2018 Free Agency Review: 49ers

Key Additions: Weston Richburg ($9.5M), Richard Sherman ($9.1M), Jerick McKinnon ($7.5M), Jonathan Cooper ($5M), Jeremiah Attaochu ($3M)

Key Re-Signings: Jimmy Garoppolo ($27.5M), Garry Gilliam ($7.8M), Cassius Marsh ($3.9M), Brock Coyle ($2.8M)

Key Losses: Brandon Fusco (Falcons), Aaron Lynch (Bears), Daniel Kilgore (Dolphins)

Player Signings

Jimmy Garoppolo- 5 Years, $137.5M, $74.1M guaranteed

The 49ers made this trade late in the season last year and probably should have just worked on an extension prior to the trade if this was going to be the end result after just a handful of starts. Give the 49ers credit for being able to come up with a contract structure that made Garoppolo the “highest paid” despite not hitting the highest mark in any real meaningful metric while also not killing their cap if they are forced to release him in two years, but this is a fortune to pay for someone with 7 starts in his career. It is not as if Garoppolo was the first overall pick sitting behind a hall of famer, he was a player who four years had 61 other players, including 4 quarterbacks, drafted before him. As with most QBs teams are desperate so you have to look at these contract differently, but San Francisco should have had opportunities to do a much better contract. They need him to be great to make this a great signing. Grade: B-

Weston Richburg- 5 Years, $47.5M, $28.5M guaranteed

Richburg was, in my opinion, the best available center but I do think it is very fair to question the price paid for him. In general centers have not fared well in free agency outside of Alex Mack who was a top line player, though there were market changes last year when the Jaguars extended Brandon Linder to a head scratching $10.34 million per year extension which set in motion a few other big extensions. With the cap room the 49ers had, they had the luxury of being able to come in with a big number without the worry other teams might have. The 49ers made a massive 1st year $17M investment which is pretty much right at the top of the position and surprisingly used a pretty big signing bonus despite all the cap space they had. Really the big strength of the contract for the 49ers is that their full guarantee at signing comes in at under 35% of the total contract value which ranks around 12th among veteran centers. Coming off a four game season it would have been beneficial to see more tied to per game bonuses. Grade: B-

Richard Sherman- 3 years, $27.2M, $3M guaranteed

There is no doubt in my mind that if Sherman is healthy enough to play in 13 or more games a year for the next three seasons that this will be the best contract on the 49ers during those three years. The 49ers risked next to nothing to sign Sherman as his $3M guarantee is less than the $4M they paid a 30 year old Earl Mitchell off a 9 game season in free agency last year. The 49ers created an incentive laden deal that still leaves Sherman underpaid even if he is a great player again and probably will draw some comparisons to the ill fated Ricky Williams rookie contract negotiated by Master P in the late 1990’s. With millions in per game bonuses, no true future guarantees, and reasonable contract figures this is nothing but pure upside for the 49ers. Grade: A+

Jerick McKinnon- 4 years, $30M, $18M guaranteed

This contract has to be the direct result of a terrible contract that the 49ers signed last year with Kyle Juszczyk that saw the team pay over $5M for a fullback that played in under 40% of the teams offensive plays.  You can’t expect a running back signing with the same team in the early stages of free agency to not demand a far bigger contract. McKinnon’s four year Viking career saw him start a total of 14 games, rush for under 2000 yards at about 4 yards per carry. He added 142 receptions for just under 1,000 yards. That should be good for around $4 million, not a contract that makes him the 4th highest paid running back in the league. Maybe the 49ers were negotiating against slotted rookie contracts or something when they came up with this one. I believe they also may have flubbed the contract structure here causing a small signing bonus to turn into a large one due to an obscure CBA rule, though I am not 100% sure about that. Either way this is one of the worst deals of the offseason and they must have a lot of faith in him to have gone to this number. Grade: F.

