49ers will face plenty of NFL free agency challenges in 2021

George Kittle #85 and Kyle Juszczyk #44 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
George Kittle #85 and Kyle Juszczyk #44 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images) /

The San Francisco 49ers managed to keep the bulk of their Super Bowl roster together in 2020, but the same likely won’t be the case a year from now with significant obstacles in NFL free agency looming.

The 2020 San Francisco 49ers got a real glimpse at what the challenges of maintaining a Super Bowl-caliber roster is like.

Championship teams are made up of good players, and good players deserve to get paid accordingly. With the league’s hard salary cap in place, teams can only dish out so much.

And for the first time in years, the Niners were pressed up against the salary cap entering this offseason.

It explains why San Francisco traded away a $21 million-per-year Pro Bowl defensive tackle, DeForest Buckner, to the Indianapolis Colts for a first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, then using that selection for Buckner’s replacement, South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw. It also explains why the 49ers let veteran wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders walk in NFL free agency, and why Arizona State wideout Brandon Aiyuk was the Niners’ second first-round draft selection.

Yet those tough choices could pale in comparison to the challenges general manager John Lynch and Co. will face a little less than a year from now in 2021.

More than a handful of key Niners contracts are set to expire between now and then, and the following notable 49ers contributors are scheduled to hit the open market:

Each one of those players have started multiple games during their Niners tenure. And while it’s beneficial the 2021 salary cap is expected to increase up to $240 million, the added cap resources still won’t be enough to bring back each one of those players.

Some appear to be relatively easy decisions.

San Francisco isn’t picking up Thomas’ fifth-year option, although the 2017 first-round draft pick could ultimately return as a reserve on a team-friendly deal. Witherspoon, following his up-and-down pro career, likely isn’t back barring an incredible 2020 campaign. And while head coach Kyle Shanahan seems to have an affinity for Coleman, Shanahan also has a knack for finding and developing unheralded runners into superstars, thereby saving money potentially spent on the veteran.

Still, the challenges are going to be there on multiple levels.

Case in point, Witherspoon, Williams, Sherman and Tartt could all vacate the secondary in 2021. Aside from some undrafted free agents, the 49ers did nothing in the draft to address long-term needs in the defensive backfield. It’s possible this becomes priority No. 1 in the 2021 NFL Draft, or the Niners could use NFL free agency next year to find some modest-budget options. But understanding many a young defensive back often struggles to transition from the college ranks to the pros, one can wonder if San Francisco’s lack of action on this front could be detrimental a year from now.

The 49ers want to extend George Kittle, but…

One of the Niners’ chief priorities is to keep their All-Pro tight end, Kittle, in uniform for the long run. Considering Kittle’s value to the offense and team as a whole, it makes more than enough sense.

Lynch has reiterated the team’s desire to come up with a new deal before Kittle hits NFL free agency.

But at what cost?

Kittle, who has already set multiple records over his stellar three-year career and was also Pro Football Focus‘ most valuable player in 2019, isn’t just expected to reset the tight end market. Rather he’s expected to completely demolish it, perhaps earning as much as $17 or $18 million annually.

So if you’re doing the math and assume the Niners will be just shy of the current $198.2 million salary cap now, Kittle’s new deal could eat up almost half of the additional $41.8 million expected to be added to the current salary cap.

That’ll make it tough for the 49ers to retain a lot of those other names.

Next. Predicting 49ers' 53-man roster after 2020 NFL Draft. dark

On the fortunate side of things, San Francisco has a track record of managing the salary cap more than just effectively. It’s not likely Lynch and Co. will wind up in salary cap hell anytime soon, although the current situation at hand will ultimately force even more of those tough decisions the team had to go through early in 2020.