Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch have given big contracts to franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and pass rusher Dee Ford — two players acquired via trade.
They’ve signed free agents such as Richard Sherman, Kwon Alexander, Kyle Juszczyk, Jerrick McKinnon and Weston Richburg to pricey deals.
But what the 49ers’ key decision makers haven’t done since they were hired in 2017 is give out lucrative, market-setting contracts to players drafted by the team before the arrival of Shanahan and Lynch. Which is why talks surrounding the future of budding star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner are worth keeping an eye on.
Buckner, 25, is eligible for a contract extension for the first time. He’s coming off a career year in which he logged 12 sacks and went to the Pro Bowl for the first time. He’s widely considered one of the best young defensive linemen in the NFL.
Yet Buckner’s camp and the 49ers are “far apart” in negotiations for a new contract, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. “Agent Chafie Fields talked with SF brass in the last few days, but there is no deal in sight,” Rapoport wrote on Twitter, noting the sides have engaged in discussions throughout the offseason.
The 49ers picked up Buckner’s fifth-year option for 2020, which was a no-brainer for the No. 7 pick in the 2016 draft. The option will guarantee Buckner roughly $12.4 million if he’s on the roster at the start of the 2020 league year next March.
But Buckner’s value on the open market may be significantly higher, which would explain why his camp is in no hurry to get a deal done. The longer he waits, the more the salary cap will increase and the more money he could demand closer to his free agency.
“Honestly, it’s very early,” Buckner said last month. “Just because I’m eligible for a new contract going into my fourth year, it’s still very early in the process. I’m really just looking forward to being here with the team long term. And I know Jed (York) and John and Paraag (Marathe) and all them, Kyle, they all know that. They know what I can bring to the table and what I bring to the team. There’s no rush to it.”
From the 49ers’ standpoint, they have Buckner’s fifth-year option and the franchise tag as possible leverage points. They could theoretically control Buckner’s rights for the next three seasons without giving him a long-term contract, though Buckner’s camp assuredly wouldn’t be happy without the long-term security a new deal could provide.
If Buckner were to hit the open market, the bidding would likely start at $18 million to $20 million per season with money from the first two or three years mostly guaranteed. Buckner on the franchise tag in 2021 could cost some $16 million or $17 million, which would still be less than what he could garner in free agency. That could lead to a holdout. Obviously, that’s what San Francisco is trying to avoid.
The 49ers have been known for creating contracts that are heavy in guarantees at signing but light on guarantees after the first or second season, which would allow them flexibility in the later stages of the contract. That’s true of the contracts given to Garoppolo, Alexander, Ford and McKinnon.
But whether that will work with Buckner remains to be seen. He’s been the team’s best and most consistent defensive player since he was drafted. He’s appeared in 47 of 48 games while being among the league leaders in snaps played at position. He’s been one of the NFL’s most durable iron men for a franchise that’s dealt with several injuries since he was drafted.
“Shoot, I would love nothing more than have DeFo to be here,” Lynch said last month. “We’ve got a long time to work on that. He’s very important to us. And he’s another guy that’s a big part of what we’re doing. Just love everything about him and the way he goes about his business. His profession, I think he’s a special player and we’d like to keep him here a long time.”
Following the free-agent signing period and the NFL Draft, the 49ers have roughly $35.2 million in salary-cap space, according to NFLPA records. That would be fourth most in the NFL. Buckner will eat into a significant chunk of that whether he plays on his fifth-year option or signs a new contract.
Here are the contracts of the NFL’s highest-paid defensive tackles (per Overthecap.com):
- Aaron Donald, Rams: Six years, $135 million ($22.5 million average), $50 million guaranteed at signing
- Fletcher Cox, Eagles: Six years, $102.6 million ($17.2 million average), $36.3 million guaranteed at signing
- J.J. Watt, Texans: Six years, $100 million ($16.7 million average), $31.9 million earned in guarantees
- Gerald McCoy, Buccaneers: Seven years, $95.2 million ($13.6 million average), $49 million in guarantees
- Kawann Short, Panthers: Five years, $80.5 million ($16.1 million average), $45 million in guarantees