For the San Francisco 49ers, the 2019 season ended in agonizing Super Bowl defeat. The overthrow of Jimmy Garoppolo to Emmanuel Sanders will join Colin Kaepernick’s Super Bowl incompletion and Leonard Marshall’s blindside hit on Joe Montana in the hall of infamy. However, the pain of Super Bowl defeat has to be weighed against the modest expectations fans held in August.
The challenge now facing General Manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan is to ensure this season was the start of something long standing, rather than a one off shot at glory.
Salary Cap and Potential Hits
The 49ers will enter the 2020 offseason with an estimated $21M of cap space and a current projection of $71M into the following season. It’s not a dire position for a Super Bowl contender, but does leave them needing to get creative.
Paraag Marathe will likely look to boost the team’s cap room by renegotiating several contracts. The first renegotiation will inevitably be with running back Jerick McKinnon, who was red shirted through his two seasons with the team, but is scheduled to earn $8.55M next season. McKinnon has hinted he wants to stay with the team, and releasing him would incur a $4M dead cap hit. It seems likely his contract will be renegotiated to a lower 2020 number.
Fullback Kyle Juszczyk will earn $6.7M if the 49ers pick up his final year option. Getting that number down in exchange for a longer deal seems a likely move.
Beyond renegotiating contracts, San Francisco could also cut a few big earners who have fallen down the pecking order. Wide receiver Marquise Goodwin was awarded an extension after an impressive 2017 season, but the suffered two seasons of injury frustration since then. The 49ers would save $3.6M by cutting him.
There is also running back Tevin Coleman, whose $4.9M cap hit for next season is flexible. If the 49ers are confident in McKinnon returning, they might cash Coleman out.
Further down the wage bill, special teams weapon Mark Nzeocha has a $1.5M cap hit, while third string quarterback CJ Beathard and receiver Dante Pettis are prime candidates for low-end trades. In all, the 49ers should be able to boost their cap space to north of $30M.
The 49ers’ largest priority this offseason is to retain George Kittle and DeForest Buckner; both of whom have one year left on their rookie deals. Kittle seems set for a large extension this offseason, and Buckner will likely play on the fifth year option of his contract.
More immediately, six starters from the Super Bowl are out of contract in March. Among the players seeking new deals is defensive end Arik Armstead. The Oregon product had a Pro Bowl season, notching a team-high 10 sacks. He is likely to earn a monster contract, however, it could be with another team.
If the 49ers were to retain Armstead, it would mean letting others go across multiple positions. They would essentially be tying more money up in the defensive line where Buckner, Solomon Thomas and Dee Ford are already big earners. In addition, Nick Bosa will need a a payday of his own down the line.
Two other lucrative contracts expected to expire are safety Jimmie Ward and receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Ward had a productive season, but has proven to be injury prone. After six seasons in San Francisco, he would likely take a hometown discount to stay in Santa Clara.
As for Sanders, he quickly established himself as a favorite target of Garoppolo. After suffering three losing seasons in Denver, he may be persuaded to stay in order to see out his career on a contending team.
Offensive lineman Ben Garland started the Super Bowl at center, but with Weston Richburg set to return, the 49ers can let Garland test the open market. It is a similar story with defensive tackle Sheldon Day, who was promoted due to injuries to both Julian Taylor and DJ Jones.
The ability of Shanahan to find value in undrafted free agents and players other teams rejected has left them with the enviable position of having numerous players on restricted or exclusive rights contracts. Of those players whose deals are expiring this offseason, cornerback Emmanuel Moseley is the top priority to extend. Other key players with similar deals set to expire include Matt Brieda, Kendrick Bourne, Nick Mullens and Daniel Brunskill.
Working the Draft Board
The trades for Sanders and Ford leave San Francisco without a second, third or fourth round pick in this year’s NFL Draft.
Lynch will almost certainly play the board to try and engineer some more picks. He could trade back from the first round to pick up multiple Day 2 picks. The 49ers have five picks in the bottom three rounds of the draft, so Lynch will likely move around the board to bring in Day 3 targets.
Positions of Need
This season showed the 49ers have few weak positions on their roster and could draft the best player available to them with the 31st overall pick.
That said, the cornerback class is strong this year, and they could benefit from drafting Richard Sherman’s long-term replacement. If Armstead walks in free agency, then adding a replacement to their front four will be on Lynch’s mind.
On offense, Shanahan’s ability to find star players in the later rounds makes it less likely San Francisco will pick on that side of the ball early. The one exception could be if a left tackle can be found to succeed veteran Joe Staley.
In the later rounds, San Francisco could use a deep threat wide receiver, a box safety to develop behind Jaquiski Tartt, and a pass-catching tight end to back up Kittle.
Since the 2014 Seattle Seahawks, no NFC Champion has returned to the Super Bowl. The 49ers themselves suffered a calamitous fall after their 2012 Super Bowl loss, due largely to the acrimonious split between head coach Jim Harbaugh and General Manager Trent Baalke. There is little danger of a recurrence of that, with Lynch and Shanahan working hand in glove. The retention of defensive coordinator Robert Saleh adds to the strong continuity on the sidelines.
There will be some changes to the roster this offseason, but a franchise such as New England has proven teams can move on from caliber players and still win.