The San Francisco 49ers would like to return all of their starters from the 2019 season. This is according to general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan. Doing so won't be easy and could prove impossible.

The two starters who could leave in free agency are defensive lineman Arik Armstead and safety Jimmie Ward. Both had break out seasons in 2019 that saw their value in the open market soar.

Also factoring into the 49ers' ability to re-sign Armstead and Ward are two big extensions on the agenda. Both defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and tight end George Kittle are heading into the final year of their contracts. The 49ers will certainly give both new deals this off-season, assuming the team can come to agreement with both.

Complicating the matter is the 49ers' current salary cap situation. Buckle in because this article is about to get very heavy on mathematics.

(All contract values and salary cap numbers are courtesy of Spotrac.com unless otherwise stated)

The exact NFL 2020 salary cap has yet to be announced but the NFL Network reported in December that the NFL had informed teams the cap would rise to between $196.8 million and $201.2 million. For this article we will assume $200 million even for the salary cap. Now let's utilize a nifty table to make this easier to follow. Ready go!

Projected 2020 Salary Cap $200,000,000
Salaries Committed Already $193,252,282
Salary Cap Space Remaining $6,747,718

The 49ers will have more space than the roughly $6.75 million, however. This is because they can rollover $11,337,101 of unused cap space from 2019. This bumps the actual total of 2020 cap space for the 49ers to $18,084,819.

Now that we have the number as it sits as of Saturday morning, Feb. 8th, there are some safe assumptions that can be made to increase the 49ers' space. We'll need to do this before getting into the details of who signs for what.

First, the 49ers will be moving on from wide receiver Marquise Goodwin. He is current;y counted as $4,906,250 in the 2020 salaries committed figure shown in the table above. Cutting him leaves a dead cap hit of $1,250,000.

The 49ers will also be dealing with running back Jerick McKinnon's contract. His 2020 commitment is a staggering $8.55 million. McKinnon said this week he is willing to do whatever it takes to remain with the 49ers. If cut, his dead cap hit is $4 million. The 49ers could renegotiate his deal to a two year, $6 million deal with $3 million guaranteed. That seems like a fair deal for all sides. McKinnon isn't likely to get much of anything as a free agent considering he hasn't played a down in the NFL since 2017. The $6 million is more than he'd get as a free agent plus he gets his wish to remain with the team.

Meanwhile, the 49ers save $1 million in 2020 whether McKinnon makes the team or not. They have the added benefit of being able to keep McKinnon on the cheap in 2021 if he proves to be what Shanahan hoped he would be for the offense.

The only other cut the 49ers could make to save more than $1 million and not lose a starter is linebacker Mark Nzeocha. His 2020 commitment is $1.5 million with no cap hit if let go. Despite his contributions in the past, his role on special teams may not outweigh cost, especially with the 49ers' abundance of quality special team performers. For this article we will proceed as if he is released.

Table time No. 2!

Player Cap Savings
Marquise Goodwin $4,906,250 - $1,250,000 = $3,656,250
Jerrick McKinnon $8,550,000 - $3,000,000 = $5,550,000
Mark Nzeocha $1,500,000 - $0 = $1,500,000
Total: $10,706,250

The 49ers will gain a little more than $10.7 million in cap space with these moves. Added to the $18,084,819 already calculated, the 49ers have $28,791,069 total cap space now.

We can't get to the big four player contracts just yet, however. The 49ers will need to save space for incoming rookies. Many confuse the rookie pool allotment for what rookies can be paid as something in addition to the salary cap. While the allotment limits what a rookie can be paid, his pay is still factored into the league's overall salary cap.

The 49ers have the 31st, 156th, 176th, 210th, 217th and 245th picks in the NFL Draft. The exact amount the draft picks will cost isn't known but OverTheCap.com has wonderful estimates that prove to be quite accurate each year. The six picks the 49ers have are estimated by OverTheCap.com to cost $4,416,000 in cap space for 2020. This drops the 49ers' functional cap space to $24,375,069.

