The 49ers, perhaps with a little lighthearted foreshadowing, made a splash right in the middle of the Super Bowl parade, signing quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to the richest deal in NFL history. With the contract finally being completed, the 49ers are no longer the wealthiest team heading into the free-agent period, but remain among the top five.
Chief contract negotiator and salary cap architect Paraag Marathe said the 49ers have about $62-63 million, which includes the 2018 rookie class they'll have to sign (in actuality, they have about $74 million right now, tied for second with the Colts). David Fucillo of Niners Nation put together a comprehensive breakdown of where things stand.
Now with the deal done, that begs the question, how do the 49ers stack up with the competition as they try to pitch free agents in March? Considering their capital, needs and overall team situation, here is a glance at the top five teams with the most salary cap space.
Browns - $110M
Needs: QB, RB, LB, CB
Having a front office that features John Dorsey as GM and Scot McCloughan as a consultant is a thing of Madden dynasty modes. These two are proven team builders on their own, so there's the belief that the personnel will get better under their watch. And rostered already, the Browns have one of the NFL's up and coming pass rushers in Myles Garrett, to go along with Danny Shelton and Emmanuel Ogbah. And this is a team that could soon feature Baker Mayfield, Josh Gordon and Saquon Barkley on offense, if it chooses. That said, their drawbacks are that they're coming off an 0-16 season, the brand remains a tough sell for free agents, and coach Hue Jackson has demonstrated terrible player management.
Colts - $77M
Needs: WR, OL, LB, CB
Indianapolis is off to the worst offseason start of any team in the league, having been burned badly by Josh McDaniels, who pulled out as head coach after the team went public with the announcement. The club still doesn't have anybody in place to wear the headset next year. Beyond that, the mystery of Andrew Luck's health has to be a huge question for any potential free agent, especially offensive players that are looking to block for or catch passes from No. 12. Luck was the reason Frank Gore spurned Philly for Indy last minute, and wound up on a 4-12 team instead of a Super Bowl champion. Luck can't be a lure in 2018. So, the Colts have no real foundation on offense or on defense. Their best defensive player might be 21-year-old Malik Hooker, and he only started six NFL games before landing on IR. Compounding that, owner Jim Irsay is repellent, and has been for years. Their only ace in the hole is new general manager Chris Ballard, who seems qualified and determined.
49ers - $74M
Needs: RB, OL, EDGE, CB
Like John Lynch said, "It's 75 degrees and sunny outside, we've got [Jimmy Garoppolo], who wouldn't want to be here?" The GM has a point. The 49ers finished as the hottest team in the regular season, going 5-0 and beating three playoff teams in the process. And by the look of that stretch, they may have a top-10 or even top-5 level quarterback for the next decade. Free agents know the importance of the quarterback position, and having one that's 26 with Garoppolo's potential is going to be the single most advantageous thing for any team this offseason. Added to that, the weather and lifestyle is a huge lure, players want to suit up for Kyle Shanahan, the defense took a significant step forward in 2017, and the Cardinals and Seahawks are not what they once were. The drawbacks? The Rams are going to be a test year in and year out, and Bay Area living is expensive.
Jets - $73M
Needs: QB, OL, EDGE, LB, CB
This New England dynasty may be ending in a couple short years, so there is room for a new top dog in the AFC East. With their cap space and the No. 6 overall pick — plus the fight they showed all season with Josh McCown at the helm, and having a young leader and force on defense in Jamal Adams — the Jets could position themselves to be that team. That's the sell, the eventual divisional takeover. Now, when it comes to the 49ers, the Jets may not be in their way as much, as most of their funds could go toward signing a free-agent quarterback, maybe even Kirk Cousins. But there is a chance they find themselves competing for corners and interior offensive linemen. At that point though, all John Lynch has to do is compare New Jersey weather and California weather.
Buccaneers - $60M
Needs: RB, EDGE, CB, S
The Bucs should've been good in 2017, but only managed five wins. They have several pieces at cornerstone positions, including league elites in wide receiver Mike Evans, linebacker Kwon Alexander and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. It brought DeSean Jackson there last year, who was one of the big gets in free agency, and he was as optimistic as anyone. If you caught even one episode of HBO's Hard Knocks, you could see the team was all in, particularly because of Jameis Winston. But throughout the year, they were out of sync, constantly misfiring. The only positives came in flashes. So, for free agents this year, it has to be kind of unsettling that they could appear so close but underperform to such a degree. Not to mention, this team has Carolina, New Orleans and Atlanta to compete with.
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