How the San Francisco 49ers took advantage of tough free-agency market

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- At the end of every season since they took over the San Francisco 49ers in 2017, coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch have made a habit of having honest conversations with every player on the roster.

For pending free agents, those conversations often include blunt assessments of their future with the team. Sometimes, it's good news: The Niners value that player and vow to do all they can to bring him back. In others, it's not, as the salary cap dictates not everybody can stay, and hard decisions will have to be made.

On the heels of last year's 6-10 finish, Lynch and Shanahan found themselves delivering far more bad news than good. The 49ers had roughly 40 players headed for some form of free agency and didn't have a ton of cap space, especially following a sizable, pandemic-driven drop in the salary cap from $198.2 million to $182.5 million.

It left Lynch and Shanahan believing they'd have to say goodbye to most of those free agents, even those they preferred to keep.

"We try to be as upfront and honest, as forthright with these guys [as possible]," Lynch said. "We try to understand that, yes, it's a business, but we can still get close with these guys as well. I think it serves you well in a situation like this. And there were a lot of great surprises, to be honest with you."

The 49ers were able to re-sign eight of their unrestricted free agents and four more contributors who were restricted free agents number. With some savvy salary-cap maneuvering from Paraag Marathe, the team's executive vice president of football operations and his staff, the 49ers re-signed those players for a combined 2021 cap cost of $30,649,500 -- an average of $2,554,125 per player.

As it turned out, the drastic drop in the salary cap actually worked in the 49ers' favor. San Francisco did have to pay mostly top dollar to keep the three in-house players they valued most: left tackle Trent Williams, fullback Kyle Juszczyk and cornerback Jason Verrett.

But what they didn't expect, at least not to this extent, was the cap drop would lead to a tight squeeze on the league's middle class.

For good, accomplished players such as cornerback K'Waun Williams, defensive tackle D.J. Jones and safety Jaquiski Tartt, the combination of the cap squeeze and injury issues meant their best offers were for one year at prices below what they'd have likely received in a normal offseason.

All three started at least half the games for the 2019 NFC championship team. Their combined 2021 cap number? $5,583,750, according to OverTheCap.com. Had the cap risen as expected, Jones alone might have gotten a contract with that type of cap number in the first year.

"A guy like D.J. Jones, we never thought we'd have an opportunity to bring him back," Lynch said. "Those decisions you make are gut-wrenching in terms of prioritizing because you like them all. But you have to say, 'OK, we're going to try to get these guys done; these guys might outprice themselves for what we can do.'

"Unfortunately for those guys, this was a weird year where the cap came down drastically and there were a lot of players left out there. The hard thing is when players have performed and then the market's not there."

The market left teams like San Francisco standing firm on its offers and pitching continuity and familiarity. The idea was simple: Stay in a place you've had success, stay healthy, play well and hit the market again in 2022 when the cap spikes.

"What we tried to do is say, 'Look, if it's a one-year deal, we know you, you know us, this is a great place for you to go show your value so that next year you can go do this again,'" Lynch said. "Maybe at that point, we can be a be a part of it."

The implications of those moves also set the stage for the Niners' biggest move of the offseason: trading up for the No. 3 pick in the NFL draft, a franchise-altering move that will end with them landing their quarterback of the future and, possibly, keeping veteran quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, too.

With much-improved injury luck, the 49ers believe they still have a roster that can return to Super Bowl contention next season, which is a big part of why they're showing some willingness to keep Garoppolo while a rookie quarterback waits his turn.

In addition, had they lost more of those key in-house free agents, they would have been forced into picking for need in the draft. For example, had Trent Williams left, the Niners almost certainly would have had to target a left tackle in the first round.

Once that business was taken care of, the Niners felt confident enough in the roster to trade the No. 12 pick in this year's draft, first- and third-round selections in 2022 and a first-round choice in 2023 to the Miami Dolphins for that No. 3 pick.

"There was no set plan, but we also knew, hey, in free agency, the way the salary cap just went, there's a chance we won't be able to sign back many of our own guys," Shanahan said. "That's what our players and us were worried about all season. It was tough to go through that.

"Fortunately for the 49ers, we were able to. But you never knew that until free agency. And we're not going to know, we didn't know anything until the draft, at least after we made this trade, we got a much better understanding of what we're going to do in the draft."