Jonathan Cooper- 1 year, $4.95M, $2M guaranteed

This is a pretty big price to pay for one year of Cooper, who is now on his fifth team since 2015. I guess the strategy in moving on from Brandon Fusco is similar to their trade for Laken Tomlinson last year in that they are stockpiling high draft picks at guard and expect two of three to make the team, so you want contractual flexibility to release this year. Still Cooper has basically been a $1.5M or less player the last few years and I cant imagine there was much interest anywhere else at $5M. The $2M guarantee is reasonable but that is a big upside number for him to not be named a starter. Generally you should not go over $3.5M if there is a chance to be a backup and bridge the gap with incentives. Cooper has the highest current true 1 year contract (Mike Iupati’s recent pay cut puts him just slightly over Cooper) in the NFL among guards and its not even close, with Chance Warmack and Matt Slauson at $2.5 million. Grade: D

Garry Gilliam- 2 years, $7.8 million, $3.65M guaranteed

This is one of those contracts that people probably look at negatively because of the nearly $4M APY for basically a journeyman swing tackle, but when you look at the overall structure it’s a different story. Gilliam will earn $2.7 million this season, just $500,000 more than he received last year from the 49ers. His salary next year jumps to $5.05 million and it costs nothing to release him. So basically he is a market or very slightly above market player this year and either proves he can be a starting right tackle or is cut. Nothing wrong with that kind of contract. Grade: C

Cassius Marsh- 2 years, $7.7M, $3.1M guaranteed

Marsh fills a role for the 49ers as a situational end that also plays special teams. As a contract this is a bit rich for his production so far. While the contract has more in year 2 than year 1, it’s not the big discrepancy like the Gilliam deal. Alex Okafor, who has had a far more productive career and a similar draft grade, re-signed with the Saints for slightly less money during the heart of free agency. The 49ers wanted to get a bunch of their contracts done early but they would have probably saved around $1M a year if they waited.  Grade: C-

Jeremiah Attaochu- 1 year, $3M, $2.5M guaranteed

This is a shot in the dark contract on a second round pick who has spent a good deal of the last two seasons battling injuries and ineffectiveness. There was a time when he looked like he would be a good pass rusher but he likely needs a strong coaching system to see if they can get that out of him now. In essence he is a cheaper replacement for Aaron Lynch, who signed for $4 million with the Bears. Lynch had less guaranteed and I think you could make the argument that the 49ers over-guaranteed this contract  especially since players like this may not even make the team but maybe they see enough openings that they are considering his spot a given no matter what. Grade: C

Brock Coyle- 3 years, $8.4M, $4.1M guaranteed

This is similar to the Marsh signing where it seemed to be more about just whatever number out there for the purpose of getting a deal done.  Coyle played a role last year but other players have had similar roles and far more upside that signed for less money at the position. He’ll make close to $3.5 million this year and I’m not sure he should be earning much more than $2 million based on his history. Hes also hurt and will take some time to fully recover.  Small deals like this don’t really hurt you but that doesn’t make them good ones either. Grade: D

Overall Thoughts

No team committed more new contract money than the 49ers this offseason, but most of that is because of the massive contract for Garoppolo.  Overall I just look at the moves made and come out feeling underwhelmed given all the resources they had to work with. I honestly expected them to be competing for some of the big name talent at corner, guard, and receiver while maybe trying to land a decent pass rusher and they were never in on those players. They really overspent on a number of players and while none will hurt them whatsoever it just seems they could have done more outside of having Sherman fall to them. I will say that this has to be a pretty unique situation where a team may have signed both the best (Sherman) and worst (McKinnon) contract in free agency in the same season.

Some of what the 49ers do still has that seat of the pants feel to it. Maybe that’s the inexperience of the GM, but the 49ers spent more money last year on players that didn’t stick on the team for the full season and this year has that same potential. Already they signed center Daniel Kilgore to an extension in February and turned around and traded him in March when they decided to make a play for Richburg. That didn’t cost them much but that was more luck than anything that they found a partner willing to trade for him.

