The San Francisco 49ers weren’t big players in NFL free agency this year, aside from re-signing a couple of top names. And that’s a good position to be in, honestly.
It’s hard to look at the list of top free agents and not think how the San Francisco 49ers could put those players’ services to good use.
Prior to 2019, the Niners enjoyed a stockpile of cap space, which ultimately led to the always-present “sign this guy” chatter among the fanbase as NFL free agency approached. With that cap space, it was always a possibility.
Following last year’s Super Bowl squad, the cap space was no longer there. San Francisco was forced to make some tough decisions, which included trading away defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and letting wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders walk on the open market. While there’s still some chatter about the 49ers missing out on top names, usually paralleling “if we cut these players, it’ll free up money for Player X” type of talk, almost all the free-agent moves put together by general manager John Lynch were of the under-radar variety.
San Francisco re-signed two of its top free agents, defensive end Arik Armstead and safety Jimmie Ward, yes. But that points to the position the team is in right now: one where it can stand to reward players who have performed well donning the red and gold. That sets a benchmark for younger, cheaper players to reach.
But the idea goes beyond merely rewarding other players.
Teams who “win” the offseason don’t often win the regular season. Case in point, the Cleveland Browns in early 2019 made a plethora of big-time moves, only to finish with a disappointing 6-10 record. There’s also the notion to never sign a big-name player on the opening day of NFL free agency. Those four- and five-year massive deals often become cap casualties two or three years into the contract.
Perhaps the best explanation on the kind of success the 49ers had this offseason comes from Bleacher Report’s Alex Ballentine:
This is the kind of offseason that should be the goal for most franchises. The Niners didn’t “win the offseason” with flashy signings, but they did retain key talent while getting a good return on the talent they had to let leave.
Winners have to make these kinds of decisions, and San Francisco navigated things as well as it could.
Yes, the Niners are a worse team now without players like Buckner and Sanders than they were before both departed. And there’s no surefire player in the upcoming NFL Draft who’ll automatically assume their roles and match the kind of production they produced.
But Ballentine also acknowledged how good teams are forced to make these kinds of decisions on a year-to-year basis. Doing so effectively is one of the ways continued success is achieved.
The Niners managed to accomplish this during the offseason already.
While it’s easy to be frustrated why the 49ers didn’t retain either Buckner or Sanders, or why San Francisco wasn’t more aggressive for some of the top names out there, one can at least look at the fact the Niners aren’t in that kind of mode in the first place.
It’s a position most teams across the league would much rather be in.