SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- At first glance, the monstrous five-year, $137.5 million contract extension that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo signed on Thursday evening would seem capable of crippling any team's salary cap.
Believe it or not, that's not the case for the Niners, in large part because of the team's struggles that pre-date the Kyle Shanahan-John Lynch era. Following whiff after whiff in the NFL draft by then-general manager Trent Baalke, the 49ers simply haven't had many players worthy of big-money contracts. As such, they've continued to roll over copious amounts of cap space.
That's why, entering this offseason, the Niners figured to have somewhere between $110 million and $120 million in salary-cap space available. That includes about $56 million that was carried over from last year. We don't yet have the breakdown of Garoppolo's contract, so we don't know exactly what his first-year cap number will be. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Garoppolo is set to make just shy of $90 million in the first three years. How that pie is sliced remains to be seen.
It's possible the 49ers might have even accelerated a bigger number into the first year because they have so much cap space. Regardless, it's safe to assume Garoppolo will have a huge price tag for 2018. And yet, even if the Niners were to put, say, $40 million on Garoppolo in Year 1, it would barely make a dent in their available cap space.
The Niners are in the rarefied air of having a franchise quarterback under contract befitting that status without finding themselves in salary-cap hell. Garoppolo's presence also should make them a more appealing option for free agents.
Therein lies the rub. With Garoppolo in place, the Niners' rebuild has been fast-tracked. A team that a year ago looked to be setting course for a long trudge back to contention has put the pedal to the floor and finds itself in a position where it could push for the postseason as soon as the 2018 season, especially with a few savvy free-agent additions and another solid draft class.
Getting Garoppolo signed now, in early February, should increase the chances of those two things happening. San Francisco no longer has to worry about franchise tags or watching as other quarterbacks like Kirk Cousins push the price tag even higher.
"That’s a big spot, and that’s where it starts, and now we’ll just keep trying to look at what’s out there based on free agency, then move to the draft and people that get let go regardless of the position, but wherever we can try to improve our team, we will," Shanahan said at the end of the season. "You see what’s available and whatever is there. I don’t like going into the [offseason] saying, ‘We have to get this position or have to get that.’ You see what’s available and you try to make the best decisions with what there is."
In San Francisco's case, that isn't limited to Garoppolo's side of the ball, either. The Niners have pressing needs at cornerback and at edge rusher and could use more depth at linebacker.
On offense, the 49ers don't necessarily need a No. 1-type receiver (though they'd gladly take one if one became available), but they do need a bigger, more physical target to complement what they have and be a force in the red zone. They also could use upgrades on the interior of the offensive line, where center Daniel Kilgore and guard Brandon Fusco are set to hit free agency and guard Joshua Garnett is coming back from injury. Running back Carlos Hyde is also slated to become a free agent, and though Matt Breida was promising as a rookie, the Niners could use another back capable of carrying the load if they choose not to re-sign Hyde.
If they get their way, the Niners can fill many of those needs in free agency and create room to draft the best players on the board regardless of position. It's a philosophy they followed last offseason.
"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,'" Lynch said. "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.”
Before Garoppolo's deal was signed, the 49ers were in position to be major players in the offseason. Now that it's done, even with all of that money headed his way, that remains true. The onus now falls on the Niners to make the most of it.