They added a better center, a better corner, and some depth but this feels like the same team. They ranked 12th in the NFL in terms of outside dollars added and that number is kind of bloated when you look at some of the signings. That’s not to say that this is a bad thing as building through the draft is better but with everything they had at their disposal they could have probably covered themselves at one or two more positions better. If that 5 game streak at the end proves to be a fluke there is going to be criticism for not doing enough in free agency.

Overall Grade: C

Thoughts on Jimmy Garoppolo’s $137.5 Million Contract with the 49ers

The numbers for Jimmy Garoppolo’s $137.5 million contract are out via Adam Schefter and now that gives us a good chance to really dive into the numbers and break down the pros and cons of the contract. As with everything there can be some gray areas with these contracts and cap charges so I’ll explain as we go along. Continue reading Thoughts on Jimmy Garoppolo’s $137.5 Million Contract with the 49ers »

The Costs of Trading NaVorro Bowman

Edit: So a few minutes after posting this the 49ers released NaVorro Bowman. Bowman’s salary for the year is protected but if he requested the release maybe there is some waiver in there regarding his ability to collect on his $4.7 million guarantee or his termination pay rights. My guess is there is not and the only money the 49ers save this year is $515,625 in bonus money that did not currently count on the cap but would have been earned weekly from here on out, plus any offset on the $2.3M remaining salary guarantee. The 49ers did pay him a bonus this year but considering he was cut and not quitting they wont have the right to recover on that. His dead money for next season will be the amount referenced below at $4.774 million. If I hear otherwise about his dead money this year Ill fix it but for now I would assume the 49ers are on the hook for his entire $6.75 million salary and will get some credits next year if he doesnt invoke his termination pay rights and/or has some salary offset when he signs with someone else for the balance of the year.

The rumor mill was circulating today that the 49ers are looking to trade linebacker NaVorro Bowman and that has led to a number of contract questions so let’s try to answer them here.

Bowman has one of the more complicated contracts in Continue reading The Costs of Trading NaVorro Bowman »

49ers to Cut Torrey Smith

Per Steve Smith, the 49ers will be releasing receiver Torrey Smith, creating about $4.7 million in cap room and saving themselves $8 million in salary commitments for the year. Smith was the 49ers prized free agent signing in 2015, but he never took off in the offense catching just 53 passes for 930 yards in two years. The 49ers were reportedly shopping Smith last year at the trade deadline but were supposedly looking for a high draft pick which never made sense if it was true and looks worse now that they will release him for nothing. Continue reading 49ers to Cut Torrey Smith »

The 49ers Options With Chris Borland

Linebacker Chris Borland’s decision to retire from the NFL after just one season, due to fears about long term health concerns, has sparked a number of debates on the subject. The initial debates were about what this meant for the game and how player’s might react in the future to news about the dangers of football, but I think now we are starting to consider what are the potential negative financial implications associated with the retirement and what San Francisco may do to recover money from Borland.

In the NFL players are often paid a signing bonus upon signing a contract. For draft picks it is almost a certainty that they will receive a signing bonus. As long time readers of OTC know, signing bonus money is subject to forfeiture over the life of the contract for a number of reasons. The most common reason is drug/PED suspension, but a lesser known provision allows a team to recover money if a player opts to retire rather than honoring his contract.

Often a retiring player has expressed his potential desire to retire at the time a contract is signed. In other cases the player is a well established veteran who has given the NFL, and usually that team, so many great years of service that the player is lauded on his way out the door. There are also a number of situations where retirement allows the team and player to graciously end a career rather than having to release the player whose skills have declined significantly. An injury can also cause a player to retire and many times such players will be released for procedural purposes, such as David Wilson of the Giants.

One notable case I can recall where money was returned was when the Broncos traded Jake Plummer to the Buccaneers and Plummer refused to report and retired. Tampa did go after the bonus money because they had zero relationship with Plummer to consider his decision reasonable. Barry Sanders retired abrputly at the peak of his career in part because he wanted to play on a more competitive team and also returned a significant portion of his bonus money. The Lions had only two years before signed Sanders to a lurcative extension and and no idea that he would consider retirement an option.

