When it comes to free-agent priorities this off-season, the primary goal for the San Francisco 49ers needs to be a Trent Williams free agency signing. Elite left tackles are hard to come by in this league and a team needs to do everything they can to keep one. But there are other San Francisco 49ers free agency questions that must be addressed, including the quarterback position.
San Francisco 49ers Free Agency Questions This off-Season
Williams sounds open to a reunion with the 49ers. While he is probably going to cost a large chunk of money, it would be a wise investment for the team. Williams will turn 33 this July and he probably has a handful of seasons left in the tank as an elite left tackle. The 49ers acquired him last off-season for a fifth-round pick in the 2020 draft and a third-round pick in the 2021 draft. This trade went down after Joe Staley announced his retirement after 13 seasons with the team. The 49ers being in a position to go more than a decade and a half with a star left tackle bolstering their offensive line is a luxury not often seen in the NFL.
Williams previously played with the Washington Football Team, including a span in which 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan was offensive coordinator. Williams made the Pro Bowl this season for the eighth time in his career. That is tied for the ninth most among players who were still playing in 2020. Deficiencies within this 49ers interior offensive line, particularly in pass protection, were exposed this past season. The team cannot afford to have a vulnerability at left tackle.
What Williams Will Likely Cost
According to Spotrac, the 49ers have an estimated $21.4 million in salary cap space, if they do not make any further cuts. Williams will have a market value of around $18 million AAV with a contract length of three seasons. Anthony Castonzo got an AAV of $16.5 million for two seasons at age 31. David Bakhtiari got an AAV of $23 million for four seasons at age 29. Williams looks poised to get something between these two contracts, given his career accolades and age. It is even harder to project upcoming contracts than usual due to COVID-19. However, this is what the going rate for players like Williams seems to be when looked at in a vacuum.
The good news for the 49ers is that if Williams is indeed their top free-agent priority, they have the resources to bring him back at this type of rate. If they do not make any other player releases, though, the amount of cap space available will severely limit who else they can bring back besides Williams. Kyle Juszczyk, Richard Sherman, Jaquiski Tartt, K’Waun Williams, Kendrick Bourne, Kerry Hyder, Jordan Reed, Jason Verrett, Ahkello Witherspoon, and Emmanuel Moseley are also set to be free agents.
How the 49ers Can Free up More Money
If they want more flexibility to bring back some of these free agents, the49ers will have to get creative. A willing trade partner with enough cap space to take on a contract isn’t always available. The more direct route the 49ers can take as things currently stand is to release a player with a low dead cap total but huge cap savings. The most obvious candidate if the 49ers were to pursue that avenue is Jimmy Garoppolo. If released before June 1, he would represent a dead cap total of just $2.8 million but cap savings of $23.6 million. That extra $23.6 million could make it easier to retain other key pieces. However, it would also create an issue at quarterback.
The 49ers have been linked to other quarterbacks this off-season in trade rumors. Deshaun Watson or Matthew Stafford are examples that come to mind, although Stafford was recently traded to the Los Angeles Rams. Acquiring a veteran quarterback would significantly eat into any savings resulting from Garoppolo’s released contract, but not if the 49ers were to draft a quarterback. The team has the number 12 overall pick in the upcoming draft. But it is unknown if a quarterback who the 49ers would want to draft at that high would be available.
Rookie Quarterback Salary Could Help With Cap Flexibility
It’s too early to speculate on whether any quarterback rated among the top prizes of this draft would be available at 12, especially considering the number of teams that are above the 49ers that are possibly in need of a quarterback. They could always package draft picks to trade up if they’re enamored with someone like Justin Fields, Zach Wilson or Trey Lance, but it’s still unclear how confident they would be going with one of them as their starter from day one.
If Garoppolo is still on the roster come next season, he’s going to be the starter. But San Francisco could very well draft a quarterback high and have them sit behind Garoppolo, though. Garoppolo could also be involved in a trade involving a veteran star quarterback. If not, and the team is able to acquire a star veteran quarterback, the 49ers would just release Garoppolo. It is also possible that the 49ers could move on from Garoppolo, draft a quarterback with their first-round pick, and sign a veteran option to an inexpensive contract to serve as either a bridge starter to their drafted quarterback or as a reliable backup to help mentor them.
Quarterback Situation Linked To Financial Flexibility
As outlined above, there are many paths the 49ers free agency period can take at the quarterback position. For the sake of addressing Williams and other key free agents, though, the point is that Garoppolo’s current contract prevents the team from being able to retain their free agents. A tremendous amount of financial flexibility would result from Garoppolo’s release. With Garoppolo still on the books, the team could either keep Williams but not many other key free agents, or many free agent players, but not Williams.
The team has crucial decisions to make in the near future. The first of which will likely involve Garoppolo and their quarterback situation. If they conclude Garoppolo will be on their roster come next season, it will limit which free agents they can retain. They’d have to determine whether keeping Williams but losing a lot of other pieces is better than losing Williams but re-signing other key players.