to meet contract incentives. This is fabulous news as it may allow the Niners to re-sign some key free agents!!!
Let’s start with the Niners 41 Free Agents. I wrote a blog at the end of December where I highlighted the Free Agents whom they should re-sign. With the salary cap, the reality is that they won’t be able to re-sign many of their key players. They will cut players to free up salary and perhaps make some eye opening trades to make even more salary room.
Jimmy Garoppolo will be one player who will not be traded or cut… at least not this year. He gives the Niners the best shot to win this year provided that he stays healthy. Jimmy G staying healthy is a big “IF” given his injury history so it is imperative that the Niners add new blood as his back-up. There is a large list of veteran QB free agents but I’ll name three who could be possibilities for the Niners to sign… Ryan Fitzpatrick from the Dolphins who made $5.5 million last year, Andy Dalton from the Cowboys who made $3 million last year and finally Alex Smith from Washington who made $15 million last year. I think all three can be signed for less than $3 million for a year as they are nearing the end of their careers. They will still be more productive than Beathard or Mullens. Alex may not want to re-join the team who cut him but I mention him as he is the ultimate mentor for young QB’s. While with the Niners, he mentored Colin Kaepernick who took the Niners to the Super Bowl and while in Kansas City, he mentored Patrick Mahomes. As these vet QB’s are not long term answers, the Niners must draft a young QB this year who they can develop and perhaps become the starter next year. The top five QB’s in the draft are Trevor Lawrence, Zack Wilson, Justin Fields, Trey Lance and Mac Jones. Lawrence and Wilson will be picked in the top 3. According to the NFL Trade Value Chart, the 2nd overall pick is worth 2,600 points. The Niner’s 12th pick is worth 1,200 points. Highly unlikely, but in theory, the Niners could offer the Jets who own the 2nd pick their 12th pick this year, their 1st round pick next year and Arik Armstead then draft Zach Wilson or Justin Fields with the 2nd pick. It all depends on how the Jets feel about Sam Darnold as their franchise QB. It also depends on how much Robert Saleh values Armstead. While with the Niners, Saleh’s priority was to build a dominant front 4. With Quinnen Williams and Armstead, the Jets will make a good front 4 a dominant one. It’ll be a dream trade for the Niners as they will be able to draft their QB of the future while freeing up Armstead’s huge 5 year/$85 million contract. Also, with this trade, they may be able to re-sign both K’Waun Williams and Jason Verrett.
If the Jets want to draft their own QB, then perhaps the Niners can trade for Darnold. They could offer Armstead in a straight-up trade. If the Jets want to keep both their 2nd pick and Darnold, the Niners next best option is to stay at 12 and draft Mac Jones if Shanahan likes him. If Shanahan doesn’t like Jones, then they can explore the vet free agents that I mentioned above. At the #12 pick, assuming that Shanahan passes on Mac Jones, I’d like to see them pick TE Kyle Pitts from Florida if he is still on the board. With Pitts, Kittle, Deebo, Aiyuk, Mostert, Wilson and Juice (if they can re-sign him), Shanahan’s offense will be unstoppable. If Pitts is off the board, then CB’s Caleb Farley, Patrick Surtain II, or JayCee Horn should be the selection. Niners should draft another O-lineman but not in the first round. Some draft boards have the Niners selecting T Rashawn Slater from Northwestern at #12. While he is very good and has the versatility of being able to play Tackle, Guard or Center, QB and CB are higher priority.
