49ers analysis: High-priced defenders may stick around

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For the first time in years, the 49ers enter free agency with hardly any cap space. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Last year, the 49ers were $67 million under the cap when free agency began and spent most of their money on two linebackers with injury histories — Dee Ford and Kwon Alexander. Now, the 49ers have just $13 million in cap space, which means they can’t throw money around like they did last year. They have to be prudent.

When they signed Alexander, they gave him a four-year, $54 million contract, because they were desperate to replace inside linebacker Reuben Foster, whom they had released in 2018 following his second arrest on domestic violence charges. The 49ers had traded up to take Foster with a first-round pick in 2017. He was supposed to be part of the team’s foundation, but he was a bust.

Enter Alexander, an extremely athletic linebacker from the Buccaneers who was coming off a torn ACL — he played only six games for Tampa in 2018. When he played, he made lots of tackles, but also missed lots of tackles. He was a work in progress. The 49ers still paid him like he was a star, like he was Foster but way better.

Alexander played well for the 49ers for eight games in 2019. Then he tore his pectoral muscle and missed the final half of the regular season. Two years in a row, his body broke down. Troubling trend for a linebacker who causes a dozen high-speed collisions every game.

The 49ers replaced Alexander with rookie Dre Greenlaw, a fifth-round pick. And he played just as well, if not better, than Alexander. Greenlaw certainly was younger, cheaper and more durable. Plus, he was a better tackler.

Alexander returned for the playoffs, but did not regain his starting job at weak-side linebacker. Greenlaw kept it because he had earned it. He’s that good. Alexander had to move to strong-side linebacker, a part-time position — it’s in the base defense but not the nickel defense. So he played just 35% of the 49ers’ defensive snaps in the playoffs. And at some point during the postseason, he tore his bicep. His body continued to break down.

Next season, Greenlaw most likely will remain the starting weak-side linebacker. So it would be nice for the 49ers if they could trade or release Alexander, because they don’t need him anymore. But if they were to trade or release him, they wouldn’t save cap space. Instead, they’d receive a $14.5 million cap penalty.

They’re stuck with Alexander. That’s the price of doing big business during free agency.

The 49ers put themselves in a similar position with Dee Ford. They gave him a five-year, $85.5 million contract last year partially because they were desperate to replace Solomon Thomas, a pass rusher they drafted with the third pick in 2017 who is a bust, a benchwarmer.

The 49ers also signed Ford because Arik Armstead seemed like a disappointment at the time. Armstead had never produced more than three sacks in a season. So they gave him a modest one-year deal worth $9 million, and committed long-term to Ford.

Ford is an extremely athletic outside linebacker from the Chiefs who was coming off the best season of his career in 2018 — he had 13 sacks. But he had played a full 16-game season only twice during his career, and the Chiefs didn’t want to give him a long-term contract because they had misgivings about his durability. So they traded him to the 49ers for a second-round pick in 2020.

The 49ers moved Ford to defensive end, a position he can play only part time because he’s a subpar run defender from that spot. He became the most expensive part-time pass rusher in the NFL.

Still, when Ford was on the field, he played well and made other players even better. But he hardly played. He was on the field for just 22% of the defensive snaps because he had a quadricep injury, a hamstring injury and knee tendinitis, the last of which will stick with Ford the rest of his career. Meanwhile, Armstead had a breakout season and recorded a team-high 10 sacks.

Now the 49ers might not have enough cap space to re-sign Armstead, who’s better and younger than Ford. Ideally, the 49ers would cut or trade Ford to create the cap space required to re-sign Armstead, but if the 49ers get rid of Ford, they’d suffer a $6.4 million cap penalty. Meaning they’re stuck with him and Alexander, too.

That’s not the end of the world for the 49ers. Ford and Alexander still have value when healthy, and both could rebound from their disappointing debut seasons in Santa Clara. But if the 49ers could go back in time, they probably wouldn’t sign those two.

Keep that in mind if the 49ers make no major signings this year and don’t judge them harshly. Sometimes the price of doing business isn’t worth it.

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