LAS VEGAS — Shortly after time runs out in Super Bowl 2024 and the last pieces of confetti fall, free-agency talk will heat up for NFL fans everywhere.
One part of that discussion will be teams’ salary-cap space and whether they can afford high-priced players.
You hear it every year, how the salary cap affects team-building, but there are ways to manipulate the cap.
Well, the 49ers are proof that you can figure out the cap … at least for a few years.
The 49ers have a staggering six players with contracts that rank in the top five of average annual value at their position.
If you expand that to the top 10, it is eight players.
They have four players who are the highest-paid at their position in terms of overall contract and two others at No. 2.
You are not supposed to be able to have that many highly paid stars in a salary-cap league, but the 49ers are doing it.
General manager John Lynch and executive vice president of football operations Paraag Marathe have managed to keep the talented roster together, and figure out ways to get contracts done.
“The 49ers just have had a great front office for a long, long time,” said Jason Fitzgerald — who runs the website Over the Cap, which analyzes salary cap info. “They’re just really good at planning ahead. They’re very smart in doing things a year before they need to do it. Where other teams get caught scrambling at the last minute to get things done.”
There are a few explanations of how the 49ers have managed to do it while others are struggling.
The first reason is they are not paying a quarterback big money.
Brock Purdy was famously drafted in the seventh round, and his contract reflects that.
His cap charge for 2023 was $889,000.
It goes up to $1 million next year.
The second thing the 49ers often do is restructure contracts to push cap charges into future years.
You are allowed to prorate signing bonuses over the length of a contract, so teams often convert a large portion of a player’s salary into a signing bonus that lowers the cap charge for that season.
It is often called a “credit card” inside the NFL, and like a credit card, the bill will come due in future years with cap charges, but you are pushing that down the road.
The 49ers put a spin on that this year.
At the beginning of the season, they restructured the contracts of Christian McCaffrey, George Kittle, Fred Warner and Trent Williams to give them about $36 million in cap space.
The idea was not to use that space for the 2023 season but to help their cap situation in 2024.
Any unused cap space can be carried over into the next year, and even with all of that space, the 49ers are still projected to be $3 million over the cap next year, and they will have to do more restructures to get under the cap.
Lynch explained the move at the beginning of the season.
“Really, we always look at the cap for three years out,” he said. “Obviously, we have all that room this year. But really it’s to create room for future years, because we roll everything over. It helps us in future years, because it creates some room we’re going to need.”
The reality, of course, is the 49ers can’t live like this forever.
They are going to have a hard time adding any big contracts in 2024, and Purdy is eligible for an extension in 2025.
Their bargain will suddenly become a budget-buster.
A team that now has weapons like Kittle, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk won’t be able to keep all of them, and some hard decisions will need to be made.
“I think the teams that study this stuff look at this year as the peak for the 49ers as a whole,” Fitzgerald said, “and next year begins that process of not really going to add much ,and you’re going to start to get into questions about which players stay and which players do we have to get rid of?”
If the 49ers win Sunday, they surely will be fine with starting to retool the roster in 2025.