With limited cap space, looming contract extensions and a need to improve elsewhere, the San Francisco 49ers may look to deal out a crucial linebacker.
The San Francisco defense was as impressive as any in the playoffs this year, giving up just 47 total points in three road games against the Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams. Keeping it intact, or at least up to the same quality, will be imperative for head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch.
Contract extensions like the one defensive end Nick Bosa is set to earn are gargantuan, and with $5.6 million in 2022 cap space per Spotrac, the Niners are going to have to budge somewhere.
Even with the potential of getting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s $26.9 million cap hit being taken off the books with a trade, things will be tight. According to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, this could mean a departure for linebacker Dre Greenlaw.
Fowler recently wrote up a list of players around the league that have a legitimate chance of being traded this offseason, and the young linebacker is one of them. For Fowler, it’s a case of timing and spending.
“The 49ers paid their top linebacker, Fred Warner, $95 million over five years,” Fowler wrote. “Allocating resources for a second linebacker is a tough ask. Greenlaw, a 2023 free agent, has played well enough to attract some teams willing to give up a mid-to-late-round pick and extend him.”
That leaves the 49ers with multiple paths they can take when it comes to the young linebacker.
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49ers Commit Money to LB Position
As with most situations like this, the portrait Fowler paints presents three options for San Francisco: trade Greenlaw, extend Greenlaw, or just let him play out his contract this next season.
Since being drafted in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL draft out of Arkansas, Greenlaw has built a reputation on hitting hard and making plays. 2021 saw Greenlaw sidelined for much of the season due to a groin injury and other issues, but he was immediately back in the lineup for San Francisco in all three playoff games.
As Fowler mentioned, committing any more money than the Niners already are to the linebacker position will be tough. Warner will only count for $8.1 million in cap hit next year, but $18.5 million in 2023 and $22.1 million in 2024. There may be space for next year, but the years after are the real concern.
49ers ‘Cash Out’
Trading Greenlaw is best from a value perspective. The 49ers can “cash out,” appreciate the linebacker’s work over the past three years and still get something for him. A mid-round pick feels appropriate, as a 6th or 7th rounder doesn’t feel accurate to his worth.
San Francisco could then use said pick to find a replacement for Greenlaw. Considering the 49ers’ fifth-round selection of Greenlaw led to 30 total starts(and six in the playoffs,) maybe they can find similar or even better quality in a similar round this year.
Finally, the Niners’ last option is to not extend or trade, but to just let him play out his contract and become a free agent in 2023. This could be considered the worst option from a value perspective, but it depends on what the 49ers expect out of their defense next season and what options there are for a linebacker to replace Greenlaw.
If there aren’t free agents or college prospects that feel like a good replacement along with salary cap issues, letting Greenlaw walk for nothing after having him for cheap in the 2022 season (just $2.6 million) could end up being the play. A real-time example of that is what is potentially happening with 49ers offensive guard Laken Tomlinson.