With Borland we have a very unique case. Borland wasn’t injured. He wasn’t a veteran. He hadn’t been traded/drafted by a team he refused to play for. He decided that the risk of playing in the NFL was not worth the potential financial reward.

I think there are many reasons that a player who expressed interest in the NFL would change his mind the way Borland did. The 49ers were not exactly the ideal location for any player in 2014. He looked around him and saw guys injured. The organization was in disarray with a head coach being pushed out the door, a QB under heavy scrutiny, and a player being kicked off the team for a domestic issue off the field. He played with the greatest linebacker of the last decade, who himself decide it wasn’t worth it anymore just a few days before. He still would have to play at least two more years  before there was any significant financial reward. These things can quickly change the view of being in the NFL after actually experiencing it.

But regardless of why he chose to do it or if it was some grand gesture on his part, the 49ers should strongly consider going after his salary. There is precedent that is going to be set with this case. While Borland received a very modest (by NFL standards) signing bonus of $617,436, we should not get caught up in the amount of the bonus. What if Jedeveon Clowney, who struggled with injuries and had questions surface about his play, decided to retire after one year after receiving a $14,518,544 signing bonus? Not only is there the opportunity cost lost to the team but this would be a major financial loss. While the numbers are dramatically different the approach should be the same.

This is the same kind of logic that has forced the NFL Players Association to fight for the salary of Aaron Hernandez, who is likely going to be convicted of murder.  It has forced them to defend Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson. While many people look down on it they are doing it because they need to do it for the benefit of the other 2,000 or so player who play in the NFL. For as bad as it may look to to try to obtain nearly $4 million for Hernandez to likely use on lawyers, had they not acted on his behalf the NFL could potentialy throw aside contractual guarantees for a number of reasons.

The NFL has to protect the interest of the teams in this case while also protecting the contract structures of future draft picks. If Borland’s decision becomes considered acceptable around the NFL, teams will no longer be willing to use the signing bonus as a large first year payment for the player.  Instead they will increase yearly salaries and guarantee the compensation in order to protect it from being paid in the event of early retirement. That defers the time it will take for a player to earn his actual salary which is certainly not good for the players.

The 49ers are entitled to 463,077 of Borland’s salary, which is 3/4 of his signing bonus, if Borland does not reconsider his decision to retire. Recovering $155,468 of that money should be easy. That is the amount of Peformance Based Pay that was earned by Borland for 2014. The 49ers will simply withhold that payment as a form of recovery. The other $307K will need to be turned over by the player unless there is any other cash witholding in the possession of the 49ers.

Aldon Smith Restructures Contract with 49ers

In a somewhat interesting salary cap move, 49ers pass rusher Aldon Smith has restructured his one year contract to essentially remove the guarantee from the deal according to Matt Maiocco. According to Maiocco Smith will receive a $2 million roster bonus in April  (likely April 1) and then roster bonuses paid out through the season. Smith’s $9.754 million salary was currently guaranteed for injury and would become fully guaranteed on March 10, now most of the salary is not guaranteed. Sounds strange, right?  Lets speculate a bit.

Smith’s demons off the field are well known and he has spent signifiant time on the non football illness list and suspended list the last two seasons. During that period his performance has slipped somewhat as well. In Smith’s first two seasons in the NFL he combined to sack the quarterback 1.05 times per game. In the last two seasons that ratio has fallen to 0.58.

Though he does have immense talent both things combined might be enough for him to consider his current earning potential if released. It is possible that in order to earn the same salary as he was scheduled with the 49ers he may have to give up years of free agency in incentive laden contracts. This allows him to play out free agency like planned and hopefully have a strong season with no off the field transgressions that should get him into the $14M per year discussions. The 49ers are also the team most likely to extend him so playing ball with the team on a contract only helps the relationship.

Now before we go off the deep end with Smith giving up guarantees it is quite possible that the contract is essentially virtually guarateed. The April 1 payment is likely guaranteed, at the least for skill and injury.  His P5 I would imagine is also guaranteed. For the sake of argument lets assume his new salary is $754,000 and his per game roster bonuses are paid out in installments of $437,500 per week ($7 million total). That $7 million is not guaranteed but it likley has a very high likelihood of being earned.

