Extended runs of success in the NFL don't come without moving on from some great players. To build a winner a team must acquire talent. To remain a winner a team must master the balancing act between the salary cap and keeping that talent. When 49ers general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan were hired the team was as deep into needing talent as a franchise can go. After making the Super Bowl, the pendulum has flipped completely the other way.

The 49ers are on the mountaintop of the National Football Conference. They've entered the delicate balance time period where they must make the right call on a string of crucial personnel decisions if they want to remain at the top. A vast majority of the time teams make the wrong choices. In fact, only one team, the New England Patriots, in the past 25 years has made it back to the Super Bowl the year after losing it.

The first pendulum swinging choice the 49ers must make is in regards to defensive lineman Arik Armstead. There is no denying he is an excellent player. He may not have made a Pro Bowl at this point in his career but there is no argument against calling him a Pro Bowl-caliber player following a ten sack season.

Those sacks came from the defensive tackle position as Armstead lined up there on passing downs. Double-digit sacks from the inside is a rare feat that teams pay big money for. Armstead is a free agent and is due for a substantial contract.

The 49ers have three avenues to pursue. They can either sign Armstead to a multi-year deal worth $12-to-15 million per year, let him sign with another team or franchise tag him and trade him to another team willing to sign him long-term. The last option is the correct one.

The 49ers can't reward every quality player they manage to acquire with a huge contract. In a perfect world the team could. In the NFL world former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo had, he could reward players to keep them around and that made the team a dynasty that won five titles. There was no salary cap. Unfortunately for the 49ers, Armstead and the fans, teams do have a salary cap.

Yes, the 49ers don't have a lot of cap space. This certainly plays a big role in the decision but it's only part of it. The real issue is the money already allocated to Armstead's position group. Defensive end Dee Ford signed a five-year deal worth $85.5 million last off-season, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner is very likely to get an extension in the coming weeks worth considerably more than the projected amount Armstead will get and defensive end Nick Bosa will see his cap cost number climb to $10.7 million through the next few seasons.

While this is bound to change by a million or two with Buckner's extension, as it sits right now Buckner, Bosa and Ford will count for $37.85 million on the 2020 salary cap. All three of them will see their cap hits climb by at least a few million in the next few seasons.

Buckner, Bosa and Ford represent approximately 20 percent of the salary cap. The 2020 expected salary cap is $200 million. This means the 49ers can pay an average of about $3.2 million per player to fill out the full 53-man roster ($200 million minus $40 million divided by 50 players). Other players, like quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, will count for much more than that.

Should the 49ers devote another $12-15 million towards the defensive line? That would push the 49ers starting defensive line's salary north of $50 million per season. That's more than one quarter of the entire salary cap.

The answer to the question is a resounding no. That leaves two options. Let Armstead walk free and clear or franchise him and trade him. Letting Armstead pick his future team would be doing him a solid and by all accounts he is an upstanding gentleman on good terms with the team. You don't stay on the summit by doing players a solid, at least not when the value is so much.

Make no mistake, the value Armstead has is high. A 26-year-old player who can play inside and outside and get pressure consistently is extremely valuable. There are two examples of a player who could get double-digit sacks being traded from last season.

One of those players was Frank Clark. He was traded by the Seattle Seahawks to the Kansas City Chiefs. The value the Seahawks got in return was a first-round pick, a swap of third-round picks and a second-round pick in the next draft. Armstead doesn't carry quite that much value. Clark's track record was stronger. The other recent example is a better one to compare with.

No team is more familiar with the scenario of trading a defensive lineman on the franchise tag than the 49ers. This is because they traded their 2020 second-round pick for Ford just last off-season. Ford was a player last year with a level of respect similar to Armstead currently.

Ford did have two seasons of double-digit sacks prior to the trade. Armstead only has one. However, Ford had some red flags in his injury history.

He had twice missed time due to a lumbar injury in his lower back. The second time came with a major surgery. During his recovery, Ford said his doctor was concerned that he may not walk correctly again. In a Bleacher Report article from this time last year, Ford revealed he struggled to walk for weeks after the surgery and only weighed 215 pounds. This hurt his trade value.

Armstead did have injury issues early in his career but none were as severe as Ford's. Also, Armstead has played every game the past two seasons. Injuries are not a concern.

Armstead is good against the run and pass. This also boosts his trade value compared to Ford. This is because he had played a pass rush role from the outside linebacker position for the Chiefs and would need to transition to the line.

Based on all this, it certainly seems like the 49ers could get a second-round draft pick for Armstead. This is always valuable but for the 49ers it could be even more so this year. The team has its first-round pick and then nothing until the fifth round. A potential second-round pick is simply too valuable to let Armstead sign with another team.

But is there risk with applying the franchise tag and not finding a trade partner? Yeah, sure, sort of. The 49ers can trade Armstead on the franchise tag. There's a chance the 49ers may not get as high of a pick in return as they would hope but getting something is guaranteed. All 31 teams would trade a late round pick without hesitation.

Plus, if the 49ers get favorable extensions done with Buckner and other players who could potentially sign one this off-season, the team could just as well decide to keep Armstead on the franchise tag. It's doubtful but at some point the return being offered by other teams could fall below the value Armstead brings suiting up while on the tag.

In all likelihood, the 49ers will get at least a third-round pick in this year's draft if they choose to go the franchise and trade route. That is the best path forward if the 49ers want to climb to the top of the NFL rather than just the NFC.
  • 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.