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John Lynch Goes Inside the 49ers' Blueprint to Get Back to the Super Bowl

The 49ers’ GM walks us through an offseason of transition, move-by-move, as he searches for ways to reload for another run. Plus, what NFL executives think before this week’s schedule release, an early look at the best players in the 2021 draft class, how Miami hid interest in Tua Tagovailoa, Andy Dalton’s new home and much more.

John Lynch isn’t positive who coined the line, but he sure heard it a lot from his old coach, and Kyle Shanahan’s old boss, Jon Gruden. The ex-Bucs czar said it time and again after his team in Tampa reached the mountaintop 17 years ago, and came back to it plenty after that: You never stay the same.

For Lynch and Shanahan, and the Niners brass, all these years later, those have become words to live by.

Though it could be adapted as a reference to the situation we’re all in as Americans, it really was going to apply to this offseason in San Francisco regardless. It was just three months ago that the Niners were a quarter away from the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl victory, before Hurricane Patrick hit them with Category 5 force, sending them into the offseason with a 31-20 loss and a lot to consider.

And frankly, the obvious thing—managing a Super Bowl hangover—was pretty far down the to-do list. Three years of roster building left them with decisions to make, and Lynch had no intention of getting complacent, anyway, even if looking critically at the team and making cold decisions is tougher now than it was two or three years ago.

“I think you always have to take a hard look, when you have success, when you don’t have success—how do we get better?” Lynch said, from his home office on Friday. “And that was going to be a challenge for us, because if you look at our roster, both in quality and in quantity, we had a pretty strong group last year. Now, how do you keep that together?

“Probably for the first time since our group was assembled, we were facing some salary-cap realities. And players coming due. How do we keep it together? And how do we improve on that? A lot of our conversations were just towards that, how does this whole puzzle work? This wasn’t something that was unexpected. We planned two, three years out.”

The resulting turnover was, for a team coming off a Super Bowl, pretty significant.

Gone is one of the two best players on the defense, a franchise cornerstone at left tackle and the team’s big trade-deadline acquisition at receiver. Back are a bunch of players who might not have been, if not for one tough decision, and a quarterback who has been the subject of much speculation this offseason. Arriving is a new franchise left tackle, and rookies the team coveted at positions vacated by aforementioned veterans.

How this all works out remains to be seen. But the Niners sure haven’t stayed the same.

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The draft’s in the rear-view mirror and we’re into a quiet time in the NFL calendar, which figures to be even quieter than usual, given where we are as a country and how teams are working remotely. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a stacked column for you this week. Inside, you’ll find:

• A complete rundown of what the COVID-19 crisis is doing to scheduling for the fall, ahead of this week’s schedule release.

• A watch list for the 2021 draft.

• A fun story on how the Dolphins concealed their love for Tua Tagovailoa.

• Details on the quarterback movement of this week.

• Some shuffling in the Patriots’ front office.

But we’ll begin with a pretty detailed recap, via Lynch, of a pivotal offseason in Ninerland.

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The story of the 2019 49ers started and ended with their dominant defensive line. It came together in March and April, with the acquisitions of Dee Ford and Nick Bosa bringing the total of former first-rounders in the group to five. The group took off early in the season, with those two, and DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Solomon Thomas and Co. taking over. And the season finished with that unit owning the first three quarters of the Super Bowl, before Mahomes led the Chiefs to three scores in five minutes.

Lynch knew the story of the 2020 49ers would start there, too.

The Niners had kept Armstead and Buckner, their 2015 and ’16 first-round picks, together for as long as the were able to. A cap crunch loomed, as more big deals had to be accounted for on the horizon, for young stars like George Kittle and Bosa. Armstead had just played out the fifth-year option on a rookie deal, while Buckner was reaching his.

“We knew the Buckner domino was going to be the big one,” Lynch said.

So began the year-after in San Francisco.

