Anavarathan: John Lynch prioritizes flexibility in 49ers' biggest moves on Day 1 of NFL Free Agency
Updated: Mar 18
Coming off of a devastating Super Bowl loss, the 49ers' front office had tough choices to navigate through -- choices that would likely determine their long-term stability.
The most difficult decisions stemmed from their most dominant position group from a year ago. Defensive lineman Arik Armstead was a free agent and fellow lineman DeForest Buckner was due for a giant pay day. Former NFL Scout John Middlekauff reported that Buckner turned down over $60M in guaranteed money last offseason.
With tight end George Kittle's contract extension also in the near future, the 49ers couldn't afford to pay all three of those players.
San Francisco's brain trust likely had three options before yesterday:
1. Extend Buckner and Kittle, while placing the franchise tag and trading Armstead away for a mid-round pick likely.
2. Attempt to re-sign Armstead, while extending Buckner and Kittle, likely squeezing salary cap stability in the long-term.
3. Re-sign Armstead, extending Kittle and trading away Buckner for a first-round pick.
John Lynch, Paraag Marathe and the rest of the front office chose the option that provided them greatest flexibility with the salary cap in the future. The 49ers have never been a team that has handed out loads of guaranteed money to one player. They've prided themselves in not letting any one player sink their salary cap situation.
Their business operation has always been ahead of the curve, back-loading contracts to keep the salary cap fluid and keeping the guaranteed money lower to allow for the team to release the player at any time.
Let's get this straight: the 49ers did not choose Armstead over Buckner. They chose a slightly less talented player, the No. 13 overall pick and salary cap maneuverability in the future. In order for San Francisco to knock this trade out of the ball park, they still need to strike gold with their top-15 draft selection, but in a solid draft class, that seems highly likely.
San Francisco was able to bring back Armstead, while only giving him $48.5M guaranteed, which is going to be significantly less than what the Colts give Buckner. Marathe was also able to back-load the deal, lowering Armstead's cap hit for this season. That gave the 49ers the spending power to be able to bring back another key defensive piece -- safety Jimmie Ward.
Late into opening night, San Francisco re-signed Ward -- their versatile, speedy safety for three years. While Ward's contract structure is unclear, his annual average value ($9.5M) would be 12th among safeties.
While it's difficult to lose Buckner -- a team captain and stable force among the defensive line -- San Francisco is able to spread that capital among multiple players, while adding an extremely valuable draft asset.
The 49ers had no draft picks in the second, third or fourth round of this year's draft, but find themselves as owners of two first-round selections. While it's unclear how they handle those two picks, I predict that they'll only make one first-round selection and accumulate more mid-round assets.
Not account for Ward's signing, the 49ers will have approximately $21M of salary cap space left to spend this spring. Many would like to see San Francisco bring back wideout Emanuel Sanders, I think San Francisco should prioritize adding depth pieces along the defensive line and in the secondary.
Robert Saleh's unit was among the tops in the NFL partly because of the Nick Bosa's and Fred Warner's of the world, but also because of their deep rotation of defensive linemen that they could throw against opposing quarterbacks.
Lineman D.J. Jones will need to bounce back in 2020, because the 49ers will need to fill the void left by Buckner. Jones will be coming back from injury, but will be the primary candidate to fill the 3-technique spot left open by Buckner's departure.
For the 49ers to continue to their dominant defensive run in 2020, they will need to bring back the glue guys, like Ronald Blair III, Sheldon Day and Damontre Moore. The front office will also need to add more competition at cornerback, despite Emmanuel Moseley's growth in 2019.
Coming into Monday, the 49ers had limited salary cap space and limited draft capital, but the team didn't act from a place of fear. They quietly maneuvered (real G's move in silence?), executed their plan and now have Armstead and Ward under contract, an extra first-round pick and spending power to round out the rest of the 90-man roster.
Lynch, Marathe and the rest of the front office showed on Monday how a high-level operation functions and it's extended San Francisco's championship window.
(h/t: Getty Images' Lachlan Cunningham for the Cover Photo)