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49ers face tough decision on re-signing Armstead

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers hits the ground hard as he's sacked by Erik Armstead during San Francisco's 37-8 win over Green Bay, Sunday, Nov. 24, 2019 in Santa Clara. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2019

GRANT COHN,

The 49ers have a dilemma on their defensive line.

It’s the strength of the team and the 49ers would like to keep it together, but Arik Armstead will be a free agent next month seeking a big payday, and he’s a key defensive lineman. Can the 49ers keep him?

“Arik is an excellent player,” John Lynch said. “He had an excellent year. We want to find a way to keep him and make him a part of the 49ers for a long time.”

If there were no salary cap, the 49ers would sign Armstead long term, no problem. But there is cap, and the 49ers currently have less than $13 million in cap space. Re-signing Armstead won’t be easy or cheap, and might not be prudent, either.

The 49ers drafted Armstead with a first-round pick in 2015 and developed him the past five years until he finally blossomed in 2019 and recorded a team-high 10 sacks. He was terrific.

But he was not terrific the first four seasons of his career. He recorded only nine sacks from 2015 to 2018 — that’s why the 49ers didn’t give him a long-term contract extension last year. They gave him a one-year deal instead.

Why did Armstead take so long to play well and fulfill his potential? Did he raise his game during a contract year to earn a big extension as so many pro athletes have done before him? And will he revert to the player he was before 2019 after he signs a multi-year contract?

Impossible to know the answers.

The Steelers have a similar dilemma with their former first-round pick, Bud Dupree. He never produced more than six sacks in a season until 2019, when he abruptly transformed into a dominant pass rusher and recorded 11 sacks. Who is the real Dupree? What should the Steelers do with him?

The collective bargaining agreement created this dilemma. First-round picks sign four-year contracts on a “rookie wage scale” which pays them below-market value. They can’t get big money until they sign their second contract, and they have to wait at least four years to sign it. So the urgency to play well and earn money doesn’t always kick in right away.

Take Nick Perry, the Packers’ first-round pick in 2012. He recorded just 12.5 sacks the first four seasons of his career. Then, during the final season of his rookie contract, Year 5, he recorded 11 sacks, and the Packers thought he had matured into a quality player. So they gave him a five-year, $60 million contract extension. Two years later after back-to-back dismal seasons, they cut him, and now he’s out of the NFL.

The 49ers have to be careful with Armstead.

Ideally, they’d give him a modest multi-year contract that reflects both his talent and inconsistency. But he probably won’t accept a modest deal. Why should he? On the open market, he probably could get $100 million. Last year, the Lions signed Trey Flowers for $90 million even though he never had recorded more than 7.5 sacks in a season. Pass rushers make big money.

If the 49ers allow Armstead to test free agency, the Seahawks could offer him $100 million. And Washington has no state income tax. So their $100 million contract would be worth more than the 49ers’ 100 million contract after California takes its taxes.

If Armstead enters free agency, he could leave the 49ers. And they’d be crazy to let him leave for nothing.

They could give Armstead the franchise tag and keep him one more year, but that’s expensive too. The tag would cost the 49ers at least $18 million in 2020. And if they give Armstead all that money, then they’ll have to give DeForest Buckner even more, or else they’ll risk alienating him and losing him during free agency in 2021, because Buckner is better than Armstead.

How can the 49ers afford to spend $20 million on Buckner, $18 million on Armstead and $17 million on Dee Ford next season? They probably can’t.

Instead, they can tag Armstead, then trade him for a draft pick. That’s what the Chiefs did last year with Ford — gave him the franchise tag, then sent him to the 49ers for a second-round pick in 2020. In Armstead’s case, the 49ers probably can tag him and trade him for a first-rounder, someone younger and cheaper and just as talented.

Not the ideal move, but probably the best move available given the dilemma the 49ers face. A five- aspirin-migraine dilemma.