SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- After their 2019 run to Super Bowl LIV, the San Francisco 49ers vowed to keep as many of their players as possible. When injuries wrecked the following season and COVID-19 led to the bottom dropping out of the salary cap, the Niners were again able to bring back many of their own free agents, even those they presumed would be gone.
Now, with the cap jumping back closer to normal and multiple former Niners coaches running their own teams, the chances of that happening again seem low. It's why, after San Francisco fell to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship Game, there was a clear sense from general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan that the 2022 roster will look a lot different with 33 players set for some form of free agency.
"I've thought about that at the beginning of the year," free safety Jimmie Ward said. "It's the business side. Each year, the team is going to change. There's going to be somebody who is either going to go to another team and it's always a heartbreaker."
As it stands, the 49ers are projected to be over the $208 million salary cap, but they can -- and will -- make moves to get under before the new league year opens March 16.
While what happens with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will go a long way in shaping how the offseason plays out, there is plenty of other business for the 49ers to handle. There are important free agents they'd like to bring back (guard Laken Tomlinson, defensive tackle D.J. Jones and defensive lineman Arden Key are three) and positions (cornerback, offensive line and edge rusher), that could use a jolt.
It's unlikely the Niners will be able to do all of that in free agency, which means there are some tough decisions coming. What doesn't get done in the next few weeks could be addressed in the NFL draft, where the Niners don't have a first-round choice but hold three on Day 2.
"It's a blessing and a curse that we've got a lot of really talented players but the reality is the whole league is really tight," Lynch said. "We're still coming off the economic realities of the pandemic and what that did to the cap. And I think we're also equipped to keep people. So, it's going to start with our people that are on our roster. It's prioritizing who's most important for this team."
There's little doubt that among Niners free agents, Tomlinson is the top priority. Quietly, Tomlinson has been one of the best acquisitions of the Lynch and Shanahan era. After a disappointing start to his career in Detroit, the No. 28 pick in the 2015 draft arrived via trade before the start of the 2017 season and almost instantly became the team's most reliable player. Tomlinson started his first game in Week 2 of 2017 and has not missed one since, earning his first Pro Bowl berth in 2021.
"I love it here," Tomlinson said. "I've watched myself develop into the man, the player, the husband, the father, the character that I am today. And it all started with getting traded here to the 49ers. ... I would love to stay but I know it's a business and we'll see what happens."
The business side figures to take Tomlinson's price well beyond the $5.5 million annual salary he's earned over the past three years. Something closer to $9-10 million per year is probably in the offing with plenty of teams expected to be in the market for a productive and dependable lineman.
"When you talk about consistency and durability, he's kind of like the poster child for that," Lynch said. "We'll make an effort to try to keep him."
Like Tomlinson, Jones has been one of the Niners' unheralded heroes. The 2017 sixth-round pick was finally healthy for a full season in 2021 and posted career highs in snaps, pressures and tackles for loss while emerging as one of the best run-stuffing nose tackles in the league. He was a free agent last year, too, but a competitive market never really developed for his services and he returned on a one-year deal.
Also like Tomlinson, Jones would like to return but if the Niners re-sign Tomlinson, it's hard to see how they can fit Jones back in the puzzle unless his market fizzles again.
"If his objective was to stay here, he made it really hard," Lynch told reporters at the NFL scouting combine. "I do think it's gonna be challenging. We'll see where that goes. We certainly value him."
Key, cornerbacks K'Waun Williams and Jason Verrett, safety Jaquiski Tartt, running backs Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. and offensive lineman Tom Compton are but a handful of other 49ers who played big roles in 2021 slated to become unrestricted free agents.
Outside of their own, the Niners aren't expected to be significant players in the free-agent market in terms of volume. That doesn't mean they won't at least kick the tires at some positions of need.
And while Ambry Thomas showed promise at the end of last season, the Niners could be in the market for an upgrade or, at minimum, a new nickel corner capable of playing outside. New England's J.C. Jackson will be the top corner available but is probably going to be beyond the Niners' financial reach. Veterans such as Carolina's Stephon Gilmore and Kansas City's Charvarius Ward are a couple of possible fits, depending on cost.
No matter how it all plays out, the 49ers are expecting to look quite a bit different in 2022 than they have the past three seasons.
"I trust in John and Kyle and I feel like they are probably going to offer some of the guys who they want, who they feel like can help us go win a ring in 2022-2023 season," Ward said.