SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Given the magnitude of the league-rattling move the San Francisco 49ers made to get their quarterback of the future, it's hard to call any offseason more critical than what they did in 2021.
But, in part because rookie signal-caller Trey Lance didn't take over after the Niners traded up to No. 3 to draft him, this offseason is nearly as important. Many of the decisions coach Kyle Shanahan, general manager John Lynch and their staffs make this offseason will be geared toward helping Lance in 2022 when, presumably, he takes over as the long-term starter.
With that in mind, here's a look at what the Niners must do to again be a Super Bowl contender.
Extensions for Bosa and Deebo
Much like in recent years with the likes of tight end George Kittle and linebacker Fred Warner, the Niners have two franchise centerpieces due for massive contract extensions: defensive end Nick Bosa and wide back Deebo Samuel. Also like Kittle and Warner, deals for both are unlikely to happen until late summer.
Still, the Niners have planned for both.
"We fully understand these guys are pillars of what we're trying to do here," Lynch said. "We've been blessed that we've been aggressive, because we've had a lot of players that we believe are some of the best in the league at what they do. And these guys are no different. ... I'm sure that we'll find a way to get that done. It's been budgeted for.”
Get quarterback clarity ASAP
The idea that the Niners will again keep starter Jimmy Garoppolo is far-fetched, despite San Francisco's efforts to publicly maintain that piece of leverage. Garoppolo, meanwhile, expects to be traded and would like a say in where he lands.
"I've got a long career ahead of me," Garoppolo said. "I'm excited about the opportunities to come. I just want to go to a place where they want to win."
There appears to be no shortage of recent playoff contenders in need of a quarterback. Pittsburgh, Washington, Denver, New Orleans, Tampa Bay and Indianapolis are but a handful of the teams who could be in the Garoppolo market.
Ideally, a trade would come together sooner than later even though it can't become official until the new league year opens March 16. That would give the Niners some certainty on how much cap space they have to negotiate with their free agents and make outside additions. It would also allow Garoppolo to help steer his destination before this year's game of quarterback musical chairs stops.
It would also clear the decks for Lance to move ahead as the starter and give San Francisco a chance to find a capable veteran backup -- Tyrod Taylor, perhaps? -- in free agency.
Settle the salary cap
As it stands, the Niners figure to enter the new league year roughly $10 million over the salary cap. They must be in cap compliance with their top 51 salaried players by March 16.
Getting the Garoppolo situation settled is the most important piece of the Niners' offseason financial equation, as trading him would instantly save $25.55 million.
Defensive end Dee Ford is another expected departure, though his situation is more complicated. Ford had a $4.6 million roster bonus fully guarantee on Feb. 15 because of injury, which means the Niners can save only $2.4 million by releasing him. That savings can only be realized by including a post-June 1 designation and can't be used until after that date.
Which means the Niners, in addition to moving Garoppolo, will have to explore other avenues to create cap space. The most common way to do that would be with simple contract restructures (converting base salaries into signing bonuses that can be spread out over the remaining years on a contract). Kittle, defensive lineman Arik Armstead and free safety Jimmie Ward are among the targets for such a move, with the Niners able to save up to roughly $24 million by restructuring their contracts.
Doing all of those things could give the Niners about $40 million in cap space for 2022.
Keeping their own
Once again, the 49ers have a lengthy list -- 33 players -- set to hit some form of free agency. Among the scheduled unrestricted free agents are left guard Laken Tomlinson, cornerbacks Jason Verrett and K'Waun Williams, defensive tackle D.J. Jones, safety Jaquiski Tartt, defensive end Arden Key and running back Raheem Mostert. Linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair headlines the group of restricted free agents.
Last year, when the pandemic kept the salary cap down and depressed the market, the Niners kept more free agents than expected. Similar factors could be at play this year but players like Tomlinson, Jones and Key should have plenty of suitors.
Keeping that trio should be the top priority, but even retaining two of the three would be considered a win.
Outside help on the offensive line and at cornerback
Depending on how much cap flexibility the Niners can create, what they're budgeting for Samuel and Bosa and which free agents they can keep, they also should be seeking help at cornerback and on the interior of the offensive line. Perhaps they'll have to wait until the NFL draft for such reinforcement, and with three picks on Day 2 (but none in the first round) they have the resources to continue adding at those spots.
If they can figure out a way to make it work, adding a difference-maker at cornerback in free agency could vault the Niners' defense into one of the league's best. That doesn't mean they have to spend the type of money that will go to a top free agent such as New England's J.C. Jackson or Tampa Bay's Carlton Davis if either hits the open market. But a proven veteran who will be pricey but not bank-breaking on a shorter deal (think Carolina's Stephon Gilmore) would make a lot of sense.