Why 49ers tough 2020 offseason decisions are now justified

San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images) /

The 49ers made the difficult decision to part ways with DeForest Buckner and Emmanuel Sanders this offseason, taking away two clear contributors to their success last year. Here’s why their first-round additions justify that decision.

To describe the San Francisco 49ers offseason in a sentence, it was a time of subtraction over addition. With several pressing free agents and a rising cap number because of activity in prior markets, the Niners faced the basic issue that has plagued every good team trying to obtain sustainable success: losing good players.

The 49ers’ success was linked directly to the explosion of their defensive line and pressure, especially when all four starters were dominant at their position. For that level, there was going to be a cost. Dee Ford was locked into a flexible yet expensive contract, Arik Armstead was entering a contract year, DeForest Buckner also was expecting a payday in the future. The only player who didn’t offer any of those concerns was Nick Bosa, whose talent was augmented by his extremely affordable contract.

Well, in the offseason, the Niners chose to pay Armstead and trade Buckner, the only way to keep flexibility on their roster to the minds of the brass. The fallout wasn’t fantastic; Buckner was a team captain and the first good linemen on the 49ers since the days of former head coach Jim Harbaugh.

But, the move to get the 13th overall pick offered great flexibility and cap relief. Buckner signed a four-year $84 million deal with the Indianapolis Colts after being traded by San Francisco.

As the offseason continued, another player who helped change the season, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, was also not brought back, though in a different way. San Francisco traded for Sanders last year because its offense was stagnating and the receivers lacking. His addition immediately opened up the offense, and although Sanders didn’t always get the counting stats, his presence was extremely valuable.

Giving up a third- and fourth-round pick for Sanders was an expensive move, but its impact was incredible. However, again, being pushed by the cap and needing flexibility, the Niners decided to not re-sign Sanders, allowing him to go to the New Orleans Saints on a two-year, $16 million deal.

Overall, the Niners lost two players and two picks, if you count the picks for renting Sanders, but they received the 13th overall pick and, most importantly, $28 million in cap savings for this year. That money allowed them to re-sign Armstead and safety Jimmie Ward, as well as maintain flexibility.

However, those moves left two holes on the roster: one at defensive tackle and one at wide receiver.

That’s where the 2020 NFL Draft came into play.

The 49ers first traded down from the 13th overall pick to the 14th pick where they received a fourth-round pick in return while giving up a seventh. That was a genius move on general manager John Lynch’s part. He got the player he wanted while extracting more value. With that 14th overall pick, San Francisco selected South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw. In my immediate reaction to the Kinlaw trade, I noted his abilities and him filling in the hole left by Buckner, but I also said the 49ers missed a chance to get a high-end receiver and that the value of Kinlaw would be directly tied to the receiver they got in the draft.

Then, the 49ers acted again, this time moving up using a fifth-round pick and the fourth rounder from Tampa Bay to select wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk out of Arizona State. Niner Noise’s Nathan Bannerman, in breaking down the selection, noted Aiyuk’s yards-after-catch ability and his explosiveness, something Sanders also offered San Francisco.

So the 49ers lost two picks in these transactions as well, but they came away with a receiver and a defensive tackle to replace their lost receiver and defensive tackle. Add on how, instead of $28 million a year, the 49ers will be paying around $8 million for the replacements, that’s $20 million in flexibility.

Next. 49ers 2020 NFL Draft: Live tracker with picks, grades and analysis. dark

When gauging these draft decisions, the context is important. By making these moves, Lynch did two things. One, he gave the Niners flexibility and youth in exchange for a hopefully marginal decrease in current production. Two, he made it clear the Niners are gunning for it this year by drafting for immediate holes than future problems. This draft showed the 49ers are all-in and ready to go.