Normally we associate those bonuses as requiring being active on Sunday, but that is not always the case. It is not uncommon for per game bonuses to include payment to a player for being on injured reserve or the PUP list. So in that respect they can be identical to salary. I would imagine that the negotiation will not pay him for games in which he lands on the NFI or Suspended/Exempt lists, which is basically the same as what would have happened if he had another off the field issue (base salary is not paid on those lists either, regardless of guaranteed status). So as long as he makes it through the summer he is likely going to end up paid the same as before.

So what’s in this for San Francisco then?  Mainly salary cap relief. Per game roster bonuses are valued against the salary cap based on the players performance last season. Smith was only active for 7 games last season so using our hypothetical example Smith’s salary cap figure drops from $9.754 million to $5.8165 million, savings of nearly $4 million in immediate salary cap relief for the cap hungry 49ers.

There is a catch, however. That hidden money that is not counted against the salary cap now will need to be accouned for on a weekly basis during the season if earned, which should be pretty likely. So while it gives temporary relief the team still needs the space to account for it in the regular season. What that tells me is that the 49ers front office is strongly considering using the June 1 cut on one of their players.

The way a June 1 cut works is the player designated a June 1 cut will have his cap charge count in full until June 1 and then on June 2 only his current year’s proration will count against the cap with the remaining acceleration hitting the following year. This gives no cap relief for free agency but helps for in season cap management.

If we look at a player like Ahmad Brooks, cutting him now provides San Francisco with just $1.5M in cap relief, which isnt a very big help for free agency. If they designate him a June 1 they will gain $4.7 million for 2015, which more than offsets those roster bonuses being earned by Smith.

While I have no idea if that is the team’s intention it is the way I would look at this deal. Reworking Smith gives me the immediate cap relief right now for free agency and then a player like Brooks pays it back in June. Its a creative way to get some extra cap dollars to spend in free agency while remaining in full compliance with the cap.

49ers 2015 Salary Cap Outlook


Estimated 2015 Cap Space: $1.0M ($140M cap limit)

Roster Overview

Players Under Contract: 63
Pro Bowlers: 2
Unrestricted Free Agents: 15(5 with 50%+ playtime)
Draft Selection: 15

Salary Cap Breakdown

49ers 2015 Salary Cap

49ers 2015 Salary Cap

49ers 2015 salary cap

Free Agents to Re-sign

With the development of Colin Kaepernick so important I think the 49ers are almost in a position where they must find a way to keep Frank Gore to keep their running game more or less intact. Gore is certain up there in age, but he has been able to keep things together through the age of 31. They should only need to lock in on two years with him and use a structure similar to that of Fred Jackson in Buffalo, but with a $3.5M or so price…Chris Culliver is a decent option in the defensive backfield and probably flies a bit under the radar which should make it reasonable to keep him long term. I would imagine he would slot in between $4 and $4.75M per year…Perrish Cox filled in nicely in the system last year and should not be expensive to retain on a two to three year contract.

Free Agents to Let Walk

Guard Mike Iupati will be in high demand and I think that will likely be a barrier towards retaining him. With the team in the process of turning over I don’t think San Francisco can commit the kind of money that would be required to keep Iupati and get good value on their investment. With free agency right around the corner I also don’t believe they can get their style of contract done with him and you simply don’t blow up your system for a guard…Michael Crabtree was given every opportunity to break out and instead he struggled through a poor season. This is one of those “change of scenery” situations that may work best for both sides unless he is willing to do an extremely low cost one year contract….

