If San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan watched Saturday’s NFC Wild Card round matchup between their division rivals the Los Angeles Rams and the Seattle Seahawks, there is a decent chance he did so still with a feeling of frustration over what might have been following a lost season for the Niners.
The fact the Niners went 3-3 in the NFC West in a year that saw their hopes of returning to the Super Bowl completely wrecked by injury will be a very minor footnote when the 2020 campaign is consigned to the history books early next month.
But the 49ers’ sweep of the Rams along with their Week 16 victory over the Arizona Cardinals with third-string quarterback C.J. Beathard – who had the Niners in a 10-point lead over the Seahawks in Week 17 – was illustrative of a team that has the capability to once again be a force in the NFC next year.
Further evidence of that comes in the end of season Football Outsiders DVOA rankings. The Niners finished the season 11th in total DVOA, ahead of the Cardinals and just two spots behind the Rams despite the plethora of injuries they dealt with on both sides of the ball. Seattle ruled the roost in the division in DVOA, ending the year fifth in the league.
But if the Niners are to return to contention both in the division and in the NFC as a whole, they must first negotiate an offseason where they are likely to face several challenges.
Coaching and front office departures
It speaks to the league-wide respect for the 49ers’ efforts in 2020 that they may well have to brace for high-profile exits on their coaching staff and in the front office despite a 6-10 record.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who kept the San Francisco defense among the NFL’s elite — the 49ers were sixth in DVOA on defense — had second head coaching interview with the New York Jets on Wednesday before traveling to interview with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Should Saleh depart, there is the potential he may take passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur with him, leaving the Niners needing to make two key hires on Kyle Shanahan’s staff.
Meanwhile, in the front office, Adam Peters and Martin Mayhew — who each hold the title of vice president of player personnel — could potentially have general manager jobs in the coming weeks.
Peters was one of four candidates, per Panthers.com, to hold a second interview to become the GM of the Carolina Panthers, while the Washington Football Team requested an interview with to Mayhew, according to Nicki Jhabvala of The Washington Post.
The strength of the 49ers’ coaching staff was a key reason why San Francisco stayed competitive amid their raft of injuries.
Yet before they can even think about possible changes to the roster, the Niners may have to fill holes on that staff and face up to the prospect of a hugely important offseason without two of the most influential members of their front office.
Finding a balance in free agency
The potential departures in the front office could prove particularly telling as they would come at a time when the 49ers must balance the need to re-sign a host of their free agents with a salary cap set to shrink after a season largely absent of fans.
In the bleakest estimate, the cap is anticipated to fall from $198.2 million to 175 million. According to Spotrac, that would put the 49ers just $14 million under the cap in a year where they are scheduled to have 27 unrestricted free agents.
Re-signing left tackle Trent Williams is a priority for the 49ers, who should command a contract in the region of Laremy Tunsil’s $22 million per year deal with the Houston Texans, while Richard Sherman’s return appears unlikely.
The Niners must decide whether they have the resources to bring back Williams along with the likes of fullback Kyle Juszczyk, safety Jaquiski Tartt, and cornerbacks Jason Verrett and K’Waun Williams.
It is difficult ask for the 49ers to do all that and stay under the cap, though they could buy themselves some flexibility by addressing the elephant in the room.
The Garoppolo question
Both Shanahan and general manager John Lynch have continued to stand behind Jimmy Garoppolo as their starting quarterback for the 2021 season.
That is despite Garoppolo missing 10 games of the season because of ankle issues, meaning his tally of games missed through injury now stands at 23. That is a high number for a quarterback whose $26.2 million cap hit in 2021 makes up 14.79% of the Niners’ total 2021 cap.
San Francisco would save over $23 million by moving on from Garoppolo, per Spotrac, but Lynch is seemingly steadfast in his belief in the former New England Patriot. Lynch, speaking recently on ‘The TK Show’ said he does not envision the Niners selecting a quarterback with the 12th overall pick in the draft at this point (h/t NBC Sports Bay Area).
“We certainly could, I don’t anticipate that right now, but we’re so early in the process, we’ll do what’s best for this team,” said Lynch. “I do wanna make it clear, and I think Kyle and I have been fairly transparent since we’ve been here, we have a lot of belief in Jimmy Garoppolo. Where does that come from? It comes from the sample that we have, and when he’s been out there, we’ve been better. We’ve been successful.”
The key part of that first sentence is ‘right now’. When the reality of the financials sets in as the 49ers develop a plan of attack for the offseason, the Niners’ stance may change.
San Francisco’s run to the Super Bowl in Garoppolo’s one full season as starter could compel the Niners to give him another year. But they must carefully consider whether it is worth hanging on to an oft-injured quarterback seen by many as a game manager in 2019 at a cost that may lead to more of their core departing.
If the Niners determine he is not worth that price, then the discussion turns to the means by which they replace him. With a trade for a veteran like Matthew Stafford or Sam Darnold or the selection of a rookie early in the draft both options potentially on the table.
Their future at the quarterback position is sure to be the dominant offseason narrative for the 49ers and it will have a knock-on effect on how they construct the rest of the roster for what the franchise hopes will be a bounce-back season in 2021.
Shanahan spent much of the season 2020 season plugging gaps in the roster as injuries took their toll. He now looks set to have to do the same with his coaching staff and San Francisco’s effectiveness in doing that, keeping hold of key free agents and coming up with a successful plan at quarterback will decide if a roster that has the talent to contend in the NFC is back among the conference’s elite next season.