Kurtenbach: What moves will the 49ers make this offseason? Six predictions
SANTA CLARA — My unsolicited advice to the 49ers’ brain trust of Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch after the Super Bowl was to heed the lesson of the game and be aggressive this offseason.
But that’s not what I expect out of the 49ers this offseason after conversations with people who know this stuff better than I.
As such, I expect the Niners to stand relatively pat.
This isn’t to say that they won’t be interested in some of the bigger-name external options in free agency and in possible trades, but the way things appear to be shaking out, the gang looks to be getting back together in 2020.
Here are six things I expect to happen:
Jimmy Garoppolo signs a new contract
Oh, you thought that the 49ers were going to move on from their quarterback after his disastrous fourth quarter in the Super Bowl? You truly consume too much national media and Twitter.
No, Garoppolo is sticking around and I expect him to sign a two-year contract extension with the 49ers this offseason.
The new deal will be presented by the 49ers as a show of confidence in their QB1, who just ended his first full season as the team’s starter and boasts a 21-6 record at the helm.
But the real reason behind this extension is that it can clear some up some salary-cap space for the 49ers — best-case scenario, just shy of $20 million.
The 49ers fashioned an escape hatch into Garoppolo’s first contract with the team — the one that made him the highest-paid player in the NFL for a hot minute. It could be opened this offseason. Starting in 2020, Garoppolo’s pay is almost all base salary, meaning that if the 49ers cut him, they’re on the hook for little against the cap.
But they’re not going to cut him this year or after next year, either. Garoppolo might not be transcendent, but there aren’t upgrades available for the foreseeable future. The Niners won’t be in a position to draft a quarterback early going forward and better quarterbacks than Garoppolo never hit the open market as free agents. This is their guy, for better or for worse.
And by restructuring and adding a couple of years to his contract, the 49ers can convert those upcoming Garoppolo base salaries to bonuses and clear up a ton of cap space. Garoppolo might even be able to get a slight pay-bump out of the deal.
Now, the quarterback might want to bet on himself after this season and be in a position for a mega-deal from San Francisco — it would be the prudent thing to do in his spot — but he’s a team player and learned from his years with the Patriots that avarice doesn’t pay.
Given everything else the 49ers have to do this offseason to merely keep the band together, I expect them to make this new deal happen before $15.7 million of his 2020 salary becomes guaranteed on April 1 (per Over The Cap).
The Niners could also do a deal like this with Dee Ford, but I don’t expect that to go down. Given Ford’s health, the 49ers would be unwise to tie themselves to him beyond the 2020 season.
Kyle Juszczyk signs a new deal
A smaller deal and a lesser ordeal, but this is another move that can save the 49ers some cash for this upcoming offseason.
Juice has a team option for 2020 that will assuredly be picked up by the Niners, but much like with Garoppolo, San Francisco isn’t going to be moving on from the 28-year-old anytime soon. As such, they can likely spread out the $6.8 million he’ll count against the cap this upcoming season over the next few years.
Every dollar matters for the 49ers, and a new Juszczyk deal could be the difference in signing some of the lower-level free agents the 49ers want to keep around.
With the savings from a new Juice deal, I expect San Francisco to re-sign Ronald Blair, Ben Garland, and Damontre Moore this offseason.
DeForest Buckner signs a mega-extension
This is the 49ers’ top priority this offseason, as Buckner deserves a new, big-money deal and signing him to an extension can clear cap space in the present. Win-win.
I’m expecting a five-year deal that’s close to $90 million with almost $50 million in guaranteed money. Seeing as it’s the 49ers, there will certainly be trap doors in the contract, but the length and the guaranteed money are important in the present-day cap gymnastics the Niners will need to do.
Buckner is set to be paid $14.36 million — all against the cap — on his fifth-year option. The extension could push that cap hit below $10 million.
George Kittle sets the tight end market (and it’ll be a bargain)
Let’s be clear about this: the 49ers do not need to extend Kittle.
The fifth-round draft pick carries a cap hit of less than $810,000 for next year. While other extensions would save the 49ers money, any new deal with the tight end would bring a dramatic, 10x increase.
The Niners could wait it out, but locking up Kittle would be the prudent move long-term. Not only is it the right thing to do for the team’s best player, but it’s a smart buy. Kittle is likely to re-set the tight end market, but that market is bound to explode in the coming years as the position becomes more and more valued around the league. If the 49ers wait, they might find themselves with a $15 million a year tight end.
