General manager John Lynch and the San Francisco 49ers are doing everything possible to get further below the $182.5 million NFL salary cap ahead of the start of free agency next week.
At issue here for the 49ers and pretty much every other team is the lowered salary cap due to the COVID-19 pandemic and revenue shortfall that came with it.
Prior to the pandemic becoming official a year ago this week, teams were preparing for the cap to be well over $200 million. It’s one of the financial backdrops around the sports world.
For San Francisco specifically, the need to re-sign core free agents coupled with hitting the market at least somewhat aggressively is key to the team returning to Super Bowl contention. The 49ers took a step in the right direction on Saturday.
San Francisco 49ers Restructure Weston Richburg’s Contract
According to multiple media reports, this move will save San Francisco $6.88 million against the cap. In turn, Richburg is likely to retire after missing all of last season with a knee injury. Richburg, 29, also underwent hip surgery earlier in March.
By virtue of this move, the 49ers are $31.29 million under the 2021 NFL salary cap with the free-agent negotiating window set to open on Monday. It also creates somewhat of a need at center (more on that below).
As for Richburg, his career will come to an end after seven seasons. He was originally a second-round pick of the New York Giants back in 2014. The Kentucky product spent four seasons with New York before signing a five-year, $47.5 million contract with San Francisco back in 2018.
Alex Mack Becomes A Solid Option To Replace Weston Richburg
San Francisco has internal options to take over for Richburg. That includes pending free agents Ben Garland and Hroniss Grasu. However, Mack seems to be a more rational solution to one of the major issues plaguing the internal of San Francisco’s offensive line.
A six-time Pro Bowl performer with the Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons, Mack played under 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan during the Falcons’ Super Bowl year back in 2016.
He knows the 49ers’ blocking scheme and would be a marked upgrade over what San Francisco threw out there a season ago. Mack has also shown an interest in signing with the 49ers.
As with everything this offseason, it’s going to come down to the finances. With that said, the 35-year-old Mack has seen a downtick in production over the past two seasons and likely won’t cost top-end money.
Dee Ford And Other 49ers Salary Cap Notes
Ford now becomes the next major thing on the 49ers’ to-do list ahead of free agency. The injury-plagued pass rusher is set to count a whopping $20.08 million against the cap in 2021 after missing all but one game last season.
He’s been among the biggest free-agent misses of the current regime after signing a whopping five-year, $85.5 million deal with San Francisco back in 2019.
The issue here is Ford’s current injury problems and the fact that he’s still owed guaranteed money. That’s primarily because the former Pro Bowler restructured his contract last year.
San Francisco can outright release Ford before the new league year, but that would come with a mere $5.73 million cap savings. They can designate him a post-June 1 cut, saving $15.30 million against the cap. However, said money would not be available in free agency.
The likeliest scenario is that Ford joins Richburg in coming to terms on a contract restructure. While pushing the issue down the road wouldn’t be ideal, it would immediately save the 49ers $11-plus million against the 2021 NFL salary cap.
Jimmy Garoppolo Situation
I have covered the 49ers’ quarterback situation ad nauseam over the past couple weeks. That’s not going to be the central focus here. Assuming Garoppolo remains San Francisco’s starter in 2021, he’s not going to come back with his current $26.4 million cap hit. Simply put, that would handcuff the 49ers too much.
Instead, a long-awaited contract restructure would have to be in the cards. Said move would save San Francisco $12.4 million against the cap — furthering the odds that it is able to retain top free agent Trent Williams.
San Francisco’s brass has pushed back against this. That’s primarily due to the fact that restructuring Garoppolo’s contract would link him to the team financially beyond the 2021 season. As of right now, the 49ers have an out following 2021 with a mere $1.4 million dead cap hit. Said hit would likely be $13-plus million on a restructure.
As interesting as the 49ers’ quarterback situation is on the field, it’s equally as intriguing from a financial standpoint. Replacing Garoppolo with someone like Sam Darnold would save San Francisco north of $21 million against the cap. Deshaun Watson would save the team about $16 million. It’s obviously the biggest backstory in Northern California heading into the start of NFL free agency.
Breaking Down A Potential Trent Williams Contract
Acquired ahead of last season from the Washington Football Team, Williams played elite-level football in replacing a retired Joe Staley in 2020. He’s my top free agent around the NFL heading into the start of the new league year. The future Hall of Fame left tackle is also a top priority for San Francisco’s brass.
Williams recently suggested that a return to the 49ers is likely in the cards. However, they want to make sure he’s not even available once the free-agent market and negotiating window opens up.
Based on the deals we’ve seen similar franchise left tackles sign recently, Williams is looking at a bare minimum of $20 million annually. How San Francisco structures the deal will have the biggest impact on what it is able to do during free agency.
At 32 year old, some might conclude that Williams shouldn’t receive a long-term deal. However, based on the 49ers’ cap situation and his still-elite play, that’s not the case.
The minimum here should be four years, bringing Williams’ total contract value to $80 million. Given how we’ve seen 49ers salary cap guru Paraag Marathe structure contracts, this is how Williams’ annual cap hits might look.
2021: $8 million
2022: $22 million
2023: $25 million
2024: $25 million
This obviously takes into account the soon-to-be signed massive NFL television contract and projected cap increases around the league post-COVID.
In fact, the cap is likely going to be north of $250 million in 2024, the final year of Williams’ hypothetical contract.