Speaking of the Niner’s O-Line, they are in fairly decent shape. It’ll be great if they can re-sign LT Trent Williams, however, he’ll be asking in the neighborhood of $19 million per year for multiple years. Trent’s PFF rating of 91.9 was the best in the NFL. If he leaves for a better offer, then Slater may be the choice at #12. If Williams leaves, the Niners should then re-sign Ben Garland to play Center and Daniel Brunskill (PFF grade of 61.7 at Center) to play Left Tackle. Brunskill played 366 snaps at Tackle and allowed only 5 pressures and 1 sack. The Niners should also move RT Mike McGlinchey (PFF grade of 79.7) inside to RG and Slater to RT. McGlinchey is a great run blocker but a piss-poor pass blocker and a reason that Garoppolo can’t stay upright. Niners can look at Falcon’s C Alex Mack as a free agent signing also. He is the only free agent that I think makes sense for the Niners from a financial perspective. Mack is past his prime but can still play. He and Garland can hold down the Center spot and can back each other up in case of injury. The Niners will release C Weston Richburg who has had an injury plagued career as a Niner. They will save about $8 million in salary cap by releasing Richburg. Colton McKivitz was drafted in the 5th round last year who the Niners are high on. He got some playing time last year due to injuries and he didn’t impress me. Hoping that he has developed during the off season.
On the D-Line, the Niners will welcome back Nick Bosa with opened arms. Can’t say the same for Dee Ford who has become a big bust. They will certainly release Ford and eat his remaining salary. If they cut him prior to June 1, they will save $6.4 million in cap space and $16 million after June 1. If the Jets trade involving Arik Armstead comes to fruition, then I believe that they’ll be able to re-sign D.J. Jones, Kevin Givens and Ronald Blair along with Verrett and K’Waun and perhaps even Kerry Hyder who had an outstanding year for the Niners playing Dee Ford’s spot.
In another late breaking news which on the surface may seem insignificant, the Niners signed both S Marcell Harris and TE Ross Dwelley to 1 year extensions. Under the surface, what this may signal is that S Jaquiski Tartt and FB Kyle Juszczyk may not be extended. While Juice is the best FB in the business, the salary cap constraints may not allow the Niners to keep him. Verrett and K’Waun are higher priority. Dwelley played FB when Juice was hurt and did a decent job so this is what the Niners may be thinking.
While the Niners are limited to what they can do with $23.5 million in cap space money, there are plenty of other teams that are in cap space hell…
- The Saints are $66.4 million over the cap.
- The Rams are $27.6 million over the cap.
- The Chiefs are $18.6 million over the cap.
- The Falcons are $15.9 million over the cap.
- The Packers are $5.8 million over the cap.
The teams with cap space wiggle room…
- The Seahawks have $11.1 million to work with.
- The Cardinals have $17.3 million to work with.
- The Buccaneers have $24 million to work with.
The teams that have the most cap space…
- The Jaguars have $77.5 million to work with.
- The Colts have $69.2 million to work with.
- The Jets have $68 million to work with.
- The Patriots have $62.8 million to work with.
- The Washington Football Team have $39.6 million to work with.
In the NFC West, the Rams are capped out and won’t be able to improve. Additionally, they won’t have high draft picks for years to come. If the Rams don’t win this year, their decline will be steep in the following years. The Seahawks have some wiggle room but are on the hook to pay Jamal Adams who will be demanding at least $20 million per year over at least 5 years. There goes the Seahwks wiggle room. This is why Russell Wilson is so unhappy. He will continue to be the most sacked QB in the league despite his mobility. The Cardinals spent their wiggle room on J.J. Watts.
Of the teams that have the most cap space, the Colts and Jets are in great positions to improve the most. The Patriots will make some aggressive moves but they simply don’t have any solutions at QB. The Jags are the Jags… enough said.
The Buccaneers are in a great spot to be able to re-sign some of their free agents and will be in the hunt again.
The Saints best years are behind them.
While the Chiefs will be great again next year, I look for them to fall back into the pack the following years due to their cap space issues. They simply won’t be able to re-sign their star players surrounding Mahomes.
Plenty of news going on in the NFL with the impending free agency looming along with the NFL Draft. And the drama with DeShawn Watson and Russell Wilson will not go away any time soon.
So stay tuned to another episode of “As the World Turns” or in the case of Kyrie Irving, “As the World Flips”.