Now we are ready to deal with the extensions to Kittle and Buckner as well as the potential resigning of Ward and Armstead. We'll start with the extensions.

Luckily, the 49ers can likely extend both players without affecting the 2020 cap space too much. This is because Buckner, as it sits now, is set to count for $14.36 million in 2020. While his average salary will be substantially higher than this figure, thanks to President of 49ers Enterprises & Executive Vice President of Football Operations Paraag Marathe's wizardry in contracts, the team can likely have Buckner's actual 2020 cap hit be lower.

DeForest Buckner Extension


What will Buckner's end up being? I believe the Atlanta Falcons Grady Jarrett is a very good comparison to start with. He was a defensive tackle of similar talent-level and age last off-season and ended up signing a four-year, $68 million contract. Buckner was a 2nd team All-Pro in 2019, unlike Jarrett prior to his new contract, so he will likely get a slightly larger deal. Also the 49ers will probably seek a deal longer than four years.

Jarrett got $17 million per year and $42.5 million guaranteed so Buckner's projection puts him at $18 million per year and $45 to 50 million guaranteed. Expect a five-year, $90 million deal.

Jarrett counted $11 million on the cap for the Falcons in 2019. If the 49ers structure similarly and Marathe performs his magic, Buckner should count for about the same amount. This would represent a savings of $3.36 million on the 2020 cap for the 49ers.

George Kittle Extension


There will be no 2020 cap savings with a Kittle extension. He is currently slated to count for just $809,574 in 2020 due to being a fifth-round pick. No matter what kind of tricks Marathe can perform, Kittle will have to count for more than that on the 2020 cap.

There is no great comparison for what a Kittle extension will look like. This is because the two tight ends with a similarly great track record, Kansas City Chiefs' Travis Kelce and Philadelphia Eagles' Zach Ertz, both signed extensions back in 2016. Four years is a long time in the NFL, especially with a growing salary cap.

It's safe to assume Kittle will set both the total dollar amount and the average annual salary (AAV) amount for his position with an extension following two dominant years. The Green Bay Packers' Jimmy Graham has the highest AAV at $10 million while Kelce has the largest total value of contract at $46.842 million.

Kittle will need more than $10 million per season and at least five years to top both. A five-year deal for $54 million with $21 million guaranteed rings true.

Adjusting for an assumed lower first year cap hit, Kittle should cost around $6 million in 2020. Combining Buckner's savings with Kittle's increase, the two will have an increased 2020 cap cost of $1,830.426.

This leaves $22,544,643 for the 49ers to spend. They still need to re-sign Armstead and Ward while also bringing in some low cost depth pieces to replace players like Ronald Blair (hopefully able to re-sign Blair).

Arik Armstead New Deal


Let's get one thing out the way, Armstead is very unlikely to be franchise tagged. OverTheCap.com projects the defensive tackle tag for 2020 to be $15.5 million. This is a fully guaranteed amount and no cap shenanigans can be done to lower it. The 49ers don't have the room to have Armstead count for this amount in 2020.

So what kind of deal is he in line for? That's a good question. Perhaps no player in the NFL boosted his free agency value more than Armstead in 2019. With 10 sacks and the ability to play both inside and outside on the defensive line, Armstead would be one of the prizes of free agency. He is not likely to see offers to the level of the Buckner extension projected earlier but it will certainly be in the double-digit millions annually.

The best comparison out there for a potential Armstead deal is the one Sheldon Richardson signed last year. Richardson was a great talent with some off-the-field question marks. Armstead is a great talent who only put it together in his walk year. He had nine total career sacks prior to 2019. Both are Pro Bowl caliber players with something that gives teams pause.

Richardson signed a three-year, $37 million deal with $21 million guaranteed with the Cleveland Browns. Armstead is younger than Richardson so he'll probably get a fourth year but still be around the same AAV. I'm projecting a four-year, $52 million deal with $25 million guaranteed.

