49ers' Top Players to Consider for Franchise Tag, RFA Contract Tenders

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistFebruary 15, 2021

49ers' Top Players to Consider for Franchise Tag, RFA Contract Tenders

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Will the San Francisco 49ers stick with Jimmy Garoppolo or look for a new answer at quarterback this offseason? That's a huge unanswered question for 49ers fans, especially in the wake of San Francisco's reported interest in Matthew Stafford.

    The 49ers will have to decide for themselves whether they want Garoppolo or someone else to lead the offense in 2021, but that's far from the only issue facing general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan. San Francisco will also have to address its own pending free agents, both unrestricted and restricted.

    Here you'll find an in-depth look at the Niners' top candidates for the franchise tag and for restricted-free-agent (RFA) contract tenders.

On Tags, Tenders and San Francisco's Salary Cap Situation

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    GM John Lynch
    GM John LynchAdam Hunger/Associated Press

    Before we get into specific players, it's worth explaining how the franchise tag and RFA tenders work, along with San Francisco's cap situation (if you're already familiar with how tags and tenders work, feel free to skip to the bottom of this page for team specifics).

    The franchise tag is a tool utilized to keep players in place without the use of a long-term deal. This can benefit a team that is unsure about a player's future or a team looking to keep a player off the market while a long-term deal is negotiated.

    The tag comes in three forms—non-exclusive, exclusive and the transition tag—and can only be used on one player per team. The exclusive tag keeps a player off the market altogether, while other teams can negotiate with a player on the non-exclusive or transition tag. If a player with the non-exclusive tag signs elsewhere, his team receives two first-round picks as compensation. A team has the right of first refusal on a transition-tagged player but receives nothing as compensation if he leaves.

    In terms of cost, the tags are as follows. The exclusive franchise tag costs an average of the five top salaries at the player's position or 120 percent of the offered player's current salary, whichever is greater. The non-exclusive tag cost the average of the position's top five cap-hit percentages over a five-year period applied to the current cap. The transition tag costs the same cap percentage but applied to the top 10 salaries at the position over five years.

    In short, a shrinking 2021 salary cap may cause non-exclusive and transition tags to be cheaper, but they're still not going to be cheap.

    RFA tenders have a sliding salary scale—full details can be found at NFL.com—but essentially lock in a player with three accrued NFL seasons for Year 4. If another team signs the player to an offer sheet and the team that tendered the player does not match, it receives corresponding compensation—a player given a second-round tender, for example, brings a second-round pick in return.

    Tenders come in four basic forms, first-round, second-round, original-round and right-of-first-refusal.

    Unlike some franchises, the 49ers are not in a desperate cap situation. San Francisco is projected to have more than $17 million in cap space, and tendering restricted free agents shouldn't be much of an issue.

    However, if the 49ers hope to franchise-tag a player like left tackle Trent Williams, they'll have to free up a little cap room.

    New England Patriots offensive lineman Joe Thuney played on the tag last season and earned just under $14.8 million.

The Franchise Tag

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    Trent Williams
    Trent WilliamsTony Avelar/Associated Press

    We kick off the franchise-tag discussion with Williams because he is arguably the only pending free agent worthy of getting it. Left tackles are a valuable commodity, and Williams was a solid one in his first season with San Francisco.

    Williams allowed just four sacks, according to Pro Football Focus. However, Williams is also intrigued by the idea of hitting the free-agent market.

    "It's been 11 years in the league. I have yet to see a franchise left tackle go to the open market. I think it would be interesting to kind of see what the value holds," Williams said, per Kyle Posey of Niners Nation.

    While the 49ers have cap space, they may not have enough to engage in a bidding war with another tackle-needy team. Therefore, it may be advisable to use the tag on Williams and then work out a long-term deal from there.

    Fullback Kyle Juszczyk might be a viable transition-tag candidate, as he's one of the best fullbacks in the league and a valuable piece of the 49ers offense. However, the franchise tag is likely out of the question, as the tag number for running backs last year was north of $10 million.

    Cornerback Jason Verrett is really the only other viable franchise-tag candidate. He was fantastic in 2020, allowing an opposing quarterback rating of just 76.2. However, Verrett also has a significant injury history and only played six games between 2016 and 2019.

    In all likelihood, it'll be Williams or no one for San Francisco as far as the franchise tag is concerned.

Restricted Free Agents

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    Nick Mullens
    Nick MullensAssociated Press

    The 49ers have three players eligible for an RFA tender this offseason—quarterback Nick Mullens, tight end Ross Dwelley and safety Marcell Harris. Of the three, Mullens feels like the most likely one to receive a first- or second-round tender.

    A lot will depend on how the 49ers feel about Garoppolo and their other quarterback options, but Mullens has proved that he can be a capable spot-starter. He has started 16 total games during his 49ers tenure and has a respectable quarterback rating of 87.2. While Mullens isn't going to solve San Francisco's quarterback question, he is about as good an insurance policy as the team could hope to have.

    Dwelley may be worth a right-of-first-refusal tender after amassing 19 receptions and 245 yards in 2020. Originally signed as an undrafted free agent in 2018, Dwelley has shown that he can be a solid depth option as well.

    Harris, a 2018 sixth-round pick out of Florida, might warrant an original-round tender. He's been a fine rotational piece in the secondary—he's played at least 33 percent of the defensive snaps in each of his pro seasons—but he isn't exactly what one would consider a key cog. He has also allowed an opposing passer rating above 110.0 in each of his NFL campaigns.

    While San Francisco may only have one viable option for the franchise tag this offseason, they have several players they'll need to consider for RFA tenders.


    Cap and contract information via Spotrac. Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.