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NFL landscape proves 49ers should be aggressive in free agency

It’s fair to look at the 49ers with expectations of incremental improvement in 2018. After all, Kyle Shanahan’s team is just a few months removed being 0-9 and potentially competing with the Browns for the top pick in the NFL draft. Suddenly vaulting to a bye in the first round of the playoffs next January is probably asking too much after a 6-10 finish.

But things can change quickly – evident by what Jimmy Garoppolo accomplished in his five games as San Francisco’s starter. Garoppolo beat two teams playing in the divisional round this weekend (three playoff teams altogether, counting the junior varsity Rams who rested their best players Week 17). He did it with the same cast that got off to the worst start in franchise history by going more than two months without a win.

Garoppolo captaining the 49ers reversal jives with a common theme from the NFC over the last 12 months… quick turnarounds.

Here are the 2016 records for the 2017 NFC playoff field: Eagles (7-9), Vikings (8-8), Rams (4-12), Saints (7-9), Panthers (6-10) and Falcons (11-5). Atlanta’s the only team in the conference to make the playoffs the last two seasons. In the AFC, three of the six teams in the postseason weren’t there in 2016.

And it might speak to the power free agency. As Kevin Clark pointed out this week in The Ringer, six of the biggest spenders in free agency last spring are in the playoffs, including the Patriots, Titans, Rams, Vikings and Panthers.

But the biggest spenders on that list are the Jacksonville Jaguars, who vaulted from 3-13 last season to 10-6 thanks to their defense that was historically good for most of the campaign (until running into the fighting Garoppolos Week 16, who scored 44 points).

Jacksonville doled out $13.5 million per season to cornerback A.J. Bouye, who joined Jalen Ramsey as one of the best in the league. Calais Campbell – the NFL’s rare player similar to DeForest Buckner – signed for $15 million a season and was a defensive player of the year candidate. He anchored the league’s most ferocious pass rush with a career-high 14.5 sacks at age 31.

Which is to say, it’s time for the 49ers to become big players in free agency.

San Francisco will be among the league leaders in cap space with some $114 million, according to Overthecap.com. And that’s because the salary cap has continued to mushroom over the last decade, aging out the philosophy of only drafting and developing talent, which was the favored path of former general manager Trent Baalke.

Baalke wasn’t wrong at the time. When he first took over as general manager in 2011, the 49ers excelled with that philosophy because Scot McCloughan drafted a number of key players that were worthy of lucrative second contracts (Patrick Willis, Joe Staley, Vernon Davis, Frank Gore, et al). The salary cap during Baalke’s first season was just $120 million, making high-priced free agents risky endeavors. But that’s not the case anymore.

As Clark pointed out, the cap rose $47 million over the last six years while rookie contracts have become cheaper on the rookie wage scale implemented by the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. The salary cap next season is expected to grow from $167 to $178 million. It’s another massive $11-million jump.

Which all points to why the 49ers should dive into the deep end when it comes to pursuing the free agents. The obvious caveat: Find the right players that fit the system. That’s what Jacksonville did last spring and what the Broncos did when their massive 2014 free agent class (Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, Emmanuel Sanders and T.J. Ward) carried a limp Peyton Manning to the Super Bowl title two years ago.

San Francisco’s available cap dollars will likely shrink by $25 to $28 million when Garoppolo signs his new long-term contract or the franchise tag. But that will be a relative drop in the bucket given the glut of cap space. Simple math says the 49ers should have $86 to $89 million in room even after Garoppolo signs.

Which is why San Francisco should absolutely be in the Le’Veon Bell market if things sour in Pittsburgh. Bell made waves this week when he said he’d consider retiring if he was given the franchise tag for a second straight season. And given the Steelers salary cap restrictions, they might be inclined to let Bell leave if richer offers are out there.

By definition, the 49ers are a strong fit for Bell with Carlos Hyde unsigned and the need a pass catching running back. Bell was mentioned by Kyle Shanahan explicitly when asked about his philosophy of identifying running backs in December. Shanahan said Bell was worth a top-five pick in the NFL draft, and also said he’d have no problem using a pick that high on the right running back.

“When you find a special one and you think that makes sense for your team, you should never hesitate to do that,” Shanahan said. “A big-time running back, whether it’s (Leonard) Fournette, whether it’s Adrian Peterson who was a top-10 pick, whether it was Terrell Davis in the sixth round, whether it’s David Johnson who I think was a third rounder or Le’Veon Bell I think is a second rounder, all those guys are worth top-five picks, but they were all found different places. … You’ve just got to find who you think that guy is. There’s lots of ways to do it.”

Invariably, some are still against the idea of giving north of $15 million a season to a running back. And that’s certainly fair given Shanahan’s ability to develop productive backs from various levels of the draft. But Bell is different. He might be a Hall of Famer, signaled by this note from ESPN:

Bell has 7,996 total yards through 62 career games, which is the most of any NFL player over that span since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, outdistancing Eric Dickerson (7,842), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Bell might never get to the open market. But the point stands for a number of key free agents looking to join a playoff contender in the spring. The 49ers could conceivably make the money work for players at key positions, and still draft at areas of needs like cornerback, pass rusher and interior offensive line without running into cap problems.

Spotrac lists Lions pass rusher Ezekiel Ansah, who had 12 sacks last season, as worth $9.5 million per year. Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler is worth $13.2, which is likely the same neighborhood as Chicago’s Kyle Fuller or Trumaine Johnson of the Rams.

In theory, the 49ers could sign Garoppolo, Bell, Ansah and a cornerback and still have more than $40 million in cap space remaining. And all that room means they can afford to overpay, or aggressively front load contracts, if it proves to be the difference in landing important pieces.

The 49ers have hoarded their cap space for three years. It’s time they cash it in now they have a quarterback capable of contending.

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