Once again adjusting for first year Marathe tricks, Armstead should carry around a $9 million cap hit in 2020.

Jimmie Ward New Deal


This is where things get murky. I absolutely think the 49ers will do what it takes to pay Kittle, Buckner and Armstead but doing so doesn't leave much left for Ward.

The 49ers would be down to $13,544,643 for 2020 cap space after the three deals I projected. Ward won't cost top dollar for his position, but he's going to cost more than most fans realize. Safeties aren't cheap anymore. They've seen a substantial rise in value in the last decade.

A total of nine safeties have contracts with an AAV of more than $10 million. Another seven safeties are above $7 million.

Ward had a breakout year in 2019. Prior to the season he was as oft-injured as any player in the league. This will drive down his cost but some team out there will offer a safety with as much range and talent as Ward a big deal. He is still in his prime at 28 years old so age is not a negative. He won't approach any records but he did sign a one-year, $4.5 million deal last off-season prior to his breakout season. He will cost a good bit more than that in AAV.

Still, he has never made a Pro Bowl or won any awards. This makes Adrian Amos a great comparison. Amos was a few years younger and didn't have the injury history of Ward but Amos had also never made a Pro Bowl or earned any awards. He signed a deal worth a total of $36 million over four years with the Packers prior to the 2019 season.

This feels nearly right on target for a new deal for Ward. Four years and $35 million with roughly two years worth guaranteed, $15 million, is around what the 49ers could sign Ward for. Ward could get slightly more in the free agency market in my opinion, he is one of the best safeties available this year, but wishes to remain with the 49ers. He'll sign at a slight discount.

This contract gives him an average annual salary of $8.75 million. This means, even with Marathe adjustments, the 49ers would have less than $8 million in cap space following these moves.

This doesn't seem plausible. I don't think the 49ers will do these four deals and have virtually nothing left to address any area of need. Perhaps with a full bounty of draft picks they would but the 49ers' only draft pick in the first four rounds is 31st overall.

There is one solution that would allow the 49ers to make these four moves and still have around $16 million in cap space. It's simple. Trade Solomon Thomas.

There is no denying Thomas hasn't lived up to the stature being drafted No. 3 overall calls for. He's been a backup most of his career. He could likely start for some teams and there is an argument to be made that he could flourish in a 3-4 defensive scheme. For the 49ers however, Thomas is a depth piece at one of the team's best positions.

He isn't a starter, yet has the sixth highest 2020 cap hit on the roster as he will count for $8,958,213 on the 2020 salary cap.

The 49ers should trade him. That is, if they can. A player with so high a cap cost doesn't usually carry any trade value unless the acquiring team knows it is getting a starter.

Look at it from the acquiring team's perspective: it would need to spend draft capital to add an expensive question mark. If he pans out, he immediately gets free agency and will be due for a contract similar to Armstead this off-season. If he doesn't pan out, the team spent a lot of money on a backup or poor quality starter. Couldn't the team just sign a free agent on a short-term prove it deal for less money while saving the draft pick or sign a known starting quality player to a multi-year deal with a similar 2020 cap cost? Absolutely. And that's the problem if the 49ers seek to trade Thomas.

The reality is, Thomas doesn't have much, if any, trade value to other teams. If the 49ers can trade him they should. They could use some of the savings to re-sign Blair. He would replace the depth lost from Thomas while costing half as much.

If Thomas remains with the 49ers (most likely scenario), the team is faced with the question of bringing back every starter while having very little money left to do anything else or letting Ward walk in free agency while signing a cheaper safety to compete with Tarvarius Moore and having enough money to bring in another player or two who could make a big contribution on the 2020 Revenge Tour.

Time will tell.
  • Levin T. Black
  • Written by:
    A graduate of Ball State University in 2009, Levin was a full-time sports journalist for a few years until he transitioned into a more lucrative career. He began writing for Webzone in 2018 in order to scratch his journalist itch.