Strike now and split the difference between the current market rate (around $11 million) and the market forecast — four years, $52 million. It’s a fair deal for both sides.
Jimmie Ward signs a team-friendly deal
The 49ers are going to be helped by the market here.
Ward, an unrestricted free agent, is a vital part of the team’s defense at free safety and neither Tarvarius Moore and Marcell Harris appear ready to take over for him at that spot. He needs to stick around if the 49ers are going to return to the Super Bowl.
But his injury history and the market for safeties work against him. The elite players are paid, but there are outstanding safeties, like Ward, that have sat unsigned until training camp.
I expect Ward to nearly double his $4.5 million in base salary from last year, but I also expect the 49ers to try to pinch pennies here — not because Ward isn’t valuable, but because as an organization, they don’t pay any more than they must.
The term is also important. Any other season, a one-year deal would seem likely, but given the Niners’ cap crunch, my read is that he’s re-signed for two years and $16 million total.
Emmanuel Sanders signs with… the 49ers
Let’s go behind the curtain for a bit: I fully expected to write that the 49ers would sign or trade for a big-name wide receiver this offseason.
Sanders is a really good player whose impact went underrated outside of the Niners’ facility last season, but going for big game at his position would take the Niners’ offense to another level. By letting Sanders walk in the process, San Francisco could create the salary cap space to make such a big-name signing happen. It’d be the kind of aggressive play that I called on Shanahan and Lynch to make this offseason.
But you have to test your hypothesis, and after a week of DMs, texts, and calls where I probably sounded like a loon (more so than usual), I simply don’t see it happening.
Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs, an elite receiver who knows how to play in a Shanahan-style system (many wide receivers don’t), isn’t likely to be traded. If he is traded, it’d likely require a first-round pick (something the Niners can’t afford to squander given their lack of picks in the second, third, and fourth rounds this year), and he’s unlikely to go to to a conference rival who the Vikings know would get the most out of him.
Yes, Diggs is the ideal receiver for the 49ers — that’s why he won’t be a Niner.
Amari Cooper would be an outstanding addition, but he’s likely to command close to $20 million a season on the open market (if he’s not franchise tagged). There’s only one receiver worth that much to Shanahan: Julio Jones. I think Cooper gets a bad rap, but it’s fair to say he’s no Julio.
AJ Green could come in at roughly the same salary as Sanders, but it sounds like he’s unlikely to leave Cincinnati and his injury history is even more concerning than Sanders’. Beyond that, there are fair questions about his physicality matching what the Niners need from their receivers in the run game. Sanders is an elite run blocker and tough as nails.
With no clear-cut upgrades available at a reasonable price, and Sanders unlikely to find a four-year pledge from a team, I expect the receiver to re-sign with the Niners on a two-year, $19 million contract.
Arik Armstead is franchise tagged
This is the big one. What do the Niners do with Armstead, who was outstanding this past season but had nine sacks in the 46 games preceding it?
Well, this is why the franchise tag was created.
A long-term extension would cost the 49ers’ less money against the 2020 salary cap — an option that will certainly be explored — but committing to Armstead long-term is a bold play that could kneecap the 49ers in the future.
Tagging and then trading Armstead is another option for the 49ers, but given that this team’s identity is its defensive line, possibly taking a step back there in 2020 is not something that should be considered.
Letting Armstead walk and then signing a replacement is tricky, too. Unless the Niners can identify someone who can do what Armstead does as well for less, they’d likely be jeopardizing that identity. Let’s go one step deeper: The Niners, at their core, believe in rushing four and moving guys around that line. Armstead is a perfect fit for that. Chris Jones is a better lineman than Armstead and he might only cost a smidge more than the franchise tag number, but he’s an interior rusher whose ability at defensive end is really limited to five-technique. He’s an elite player, but he’s not worth the risk.
Jadaveon Clowney is likely to command as much as $20 million in free agency, but he, like Armstead, has proven to be inconsistent in his career. Yes, he can slide inside and out, but with his injury history, I doubt the 49ers would be willing to even attempt to swap one for the other. Too risky.
San Francisco would be best served to have Armstead play for a premium on a prove-it tag. After all, there’s no such thing as a bad one-year deal.