Scouting combine, Indianapolis, late February

In an effort to make that domino fall fast, one way or the other, Lynch, Shanahan, and EVP of football operations Paraag Marathe met with Buckner’s agent, Joel Segal. The discussion was cordial, even while it was clear a tough call was in the offing. Segal told the Niners’ brass that the average per year on any new deal would have to start with a “2.” Soon, it was agreed that the Niners wouldn’t be able to meet Buckner’s ask.

“We started to see the true reality of that,” Lynch said. “We wanted to keep both him and Armstead in the worst way. And then we had to start looking at every iteration. OK, what if we keep Armstead under the franchise tag and we keep Buckner? We looked at every different way it could work. Our motivation certainly wasn’t getting rid of Buckner, because he’s one of our best players, and one of our best people. He embodies 49er way.”

Which was woven into the team’s message. Lynch told Segal, Buck’s earned it, so if you believe you can get that number, go get it. But you better bring back a first-round pick. With permission to seek a deal granted, Segal found Buckner’s money, and Lynch’s pick, faster than anyone anticipated. The wheels on a trade were turning before any of them left Indy.

“Not only did he bring back a first-round pick, he brought back the 13th pick,” Lynch said. “And then, it’s like, ‘Whoa, I didn’t think he’d do that.’ By that point, you start looking at how we can keep our team together. And I guess a long story short, it’s not something we wanted to do, but at a certain point, we felt like that was the best decision.”

Buckner got what he wanted—entry into Aaron Donald’s financial zip code—agreeing to a four-year, $84 million extension with the Colts. Indy got a piece it believed was far superior to whomever it would’ve drafted in the middle of the first round, the kind of blue-chip player worth taking up real estate in the cap space the team has long hoarded, and the kind that rarely is available on the open market.

And as Lynch saw it, the Niners got more than just the 13th pick from the Colts. With the Buckner question answered, the team could do what looked impossible a few months ago, holding onto both Armstead, at $17 million per year, and emerging safety Jimmie Ward, the team’s 2014 first-round pick, at $9.5 million per, while bringing back depth pieces like Ben Garland, who was (and likely will continue to be) vital on the offensive line, in the wake of Weston Richburg’s injury.

That said, it wasn’t like losing Buckner didn’t sting. After all, he and Bosa were arguably the two best players in Super Bowl LIV, before Mahomes took over late.

“It is a daunting task though—How do you get better, when you’re losing one of your better players?” Lynch said. “That’s what we set off to do.”

The Jimmy Garoppolo situation, mid-March

Lynch has spoken publicly about this plenty—the Niners got wind that Tom Brady was interested in coming to San Francisco, to the team he grew up rooting for, and the Niners felt like they owed it to themselves to investigate the possibility, given who Brady (briefly a teammate of Lynch’s for two weeks in August 2008) really is. So they looked at his tape, they were impressed, and the calculus of what they’d pulled off with Buckner was fresh in their heads.

It’s easy to see where—and this is my own feeling on it—in that situation, after trading Buckner for a de facto return of the 13th pick, Armstead, Ward and depth guys, a team might ruminate on pulling off something similar at quarterback. If you could get a premium return for Garoppolo, and add that to Brady, would it be worth walking away from the guy you’ve built around? But just as the 49ers challenged themselves to consider all options, Lynch and Shanahan challenged themselves to take another hard look at what they already had.

“We went back and took a hard look at Jimmy,” Lynch said. “We grinded for a period of three, four days. And I think we both came back and said, ‘You know what? We’ve got the long-term answer in our building right now, and we feel really strongly about that.’ As enticing as it might be—and we felt like it was a responsibility to take a look, because that’s a very unique situation—we did that, we talked with Jimmy, and told him just what we did.

“I think he appreciated that. And the great news is we’re more convicted than ever that Jimmy’s the guy that we want to work with going forward. We feel like he’s got a lot more in him. Shoot, he was a huge reason we were in the Super Bowl last year, and why we have every intention of getting back and finishing the job.”

