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The 49ers Are the Force That Controls 2018 Free Agency

With Jimmy Garoppolo in tow and tons of cap space to burn, San Francisco looks like one of the NFL’s most attractive destinations. How will that shape this year’s market? And who could join the Niners’ budding contender?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

A day after signing Jimmy Garoppolo to the richest contract in NFL history in February, the 49ers brass joined its 26-year-old quarterback for a press conference at the team facility in Santa Clara, California. Garoppolo sat front and center, wedged between head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch. It was the same seating arrangement the three men used less than four months earlier, during the press conference to announce Garoppolo’s arrival via an October trade with New England. Most teams treat pivotal moments with excessive fanfare, but the Niners have truly delighted in showing off the new face of their franchise.

It’s hard to blame them. After all, it would have been impossible to imagine the 49ers’ outlook swinging so fast. San Francisco was 0–8 on the day Garoppolo landed in the Bay Area. Two days earlier, Shanahan’s squad had been throttled 33–10 by the eventual Super Bowl champion Eagles. But as Shanahan quipped during his combine press conference last week, “I learned the way to get people to feel good about 6–10 is just to start 0–9.”

The Niners handed Garoppolo the keys to the team in early December — and promptly rattled off five straight wins to close out the season. Their offense averaged 28.8 points per game over that stretch, including a 44-point explosion against the top-ranked Jaguars defense in Week 16. Just months after the trade, acquiring Garoppolo for a 2018 second-round pick is already viewed as a landslide victory. Somehow, the quarterback of a last-place team has become the most compelling player in football.

Garoppolo’s ascendence and the Niners’ surge altered the air surrounding the franchise in an instant. Gone was the dark cloud of a winless season. In rolled the clearest horizon for any young team in the league. “I think the system is set up for parity, and so it’s a fine line between being 13–3 and being 6–10,” Lynch said at the press conference announcing Garoppolo’s extension. “It’s a real fine line. And so, that’s one of the things that made this [deal] attractive to Kyle, and then Kyle got me on board. We kind of had a clean slate, and there was a lot of money at our disposal.”

San Francisco’s pile of money was so massive that even with Garoppolo’s $37 million cap hit in 2018, the team enters the new league year that begins on March 14 with nearly $60 million in cap space. With cash to burn, a budding star quarterback, and a division fully in transition, the 49ers have become the most intriguing player in free agency — and just might be the NFL’s sleeping giant.

Garoppolo’s on-field impact for San Francisco was apparent from the moment he stepped into the huddle. What had been a listless offense under Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard transformed with Jimmy G. at the helm. To ease his new quarterback’s transition, Shanahan deployed plenty of shotgun concepts paired with quick throws that were similar to plays Garoppolo had run in New England. Eventually, glimpses of the heavy play-action schemes that Shanahan had used to great effect during his time as the coordinator of the Falcons started to emerge. The results were devastating.

Jimmy Garoppolo
Jimmy Garoppolo
Robert Reiners/Getty Images

It’s the influence the Niners quarterback can have off the field that matters most this spring, though. Star quarterbacks often serve as beacons of light for players on the open market. Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery has alluded to Carson Wentz as the main reason he signed a one-year deal with Philadelphia last spring. And there’s no doubt that playing 13 games with Wentz last season compelled Jeffery to ink a long-term contract rather than seek a deal elsewhere. Heading into next week, the Niners are hoping that Garoppolo can have a similar pull in bringing high-profile talent to the Bay.

When reported trades and cuts become official on Wednesday, the Niners are expected to have about $59.9 million in cap room, according to Spotrac, which should settle as the sixth- or seventh-highest total in the league. If they feel compelled, Lynch and the front office will have the space to make a run at the top free agents. And as it so happens, many of San Francisco’s biggest needs align with the best players who will be available.

The Niners will have to address both of their guard spots; former Panthers standout Andrew Norwell is poised to become the league’s highest-paid player at that position. San Francisco’s cornerback depth chart is barren aside from 2017 third-round pick Ahkello Witherspoon; Malcolm Butler and Trumaine Johnson are up for grabs. The team also needs a wide receiver; pairing Garoppolo with former Jaguars jump-ball artist Allen Robinson feels like a match made in football-nerd heaven.

