SANTA CLARA, Calif. — For a large portion of the 2019 season, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan firmly believed that he was leading the NFL’s best team.
That belief nearly proved to be true, as Shanahan and the Niners surged to a 13-3 record, an NFC West division crown and the NFC championship, and they came within about 10 minutes of winning Super Bowl LIV.
“I thought we were the best team in the NFL,” Shanahan said. “And when you really believe that, and I thought it for a while — it wasn’t just, like, the last couple of weeks of the year … This year, I thought we had it.”
Given that, it shouldn’t be a surprise that as the NFL’s early free-agent negotiating window opens Monday, the 49ers don’t intend to go big-game hunting, as they have in recent seasons.
No, the goal for this sprint through free agency is simple: Do everything possible to keep key components in place.
“This is the first time that I want every single person on our team back because I think we have a team that can win a Super Bowl,” Shanahan said. “I think we showed that last year. So whenever you have that, it is really tough. Because when have you ever been able to bring the exact same team back anywhere you’ve been on? So that is a lot harder, and especially [with] our cap situation, but it is cool to know that that’s what we want. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
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In the first three offseasons under Shanahan and general manager John Lynch, the Niners were largely in rebuilding mode. That meant free agency was important to improve the roster.
But if the Niners have their way this year, there won’t be many big additions. As it stands, they have about $13 million in salary-cap space available, though that number almost certainly will increase with a few moves (such as a remade contract for running back Jerick McKinnon) to something closer to $20 million.
If they want, the 49ers can go about restructuring deals for players such as Dee Ford or quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to create even more flexibility. That’s a route they’ve already traveled with Kwon Alexander and Weston Richburg, though Lynch said the team would “probably hang tight” on any more significant contract restructuring.
Assuming that’s the case, the 49ers have a lot of business to take care of and little wiggle room, which means we could see a departure from the team’s usual approach to big-money contracts.
Paraag Marathe, the team’s executive vice president of football operations, generally prefers to front load lucrative contracts with guaranteed money, offering more flexibility for the future. He might not have that luxury this time.
“We’re to that point where, you know, there’s trade-offs for everything,” Lynch said. “So we’re going to have to be very judicious with all our decisions, and you know, we’ll be prepared to do that.”
Realistically, the 49ers won’t be able to bring everyone back. Their hope is to retain those who were major contributors to their Super Bowl run. Three players — defensive lineman Arik Armstead, free safety Jimmie Ward and receiver Emmanuel Sanders — headline that list. Armstead appears to be the top priority, and as recently as Sunday afternoon, the Niners and Armstead’s representation were in contact on a possible long-term deal, with the tag still an option. Ward and Sanders could be out of the 49ers’ price range unless their markets are softer than expected.
From there, some solid depth players such as defensive lineman Ronald Blair III, offensive lineman Ben Garland, defensive tackle Sheldon Day and tight end Levine Toilolo could be brought back at the right prices.
The 49ers also have decisions to make on restricted free-agent receiver Kendrick Bourne, running back Matt Breida and linebacker Elijah Lee. Bourne could be tendered at the second-round level to ensure that he doesn’t get an outside offer that could pry him away without compensation coming back.
San Francisco also would like to get long-term contracts done with defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and tight end George Kittle, both of whom are entering the final years of their rookie contracts. In theory, those deals could come with larger guarantees in 2021 and beyond, given that both have proven valuable and durable and are the kind of players Shanahan has long said he wants to build around.
Buckner’s contract could provide some cap relief if structured a certain way. He’s scheduled to count $12.378 million on this year’s cap, but the Niners could sign him to a deal with a lower number in 2020 and a large increase next year to accommodate deals for players such as Armstead.
It’s all a puzzle, and with 31 teams eager to poach players from one of the best rosters in the league, it will be difficult to keep all the pieces, let alone put them back together.
“There’s so many connected parts in that and people who are up now, people who are up later,” Shanahan said. “Are you just trying to do it for one year? Are you trying to make it and then just sell the farm for one year or have your best chance over a two- and three-year span? … There’s so much stuff that goes on that there’s a lot of big decisions we make.”
The safe bet is that the 49ers’ roster will go through its share of turnover this offseason. Keeping Armstead, Ward and Sanders seems like a long shot, though for the players, staying in San Francisco offers the chance to win a championship in an environment they already know well.
That doesn’t mean the Niners’ most desirable free agents will turn down much larger offers, but it could mean things go the team’s way if it’s close.
“The success that we had last year,” Lynch said, “and I think the fun guys see that’s associated with our team and with our culture, people want to be a part of it.”