Draft week

The left tackle situation wasn’t off the Niners’ radar at the beginning of the offseason. In fact, plenty of teams I talked to had heard the Niners were in play for one with the 13th pick, given Joe Staley’s age and uncertain status, and the team’s desire to leave Mike McGlinchey on the right side. But Staley getting word to the team that he planned to retire took things to another level, adding a layer of urgency to the days leading up to the draft.

Two relationships became critical: one with Staley, and the other with Washington coach Ron Rivera. In the case of the former, Staley keeping his plans quiet during the first and second days of the draft helped the Niners keep chatter on their newly-urgent need to a minimum. In the case of the latter, trust between Lynch and Rivera would prove integral. And that really started with Lynch calling Rivera, telling him he’d like to get a deal for Trent Williams done before the draft, and Rivera having to come back with bad news before Round 1.

“We got there, and Ron just said, ‘There’s too much interest, John, we’re not gonna get it done prior to the draft,’” Lynch said. “So that was tough, we were taking on a lot of risk not knowing if we had Trent Williams, because we liked some of those tackles too.”

Add to that, this: There were plenty of moving parts in the Williams deal, not the least of which were the fractured relationships between Washington owner Dan Snyder, and both Williams and Shanahan (who was the OC in Washington under his father, Mike, from 2010–13). Long story short, everyone involved was acutely aware that the team doing a deal would be, in essence, Snyder giving both Shanahan and Williams what they wanted, which made things inherently fragile. That’s where trust would play a role.

“It’s very frustrating when, on Day 1, we tried to finish it before the draft, and other teams entered the fray,” Lynch said. “And then it’s, ‘Come on, Ron, we can’t go into this draft not knowing whether we have him or not.’ But Ron, to me, just has tremendous integrity. I’ve known him for a long time, so I knew that it was gonna be for the right reasons, if we didn’t get him.”

The 13th overall pick

So here’s the first place where Lynch’s faith in Rivera came into play. The tackles didn’t come off the board quite as the Niners expected. Lynch felt strongly that Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, Georgia’s Andrew Thomas and Alabama’s Jedrick Wills would be gone by the time San Francisco got on the clock, and maybe Louisville’s Mekhi Becton would be there.

Instead, Wirfs, who the Niners had “ranked incredibly high,” per Lynch, was there for them at 13, as a potential long-term answer at tackle, with the Williams situation still in a state of flux. San Francisco could take Wirfs and find peace in not having to worry that the Shanahan/Williams reunion (Williams was Mike’s first draft pick in Washington to kick off their four years together) would come undone. But also on the board was South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, whom the Niners earmarked before Day 1 as their top guy among those likely to make it to 13, and someone for whom they’d stay at 13.

Then the Bucs called, and created a decision point for Lynch and the crew (Marathe, Shanahan and VP of player personnel Adam Peters). Everyone knew the Bucs were looking for tackle help. So moving down one spot would give the Niners a fourth-rounder (they didn’t have a 2, 3 or 4, thanks to deals for Sanders and Ford) as ammo, if they needed it, on the Williams front, and make the Kinlaw/Wirfs decision for them.

“By that point, what I’d tell you is, I wouldn’t say it was a great deal of confidence, but we knew we were in the Trent Williams thing,” Lynch said. “We knew that we’d have a shot. And you start looking, What are some of the reasons we were in the Super Bowl last year? Well, I think when we were right, when we were healthy, we overwhelmed people with our defensive front. And you don’t want to lose that, and we lost a key piece of it.”

So though replacing Buckner wasn’t No. 1 on the grocery list, drafting Kinlaw also addressed a specific need for more size up front (he checks in at 6' 6", 325) and helped there immensely. Especially when the Niners considered that Kinlaw would get to work with a ninja of a D-line coach, Kris Kocurek, and how he fit the team’s style. "It was a perfect match for what we ask our D-linemen to do,” Lynch said, “which is tee off and wreck stuff.”