To the fans who are still drunk off Garoppolo’s late-season heroics, it’s probably easy to start conjuring images of a Norwell-Butler-Robinson haul turning San Francisco into an instant contender. Let’s slow down a bit. The Niners’ defense finished 26th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA last season, and has more holes than a single free-agent class — or a single offseason — can fix. While defensive tackle DeForest Buckner emerged as a star interior player in coordinator Robert Saleh’s scheme, this group is hurting for pressure on the edge, and help will be hard to come by in a market rife with adequate contributors but few top-tier pass rushers. Reuben Foster’s repeated off-field transgressions have made inside linebacker another possible need. And even if the 49ers do land Johnson or Butler, they would still have work to do at their other cornerback spots.

On the other side of the ball, San Francisco’s most glaring holes on the depth chart come at running back and guard, and it’ll be interesting to see how Lynch and Shanahan address each spot. Shanahan’s offenses have been successful over the years without pedigreed backs: Alfred Morris, Terrance West, Isaiah Crowell, Devonta Freeman, and Tevin Coleman have all thrived in his system, and none were taken before the third round in the draft. Meanwhile, guard has been a similarly marginalized position at many of Shanahan’s stops. The coach was instrumental in bringing Alex Mack to Atlanta in 2016 free agency, but that’s because the center is the lynchpin in Shanahan’s ideal scheme. This may explain why the Niners retained free-agent-to-be Daniel Kilgore before he could test the market.

If the 49ers do skimp on running back and guard relative to other positions (either by addressing them with rookies on cheap deals or snatching up less expensive players on the market), it could free up capital to chase some of the bigger names available. And that’s where the Niners’ unique sales pitch really comes into play.

Along with having the allure of Garoppolo and an ocean of cap space in 2018, the franchise also has flexibility to push a portion of these deals onto next year’s cap. By lumping such a large chunk of Garoppolo’s guaranteed money into the first year of his contract, San Francisco was able to satisfy its quarterback’s demands while also keeping its cap relatively healthy in subsequent seasons. In 2019, Garoppolo’s cap number will be $20 million. From one year to the next, he’ll go from having the league’s highest cap hit to the 19th highest. If the Niners get creative with how some of their free-agent deals are structured — say, by paying low base salaries in year one and pushing significant money into year two — they could have even more bidding power than this year’s enviable cap situation would suggest.

All of which is to say: If Lynch wants to go after the biggest fish, he’ll have the means to make it happen.

Even if San Francisco completes a dream offseason by landing Robinson or Sammy Watkins at wide receiver, signing Butler or Johnson at corner, and addressing its other needs in frugal and effective ways, it’d be misguided for fans to expect a turnaround similar to that of last season’s Eagles. The 2016 Philadelphia group was only a few small moves away from building the NFL’s most complete roster. The 49ers, by contrast, are several big moves and a few small moves away from approaching that conversation.

While a single offseason may not turn the Niners into Super Bowl contenders, though, it could put them within striking distance of the postseason, thanks in part to the shifting landscape in the NFC West. Just as Lynch looks to finish assembling a team that could become a playoff fixture, the Seahawks are dismantling the version of their roster that has had a stranglehold on the division for the better part of the decade. The fire sale in Seattle signifies the inevitable deterioration of a group filled with aging stars, and that purge has opened the door to parity. The Rams are the reigning NFC West champions, complete with their own wunderkind head coach and lethal offense, but they, too, are selling off parts in order to maintain their core. Save for a remarkable draft by Los Angeles or Seattle, it’s likely that San Francisco will be the only team in the NFC West whose talent level drastically improves heading into this fall.

The Niners might take a step forward to 10–6. Maybe 8–8 is more realistic. Regardless of the specifics, this franchise is in position to compete now, and that’s a reality that would’ve been hard to imagine even 12 months ago.

Following the hellscape that was San Francisco’s post–Jim Harbaugh era, a two-year turnaround that’s sparked playoff aspirations is more than anyone in the Bay Area could have asked. As teams strategize to reshape their rosters on the eve of free agency, no group is better set up to stockpile prized talent than the trio of Garoppolo, Shanahan, and Lynch.