San Francisco 49ers

49ers mailbag: Robert Saleh a future head coach? Will Arik Armstead be too expensive?

We’re back with the latest installment of our weekly mailbag, where readers ask about defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, the team’s receivers and more. On to your questions:

Box Kev asks: What a difference a year makes. Do you think Robert Saleh will have legit offers to become a head coach next season? If so, anything Jed York and Kyle Shanahan can do to keep him here?

He’s certainly already getting consideration in media circles. Sports Illustrated last month added him to an early list of possible head coaching candidates for the upcoming hiring cycle.

We can only assume Saleh would be interested in getting a head coaching job. They don’t come around often and it would likely come with a raise at least three to four times what he currently makes (I don’t know his salary).

But looking around the league, it’s hard to say where he might fit best. I’m sure he’s heard enough bad things about the Washington Redskins from Shanahan that he would avoid working for Dan Snyder like the plague. Would the disappointing Atlanta Falcons want to go with another defensive coach from the Pete Carroll tree if they move on from Dan Quinn? That seems unlikely.

Would the 2-4 Los Angeles Chargers move on from Anthony Lynn, or would they peg their issues to injuries? And would they want a defensive coach to help develop a new franchise quarterback when Philip Rivers inevitably retires? Perhaps it would be interesting to see Saleh take over that job and reunite with his mentor, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley.

It seems far too early to start projecting which clubs would be looking for new coaches. But, inevitably, there will be a handful of openings come Black Monday after Week 17.

Shanahan, John Lynch and the Yorks can’t prevent coordinators from interviewing for head coaching jobs (they can only block assistants from interviewing for lateral or other coordinator jobs). York hasn’t been shy about paying assistants. Jim Harbaugh’s staff was one of the most expensive in the league. A number of those coaches were paid by the 49ers even after Harbaugh’s departure.

My guess: Saleh sticks around while getting a sizable raise. Getting more experience wouldn’t hurt. He’s 40, which makes him relatively green by head-coaching standards. And we have no idea how he would do while being responsible for an offense.

Charles Yarbough asks: If the 49ers could upgrade one position or make one (realistic) trade to improve the team ‘this year’ to make them an even more solid playoff/title contender this year or the next, what would that be?

Red Scott asks: What are the plausible different scenarios for improving the receiving core outside of George Kittle? Do you expect Dante Pettis to take a step? Wait for Trent Taylor? Trade for Allen Lazard?!

Making this a two-fer. I think receiver makes the most sense, though I don’t think it’s likely the 49ers make a significant trade. They want to develop the players they have and keep their their draft picks to fortify the roster when players inevitably depart.

Keep in mind, the 49ers might have to find replacements for players such as Arik Armstead and Jimmie Ward, who might be playing themselves out of San Francisco’s price range. Richard Sherman and Joe Staley aren’t getting any younger. Plus the team has to give contract extensions to DeForest Buckner (which could cost $16 million to $20 million annually) and Kittle (who would probably make $12 million to $15 million a season).

Which means adding a contract like A.J. Green or Emmanuel Sanders, who both make roughly $13 million this season, could complicate things.

But that doesn’t rule out making a trade. The 49ers could decide they have a shot at the Super Bowl this season and throw all their chips in. They could think about the ramifications later, which would be fine if it led to a parade.

The injuries to Taylor and Jalen Hurd could define the team’s course. Taylor is due back in late November and Hurd’s status is unclear as he deals with a back fracture. He’s first eligible to return Dec. 1, when the team travels to play the Baltimore Ravens. If the 49ers decide Hurd isn’t going to be a factor this season, then perhaps they make a deal. However, they would have to make that decision by the Oct. 29 trade deadline, which is well before either player is eligible to return from injured reserve.

Big Block Sports asks: Is Arik Armstead becoming a must sign free agent for the 49ers??

Kittle is eligible for a contract extension this offseason. The 49ers would be wise to give him one, but he doesn’t have to sign. That’s what Buckner did last offseason, knowing he would have more leverage and could command more money the longer he waited for his new deal. It’s likely Buckner signs a long-term contract this offseason – or potentially hold out. It’s highly unlikely he would play in 2020 on his fifth-year option, which could create a similar situation to Khalil Mack with the Raiders in 2018 (Mack and Buckner have the same agents).

If Kittle and/or Buckner don’t sign new deals, then perhaps San Francisco could use that money to give Armstead the franchise tag or a long-term contract. But I’d imagine he’d want security, given he’s already had two of his five seasons derailed by injuries.

Turkey Juice asks: With how well Arik Armstead has been playing since last season, are the Niners going to be able to re-sign him? What sacrifices may need to be made in order to do so? Do they cut ties with McKinnon, given the current state of the RB core?

If the choice is keeping Armstead and not being able to sign Buckner and Kittle this offseason, then the choice is easy: they let Armstead walk and take the compensatory pick in 2021, which could be as high as a late third-rounder.

Otherwise, the franchise tag defensive ends is expected to be roughly $19 million, which would be a lot. The 49ers are projected to have $25 million in cap space heading into next year, and it’s likely that money would go to Buckner and Kittle. But, as you mentioned, the team could create space by clearing McKinnon’s $8.5 million cap hit and perhaps Tevin Coleman’s $4.9 million. Then they could find running backs in the draft or in undrafted free agency, which is how they landed Matt Breida and Jeff Wilson Jr.

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Chris Biderman has covered the 49ers since 2013 and began covering the team for The Sacramento Bee in August 2018. He previously spent time with the Associated Press and USA TODAY Sports Media Group. A Santa Rosa native, he graduated with a degree in journalism from The Ohio State University.