The 25th overall pick

Shanahan was a receiver at Duke and Texas, and as specific as he is in what he looks for at every position, it’s on another level when it comes to his former spot on the field. And as such, the particulars in what he wants are now ingrained in the Niners organization, which gives them real conviction on certain wideouts. Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk became one of those guys for Shanahan, and then the whole group, over the last few months.

The feeling there was strong enough that Aiyuk was one of a handful of names the brass would’ve been comfortable taking at 13—he was ranked closely with CeeDee Lamb—with a belief that he was, as a junior-college transfer who fought with 2019 first-rounder N’Keal Harry for playing time in 2018, just scratching the surface of his potential. And he became the name the Niners monitored in the teens, given the initial idea was that they might trade down from 13 and get him five or six picks later, had Kinlaw been gone.

San Francisco decided that if Aiyuk made it past the Eagles at 21, they’d get aggressive with their second pick, the 31st overall. Philly took another receiver, TCU’s Jalen Reagor. Lynch called Vikings GM Rick Spielman with interest in getting to 25. Parameters were set, and Spielman called back to confirm he’d do the deal, just after the Chargers dealt up to 23 to get linebacker Kenneth Murray. There was one catch—the fourth-rounder they’d gotten in the Bucs trade was going to Minnesota—and that catch did pose a threat to the Williams deal, and not just in the Niners losing a trade asset.

“Also, we knew Minnesota was in on Trent­. Did we just arm them with the ammunition they needed to go get him? Like, Oh, gosh,” Lynch said. “That thought went into it as well.”

In the end, the overall affection for Aiyuk in the room won out. “He gives you a little bit of everything,” Lynch said “He’s got strength to deal with the press coverage that everybody’s playing. Some of the holding and grabbing that’s going on, you have to be strong enough. And then forget about his 40 [he ran a 4.50 at the combine], just turn on the film. He never got caught. He plays fast. And then the long arms, he’s got elite competitiveness, there’s just a lot to like about him.”

Friday and Saturday

Previous maneuvering left the Niners with no picks in the second and third rounds, and the Williams trade twisting in the wind. “Day 2 was just kind of a long day,” Lynch said. San Francisco’s offer for Williams on Friday, its 5 this year and a 3 next year, didn’t change, in part because it couldn’t change much. The 5 was the highest 2020 pick they had, and adding it to the 3 nudged the Niners past what they believed was the field for Williams.

And that all sounded good. But it didn’t make the waiting any easier, with the knowledge that they didn’t have Staley, and might not get Williams.

“It was the best we could do, really,” Lynch said. “I think at that point … that’s what delayed us, the other teams, I can’t speak for them, but some other teams said, ‘Hey, we might get some picks here that would enable us to go do something.’ Washington, probably rightly so, exercised some patience to try to get the best thing they could for their organization, and ultimately our offer was.”

Rivera called on Saturday morning, paying off the trust that Lynch and Co. had shown in him to keep his word to them. Williams would be a Niner.

The Aftermath

Not lost on Lynch, as we reached the end of our conversation, was the magnitude of what he was walking away from by making the transaction that set all of this in motion—in letting go of, Buckner, a guy who just turned 26 and is probably one of the 10 or 15 best defensive players in the league. He raised how New England once let Richard Seymour and Chandler Jones go, and even brought his own experience into the mix, laughing as he said, “In the same year, Tampa walked from both myself and Warren [Sapp], and I think they paid for it for years to come.”

Bottom line: Just as he’s tried to reap the reward, he understands the risk.

“It was agonizing, it really was,” Lynch said. “It was tremendously agonizing and for a lot of reasons. It’s why, as much as anything we’re eager to get back, to talk to our players, to let them know. Kyle and I, it’s been very important, our word means everything. So when you profess to guys, Hey, you do the things we ask, we’re gonna take care of you, and then a guy like DeForest does everything, and you can’t take care of him, that’s difficult.

