San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch was asked if there was a theme to the team’s recent draft after its conclusion last Saturday. His answer was telling. He appeared confident that his club — which made deep playoff runs in two of the last three seasons — was in a good spot.
“I think one of the themes was we didn’t have a whole lot of needs on our roster,” Lynch said. “But we did have some that were there.”
Among the reasons the team didn’t have any pressing needs was one of the biggest developments of draft weekend: The team decided against caving to receiver Deebo Samuel’s trade request. Lynch decided there was no offer from the New York Jets or Detroit Lions that would make moving away from San Francisco’s best player in 2021 worthwhile.
“Losing a player like Deebo, it’s hard to see how that helps your organization,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “You try to look at all the aspects of it and what people are willing to do, and nothing was even remotely close that we thought would be fair for us or fair for the Niners.”
Deciding against trading Samuel signals a few important things. First, Shanahan and Lynch are confident the relationship with Samuel can be mended. For reasons that Samuel and the team are keeping close to the vest, philosophical differences went public space when Samuel made his trade request known to ESPN’s Jeff Darlington making things awkward for both sides leading into the draft.
Second, not trading Samuel indicates the 49ers are willing to pay him the going rate in a booming market for receivers, which means something in the neighborhood of $25 million a year and in the neighborhood of $60 million in guarantees.
Perhaps some clarity came when the Titans shipped star receiver AJ Brown, who shares an agent with Samuel, to the Philadelphia Eagles. Philadelphia signed Brown to a four-year, $25 million-a-year contract with $57.2 million in practical guarantees. That gives an outline for Samuel’s agent Tory Dandy and San Francisco’s chief negotiator, Paraag Marathe.
There’s also context to think about. The 49ers haven’t had problems paying players at the top of their respective markets. George Kittle’s contract extension in 2020 made him the highest-paid tight end, Fred Warner became the highest-paid linebacker when he signed in 2021 and Trent Williams became the highest-paid offensive lineman in history last offseason with his six-year, $138 million contract at the start of free agency. Defensive lineman Arik Armstead is slated to make $24.3 and $25.9 million against the cap over the next two seasons.
The 49ers are flush with cash from Levi’s Stadium and the salary cap is about to skyrocket in 2023 and 2024, when new media rights deals kick in. And the team should be helped by having quarterback, Trey Lance, on a manageable rookie contract. The idea San Francisco’s front office would be unwilling to eventually meet Samuel’s demands never tracked while Samuel’s power grab mostly fell on deaf ears.
That took hold Wednesday of this week when Samuel re-followed the 49ers on Instagram, after his unfollowing of the team’s account drew attention to his unhappiness.
Perhaps the 49ers and Samuel have already started to patch things up ahead of the team’s offseason program with the voluntary portion continuing ahead of mandatory minicamp June 13 through 15. Kittle and Warner’s deals both happened on the even of their respective training camps in late July and Aug.
“It’s part of the business,” Shanahan said of Samuel’s trade request. “There’s certain things that people got to go through. There’s certain things everyone is trying to get and trying to do, and you see what you can and you work from there. I mean you can work out anything. Hopefully when this is all said and done we’ll get the best thing for the Niners, best thing for Deebo, and hopefully that’s the same thing because we’d love to keep going how we’ve been. But we know that’s in front of us right now.”
As things currently stand, the 49ers are projected to have just under $42 million in cap space for 2023, according to Overthecap.com, based on a $225 million cap projection for that season. That doesn’t include the potential $25.5 million in savings if quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s money is moved off the ledger. (Here’s a way-too-early projection from OTC: The 49ers with nearly $115 million in cap space in 2024 with a $256 million cap projection.)
Garoppolo remains one of the big questions through the spring and summer. The Subway pitch man’s money hits the salary cap if he’s on the roster following final cuts. If not, the team could roll that money over into the following season, which would give the 49ers more than enough space to account for Samuel’s new deal and star defensive end Nick Bosa (who is in the same position as Samuel, but hasn’t made a peep about negotiations this offseason).
So the 49ers are in a holding pattern on the Samuel, Bosa and Garoppolo fronts, which isn’t a terrible place to be. They still have time to square things away with three of their most important figures.
In Samuel and Bosa’s cases, those contracts likely need to be done before the start of training camp. With Garoppolo, the team has roughly a month longer. They need him to get healthy and be able to throw before other teams would consider trading for him before the regular season starts. A strong training camp and preseason would likely open that door.
Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine the 49ers carrying Garoppolo’s $27 million unless he somehow beat out Lance. That looks like the most unlikely scenario left on the board. My bet: The 49ers find a trade partner at some point in August or get Garoppolo to take a drastically reduced salary as a backup.
But even then, having Garoppolo around wouldn’t give Lance much room to breathe in his first full season as the starter. If Lance were to falter at all, the dynamic might get complicated, given the team went to the NFC title game with Garoppolo playing mediocre football last season and through the playoffs while he was dealing with injuries.
But that’s a bridge the 49ers will cross when they get there. As Lynch said, for now, the theme of the spring has been about rolling with what the team has. After all, the NFC is wide open and San Francisco finished last season as the runner-up in the conference.
Drake Jackson — the pass rusher from USC the 49ers took 61st overall — was a logical choice. Defensive end is a premium position worth addressing with premium resources. San Francisco went to the Super Bowl in 2019 largely on the strength of its pass rush. Had Jackson had stability with the Trojans, instead of multiple defensive coordinators asking him to shift from defensive end to outside linebacker, there’s a chance he wouldn’t have been available in the second round. He goes to an ideal situation with position coach Kris Kocurek there to help him become a force to complement Bosa.
San Francisco’s second pick was a head-scratcher. Finding running backs has never been an issue with Shanahan as head coach, yet they used a third-round pick on LSU’s Tyrion Davis-Price, a player many projected to go a round or two later. It feels a lot like the third-round pick the team made a year ago to take running back Trey Sermon, who the team doesn’t appear to be overly fond of. Davis-Price better hit, because compounding a possible miss on Sermon would put far too much pressure on Elijah Mitchell to carry the load.
Fellow third-round choice Danny Gray is intriguing. The SMU receiver ran a blistering 4.33 in the 40-yard dash and played as fast as he tested. He runs away from defenses with the ball in his hands and could provide a superior version to what Richie James Jr. gave San Francisco the last few seasons. Gray should pair well with Lance on deep passes while also taking some attention away from Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk.
The team believes Spencer Burford (UTSA) has guard and tackle flexibility. My guess is he provides depth and competes for the “swing” tackle role. He started 43 games over four seasons in college. Cornerback Samuel Womack could be the latest fifth-round find for San Francisco. He didn’t go on college recruiting trips during high school because he was playing AAU basketball, which likely cost him Division I scholarship offers. He became a two-time team captain at Toledo after earning a scholarship as a walk-on.
Offensive lineman Nick Zakelj has a tough road to make the roster given the numbers at guard, but could be developmental option for the practice squad. Fellow sixth-round pick Kalia Davis might have been taken a round or two earlier if not for an ACL injury. The nose tackle might use 2022 as a redshirt season. If he comes back healthy, the 49ers think he has a chance to develop like DJ Jones, who signed a three-year, $30 million deal this offseason with Denver. Tariq Castro-Fields was another player expected to round far earlier than Round 6, but the 49ers will gladly give him a chance to compete for a roster spot given his size (6-foot, 195 pounds), 4.38 speed and experience after starting 30 games at Penn State. The last pick of the draft, quarterback Brock Purdy, might be the next Nick Mullens, Shanahan said. Like Mullens, the 49ers are hoping they won’t have injuries to other quarterbacks that would force him into action.
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