Contracts to Modify

After being upset that he failed to receive a contract extension in 2014, Vernon Davis fell off the map and landed on the back of the milk carton, having the worst season of his career with just 245 yards. You can make a strong case for giving up on him, but I consider it better for San Francisco to first try to bring his dollar figure down as older tight ends are often productive. Cutting his salary by half might be more than he would earn anywhere else…Steve Johnson will earn slightly more than $6 million this season, which is far too high for a player who hasn’t gained 600 yards in either of his last two seasons. Johnson has positive attributes and should see his numbers increase if Crabtree is gone, but his production is in the $3 million  year range…It may be time to decide if the 49ers expect Patrick Willis to finish his career in San Francisco or elsewhere. If it is in San Francisco this is probably the right time to consider an extension that can make his cap figure more manageable this season and bring their spending down at the position…Aldon Smith will count for $9.75 million against the cap and it’s probably a good time to consider his long term extension or to trade him away. Smith is highly talented but has struggled with problems off the field that has impacted his available games. It makes for a tricky negotiation but carrying him for one year at this number to just turn around and franchise him or lose him is a waste of space in 2015.

Players to Consider Releasing

Both Johnson and Davis, mentioned above, are clearly in danger of being released if they refuse pay cuts…I don’t think there is any question that Ahmad Brooks will be released this season.  If the team switches to a 4-3 he clearly has no role, but even if they don’t his role is limited. His cap charge next year is just over $7M and the team can create about $1.5M by releasing him…Releasing Craig Dahl saves the team $1.7Min cap space, a move that seems inevitable since he only plays limited snaps and special teams on a team with a tight cap situation…Jonathan Martin was likely brought in as a favor to the head coach who is no longer on the team. Martin can’t play and his $1 million salary can be spent better elsewhere… Ian Williams has suited up for 11 games since signing a contract extension in 2013. It was a move based on youth, but it hasn’t worked out. Another $1.2M in space will come with his release.

Offseason Plan

While I believe that the window likely closed for this group last season, I think given some of the talent on the team and their salary cap makeup that can’t just throw in the towel on this group and begin cutting players left and right for minimal savings. Their next phase of development really hinges on Kaepernick and the team will never be certain on him if they give him a shell of a team to work with. If he plays well they can contend for another season with this group. We have seen it countless times with teams who have had a good history, fall off, and then seem to piece it together one more time before age really catches up with them.

For San Francisco this should indicate a holding pattern where you are keeping a majority of your veterans and filling your roster with affordable players that won’t hamstring the organization two and three years down the line if they do not pan out. I would not expect the team to be active in free agency at all and instead just focus on getting players back healthy and having them buy in to a new voice in the locker room.

The best course for success is to use the draft to get some players who can learn for one year behind a very good veteran group and be ready to take the field running in 2016. That is the way to avoid the crash and burn that could be staring at the team in 2016.  I don’t know if the team can continue to take some questionable health picks in the draft anymore where going in they seem to acknowledge it’s a year of rehab and film session. I think they just need bodies that can play and potentially stand out.

Clearly the team needs offensive playmakers that can play wide receiver and/or tight end. Anquan Boldin will be 35 years old and will eventually need to be replaced and they really don’t have a clear number 2, let alone a potential 1. Given the need for the QB to improve finding these type of players should be of prime importance. If Iupati walks guard becomes a mid-round need, especially if there are no long term plans in place to keep Alex Boone.

Defensively the team needs to begin rebuilding their defensive front. Justin Smith could retire and even if he does not the 49ers know that day is coming soon. They will need at least one defensive end in this offseason and clearly need more talent for the interior of their line. If there is one area that they need to hit on in the draft it’s their defensive line. If they fail to nail this down for the future their whole defense will suffer and the 49ers will lose their identity if that happens.

A lot of people are saying that the 49ers have wrecked their salary cap because of the limited space, but the reality is they are more or less around the averages in almost every category, they just have a deeper roster than most teams. One of the concessions that you often have to make when you have a successful veteran unit is the possibility that you may get old and be forced to move into a holding pattern until their pay warrants their release. While that may have made a few shortsighted moves using voidable years, the team is where they are now in regards to the cap because certain players just got older, but few are at a point where you want to release them. It also would have helped if the QB played to his salary level. The trick now is to rebuild the team with draft while working with this group that can still possibly contend for the playoffs. It’s easier said than done, but if they play their cards right they can jump back into the mix pretty quickly.

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