The 49ers are operating with slightly different financial realities than a year ago as they wade into the offseason.
This time last year they had some $100 million in salary cap space following the first season of the roster remodel under coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch. That flexibility allowed them to make a significant move by signing quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to a five-year, $137.5 million contract that included $37 million in 2018.
But it also afforded them to make smaller decisions that came with risk, such as keeping defensive back Jimmie Ward on his fifth-year option, giving him the highest guaranteed salary of any defensive player at roughly $8.5 million.
Ward, in their minds, was a valuable backup who could play all over the secondary. The abundance of cap space made keeping him around palatable despite a lengthy injury history.
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The gamble didn’t pay off. Ward struggled at cornerback before playing well at his natural position of free safety when he was moved there in October following Adrian Colbert’s season-ending high ankle sprain. Then Ward suffered his second fractured forearm in as many seasons and ended the campaign on injured reserve for the fourth time in his five-year career.
Now the 49ers have a similar decision to make regarding defensive lineman Arik Armstead, a first-round draft choice in 2015 who’s coming off his best season as a pro.
Armstead, like Ward in 2018, is coming up on his fifth-year option which the team picked up last May. It would pay him roughly $9 million fully guaranteed for injury only if he’s on the roster at the start of the new league year in March. That would make him the team’s fourth-highest paid player, according to Overthecap.com.
The rub: Armstead in 2018 had only three sacks, has proven to be better against the run than the pass (which is inherently less valuable) and has played a full 16-game schedule twice in his four seasons. Shoulder and hand injuries caused him to miss 18 games combined in 2016 and 2017.
Bringing back Armstead might have been an easy decision a year ago, given the team’s glut of cap room. But they have roughly 40 percent less this offseason, with a projected $62 million in space heading into March, which factors in Armstead’s guaranteed salary.
It’s still a good deal of space. It ranks eighth in the league. But San Francisco’s decision makers appear to be thinking more carefully about finances heading into 2019. They didn’t commit to bringing Armstead back like with Ward last year.
“Those decisions are based off of how do you want to balance and allocate all the money because you can’t do whatever you want,” Shanahan said. “What are the options out there, what’s our depth chart look like and what’s the best way to do it? But, if it’s as simple as just (evaluating) Arik, then yes, we really are happy with Arik.”
Though Armstead’s sack total was paltry, he played the third most snaps among the team’s defensive lineman (608) behind Solomon Thomas (644) and DeForest Buckner (852). He had the third-most pressures, behind Buckner and defensive end Cassius Marsh. He would leave a void that needs filling.
His pass rush productivity, an efficiency metric tracked by Pro Football Focus, ranked third among the eight 49ers on the defensive front to appear in at least 10 games.
Armstead is hoping that his sack numbers could jump significantly in 2019, like they did for DeForest Buckner during the recent campaign. Buckner had three sacks in 2017 before posting 12 this season.
“The end result stat lines don’t always show (my production),” Armstead said. “I know I missed a couple plays out there. (I’ll) try to find a way to finish those on a more consistent basis and I think I’ll be better next year. My main goal this year was to stay healthy and I know I can do some good things when I’m on the field. ... I think I’m going to improve and be a lot better than I was this year.”
The difference between Buckner in 2017 and Armstead in 2018 was the ability to bring constant pressure. Buckner’s three sacks came despite 52 pressures, which was near the top of the league for interior players. His sack total jumped by nine despite his pressures only increasing to 55 in 2018. His sack total finally reflected his ability to bother quarterbacks.
Armstead in 2018 had 37 pressures, one fewer than his rookie season (the only other year he played 16 games). But Lynch believes Armstead showed signs of becoming an integral player once he found his rhythm in the scheme and maintained his good health.
“I think we toward the end of this year really saw where the pieces fit,” Lynch said. “Moving Arik Armstead inside in nickel to a nickel nose. Moving Solly (Thomas) in to an inside player. Things kind of fell into place as to where it all fits, and that takes some time.”
The 49ers could decide to offer Armstead a multi-year contract extension with built-in roster bonuses that would offer some financial insurance should Armstead miss time due to injury. Something like safety Jaquiski Tartt’s two-year extension signed last spring worth up to $15 million could make sense. Otherwise the 49ers would be obligated to pay all of Armstead’s $9 million in 2019 regardless of any time missed because of injuries.
Also factoring in are two 2018 draft picks: fourth-rounder Kentavius Street and sixth-rounder Jullian Taylor.
Taylor played well in training camp and started games in the preseason while Armstead was dealing with a hamstring injury. Taylor, however, had several knee injuries at Temple, which led to getting drafted so late. He played in a reserve role over the final six weeks. He was credited with seven tackles while averaging 17 snaps per game.
Street was expected to be a second- or third-round prospect before suffering an ACL tear during a pre-draft workout. He played well opposite No. 5 overall pick Bradley Chubb at North Carolina State. The 49ers have been encouraged by Street’s rehab as he returned to practice with the club late in the season. He’s already one of the team’s strongest players in the weight room.
San Francisco could decide they could replicate Armstead’s production with Taylor and Street – and count on Thomas to have an expanded role in 2019 – rather than make Armstead one of the team’s most expensive players. But both those young players are unproven and come with their own injuries risks.
Perhaps, however unlikely, the 49ers could use their No. 2 draft pick on another interior player such as Alabama’s Quinnen Williams, whose name has shot up draft boards following his eight-sack, 71-tackle (19.5 for loss) season with the Crimson Tide.
Some draft experts believe Williams could be play with Arizona’s top-overall selection – and surely San Francisco would be derided by fans for taking a fourth defensive tackle in the first round in five years. The team has more obvious needs for a pass rusher along the edge and Buckner is already an established presence in the middle.
But it will undoubtedly be something the 49ers at least consider if they move on from Armstead, which is why the decision about his future in 2019 is one of the team’s most intriguing of the offseason.