Decision time looms for 3 of 49ers' contributors
Who will stay, and who will go?
The 49ers have three restricted free agents this year - wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, running back Matt Breida and linebacker Elijah Lee. And the 49ers have until 1 p.m. Wednesday to decide which ones to give one-year qualifying offers, or “tenders,” and which ones to bid farewell.
A tender gives the 49ers the right to match any contract a restricted free agent signs with another team. But if the 49ers tender a restricted free agent and he signs elsewhere and the 49ers decide not to match that contract, they can receive a draft pick from that team.
There are different types of tenders: A first-round tender, a second-round tender and a right-of-first-refusal tender.
A first-round tender is a one-year, $4.6 million contract. If the 49ers give this to a restricted free agent and he signs with another team and the 49ers don't match that contract, the 49ers receive a first-round pick.
A second-round tender would cost the 49ers $3.3 million. If the 49ers give this to a restricted free agent and he signs with another team and the 49ers don't match that contract, the 49ers receive a second-round pick.
A right-of-first refusal tender would cost the 49ers $2.1 million. If the 49ers give this to a restricted free agent and he signs with another team, the 49ers can match the contract. But if they don't match it, they receive nothing.
So who will stay and who will go? Let's examine.
1. Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne
Bourne emerged during the second half of the season as the 49ers' No. 3 receiver behind veteran Emmanuel Sanders and rookie Deebo Samuel. Bourne also emerged as a go-to guy in the red zone (five touchdown catches) and he became one of Jimmy Garoppolo's favorite targets. Garoppolo's quarterback rating was 113.7 when targeting Bourne in 2019.
Bourne has been with the 49ers for three seasons - he was an undrafted free agent in 2017. He's a fearless possession receiver who can beat tight man-to-man coverage, and he's only 24. He could start for lots of teams next season, including the 49ers if he doesn't sign elsewhere.
Expect the 49ers to give Bourne a second-round tender. That way, if another team gives Bourne a big, multi-year contract the 49ers can't afford to match because they're short of cap space, then they'll receive a second-round pick.
Will some team trade the 49ers a second-rounder for the right to give Bourne a big contract? Probably not. A second-round tender should keep Bourne in Santa Clara for another year.
2. Running back Matt Breida
Since 2018, Breida is the only running back in the NFL who has carried the ball at least 275 carries and averaged at least 5.2 yards per carry. Plus he's the league's fastest ball carrier. In 2019, he reached a top speed of 22.3 miles per hour. A blur.
But Breida missed three games with an ankle injury last season. And when he returned, he fumbled twice against the Falcons, then once against the Vikings in the playoffs, then he fell to the bottom of the depth chart. In the Super Bowl, the 49ers gave him zero carries. They didn't trust him or need him or both. They had Raheem Mostert, who was on fire, and Tevin Coleman, whom Kyle Shanahan trusts unconditionally.
It seems unlikely the 49ers will tender Breida, because he was an afterthought in the playoffs. But Breida still is one of the most explosive, hard-running players in the league. He could start for plenty of teams, including two division rivals - the Seahawks and Rams. The 49ers probably don't want to face Breida twice a season in the NFC West.
Expect the 49ers to give Breida a right-of-first-refusal tender, which will allow the 49ers to match any contract Breida signs with the Seahawks or Rams. If Breida signs with a team outside the NFC West, the 49ers probably will let him leave.
3. Linebacker Elijah Lee
Lee is a long, lean, rangy linebacker who defends the pass well. He mostly has been a backup with the 49ers, but in 2018 he started five games for San Francisco and recorded 65 tackles.
In 2019, the 49ers signed Kwon Alexander and drafted Dre Greenlaw, so Elijah Lee didn't make the team initially - the 49ers assigned him to their practice squad. But they promoted him to the active roster midseason because Alexander tore his pectoral muscle.
After Lee's promotion, he didn't play much on defense, but he became one of the 49ers' best players on special teams. So when Alexander returned for the playoffs, the 49ers didn't release Lee. They kept him on special teams. He was an asset.
So what's Lee worth?
Last year, the 49ers gave a right-of-first-refusal tender to a special teams specialist - Raheem Mostert. At the time, no one yet knew how good a running back he is.
The 49ers would be smart to give the same right-of-first-refusal tender to Lee this year, because he's just as valuable on special teams as Mostert. And if the 49ers don't tender Lee, another team will sign him quickly, and the 49ers' special teams will suffer.
Fortunately for the 49ers, they can keep him if they want him. Do they?