49ers now have challenging salary cap situation for 2021

Paraag Marathe of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Paraag Marathe of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images) /

The 49ers aren’t swimming in salary cap space heading into 2021, meaning there won’t be as much roster flexibility over the course of the year.

This shouldn’t be too hard to figure out. But good teams are comprised of good players, and typically, good players want to be paid as good players should be.

The 2021 San Francisco 49ers have a lot of good players, and many of them are at the upper echelon of payouts for their respective positions. While this doesn’t necessarily apply to good players on their respective rookie contracts, the numbers do start to add up.

Fortunately, the Niners have one of the best contract negotiators and cap managers in the business, Executive Vice President of Football Operations Paraag Marathe.

When the Niners weren’t a good team, Marathe’s job was much easier. Yet with a roster on the rise, comprised of both top players on rookie deals and expensive high-profile veterans, Marathe’s duties to navigate the diminished 2021 salary cap will be a bit more challenging than before.

49ers currently have just over $3 million in salary cap space

Amid all the injuries a season ago, San Francisco was forced to sign a slew of free agents on the open market while also promoting a number of players off the practice squad, many of whom had to qualify to receive game-day salaries instead of their much-cheaper practice squad salaries.

In the wake of roster cuts and the creation of the practice squad, Over the Cap now has the 49ers with $3.33 million in cap space, which ranks 13th lowest out of all 32 teams at this point.

Teams typically like to keep around $5 million in reserve over the course of the regular season to account for additional free-agent signings or other roster moves. And anyone who watched the Niners a year ago knows all too well how easy it is to go through that kind of money in the wake of overwhelming injuries.

On the positive side, though, the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers are currently $8.66 million over the cap, so it could be worse from San Francisco’s vantage point.

What can 49ers do to navigate their slim salary cap space?

There’s the proverbial “elephant in the room,” quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo‘s team-high contract that’ll cost the 49ers $26.4 million this season.

Immediately after the Niners drafted quarterback Trey Lance at No. 3 overall last April, and even beforehand, there was loud chatter about moving on from Garoppolo, which could have cleared up $23.6 million against $2.8 million in dead money.

The dead money still applies, but Garoppolo carries a per-game bonus of $800,000. Unless Lance somehow takes over the starting job to the point where Jimmy G is an excess commodity, that contract is probably going to stay on the books. If Lance does, however, one might expect San Francisco to part ways with Garoppolo at the soonest possible moment to get out from under an $800,000-per-game backup quarterback.

For now, Garoppolo seems entrenched as the starter for 2021.

Restructuring deals for San Francisco’s two other top-paid players, defensive end Arik Armstead and safety Jimmie Ward, wouldn’t net any sort of benefits this season, rather they’d kick in a year from now.

So, that leads to the only other plausible option: stay healthy.

Injuries are going to happen this year. They’re inevitable. But the top-paid players have to be on the field as much as possible. It doesn’t get any simpler than that, honestly.

Garoppolo is part of that equation to a point, but the emphasis should also be on players like tight end George Kittle, running back Raheem Mostert and so on. If the 49ers’ key contributors aren’t absent for elongated periods of time, there won’t be a need to peruse the dwindling free-agent market, dishing off what remaining cap space is left.

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