SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Despite spending the month before the start of 2017 free agency playing catch-up to the rest of the league, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch didn't waste any time jumping into the free-agent waters.
On the first day of free agency, the Niners announced the signing of seven players, including receivers Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin, quarterback Brian Hoyer and fullback Kyle Juszczyk. With a seemingly limitless amount of cap space, the 49ers' early activity barely registered in what they had available to spend.
So even though the Niners were actively pursuing free agents they wanted, the extent of that work might have flown under the radar a bit because they didn't break the bank for any one player.
"Our volume was pretty intense last year in terms of the number [of players]," Lynch said. "Really, I remember last year, our plan as we arrived was to try to fill what we perceived as holes in our roster so that we could go draft the best players available, not feel beholden to we've got to come out this with this, this and this. Kyle and I both believe in being aggressive, but also you don't do things just because you have all this money. We have an ownership group that we're very thankful for. When we don't spend to the cap, they don't put that in their pocket and say, 'Thanks guys.' They roll it over to the next year. We'll be patient but also aggressive. If we see fit, the opportunity to go get someone who can really improve us, we'll certainly take that opportunity."
Those words from Lynch, especially the part about not spending for the sake of spending are worth noting as he, Shanahan and the Niners gear up for their second go at free agency. Believe it or not, one year later, the 49ers are even better positioned to be major players this offseason.
Spotrac currently projects the 49ers to have $119,909,412 in salary-cap space available, assuming a league-wide salary cap of $178 million plus the $59,518,621 in remaining cap the team will roll over from 2017. For context, only the Cleveland Browns with $112,446,262 in projected space are even close to what the Niners have available. The next closest team is the Indianapolis Colts, who will have a whopping $35,614,599 less than the Niners.
Of course, the first order of business for the Niners will be taking care of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. The hope on both sides is to reach an agreement on a long-term contract that will keep Garoppolo in San Francisco for a long time. Even if the Niners used the exclusive franchise tag on Garoppolo and he signed it immediately, that $25 million price tag would still leave the Niners with the second-most cap space in the league by more than $10 million.
Taking it a step further, the Niners could, and probably will, front-load a deal for Garoppolo with guaranteed money. They could even go so far as to venture north of $30-35 million in first-year guarantees without it making much of a dent in their cap space.
"I think we'll always be aggressive," Shanahan said. "I think we were aggressive last year. I think being aggressive is you've got to look at what your options are and what you believe is the right way to go. Whatever you decide on that, being aggressive is going out and getting those guys. I think that's exactly what we did last year, maybe not a lot of high guys that seemed like it, but we went and got all the guys that we wanted to, that we targeted from the beginning. I didn't feel like we lost on anybody. We'll go into this year the same way."
With all of that money and needs on the offensive line as well as at wide receiver, cornerback and edge rusher, plus a potential hole to fill at running back, there's plenty of work to be done. The Niners also have some of their own free agents, such as running back Carlos Hyde, safety Eric Reid, center Daniel Kilgore and others that they will consider bringing back.
Exactly what the Niners can do on the open market will depend greatly on which players even come available. Enticing players such as Jacksonville receiver Allen Robinson or Dallas defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence could end up with franchise tags and never get to test the open market.
Which is why the Niners' definition of "aggressive" free-agent spending isn't so much about going out and spending big bucks, as it is about targeting the players they want and making sure they get them. Using last year as a baseline, the Niners signed 21 players to deals totaling $163,777,000 with $67,045,000 in guaranteed money and $38,045,000 guaranteed at signing, according to Spotrac.
It's very likely the Niners won't be as active this year in terms of players signed, but it's also entirely possible -- if not certain because of Garoppolo -- that they'll hand out even more guaranteed money than they did in 2017.
"I think the worst thing you can ever do is say, 'Hey, we have this much money and we need whatever this is,' one of those guys you said, and you don't see that guy, and then you go get the best available because you need that guy and he isn't that guy," Shanahan said. "That's how mistakes happen. You might not always get every ideal situation. But, you just keep improving your team. If you don't have your ideal situation at whatever position that is, then you get better at another position and you lean on that side and work around that other ways schematically.
"I think we'll do that year in and year out, how much money we have available and what are the things that are available in free agency, trades, drafts. Whatever that is, whether it's spending all of that, or only spending half of it, I do believe it's all aggressive if you make the right decision and whatever you do, you go for it. What's neat about having that space is it allows you to make the right decisions."