“But you get paid to make real tough decisions. And leadership, it’s not always the popular decision. It’s what you think is the right decision.”

And that all this led to a haul of Williams, Kinlaw and Aiyuk is, as the Niners see it, about as good as they could’ve drawn it up. That said, and satisfied as he might be, Lynch also knows we’re a ways off from knowing how all of this will work out, as his team looks to defend its conference title.

“I think that’s where having played a long time helps me,” he said. “You understand that great feeling is fleeting. Now, it’s time to go to work. And that’s the hard part, even if going to work now is virtually going to work.… But I’m proud that, for the most part, we kept the continuity of our team together. I think that will go a long way.”

And if it does, then we’ll all be able to look back and say a big part of that was knowing, great as last year might’ve been, the Niners knew things couldn’t be the same.

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THE SCHEDULE IS COMING

The NFL has promised the schedule will be released by this Friday, and it’ll be a far more newsworthy event this year than it has been in the past, for a lot of very obvious reasons. So over the weekend, I called a few team presidents to take their temperatures on some of the underlying themes that could go into the decision-making in setting the slate up, and how to proceed from there. Some nuggets I gathered:

• The No. 1 thing to watch will be the International Series games. The teams I talked to were skeptical, at best, about the idea that the NFL could proceed with four games in London and a game in Mexico City in the fall. The Jaguars are scheduled to host two games at Wembley, the Dolphins and Falcons are set to host games at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and the Cardinals are expected to be the home team for the Mexico game. It’s hard to imagine NFL teams making these trips at this point. So it’ll be interesting to see if the league acknowledges that, or goes forward—which would send five more teams into planning for what likely would be massively complicated trips.

• The second thing to watch will be for collapsible elements to the schedule, which could easily take the number of games down from 16 to 14 or 12. Obviously, the easiest thing to do would be to remove interconference games. So it’ll be interesting to see if those games are clustered in Weeks 2-5 (with Week 1 still set as a celebration of the return of the sport, that could be moved to the top of a modified schedule).

• One question that coastal teams are getting from NFL schedule-makers: Do you still want to have games on the opposite coast set for consecutive weeks, so you can stay in between games (a practice many teams have adopted)? On one hand, teams might believe that could be an effective way of quarantining, with players and coaches sequestered amongst themselves. On the other, teams might not want to spend extended periods of time in other parts of the country. It’s pretty relevant this year, with the AFC East drawing both West divisions in the rotation, and the NFC West drawing both East divisions.

• Will Las Vegas and the Los Angeles teams have their home openers later in the schedule, to allow for construction delays? And, for that matter, will the L.A. and New York teams have their slates backloaded with home games, because their areas have further to go in coming out of the crisis? Will that mean having, say, November and December weekends with one L.A. team playing on Thursday and the other on Sunday; or one New York team playing Sunday and the other on Monday?

• How will the big TV games get clustered? Will we see games like Chiefs-Ravens or Saints-Buccaneers further into the season, to increase the likelihood they’re played in front of fans?

• And that brings us back to how this will all be applied—and college football is a factor here. I’ve heard one idea that the major conferences have thrown around is starting their season on Oct. 1 and eliminating the non-conference schedule in doing so. They’ve also looked at pushing the schedule back altogether, and I’m told major college programs in the north have actually been in touch with NFL teams about using domed stadiums in January or February for home games, if it comes to that.

• Could the NFL move its schedule back, too? I don’t think it’s crazy to consider. Two teams estimated to me that, on average, NFL clubs would lose about $100 million apiece in local revenue if the season was played without fans in the stands. So when I asked if, given the choice, those in charge would rather start Sept. 1 without fans or Nov. 1 with them, one NFC team exec didn’t mince words: “I don’t think it’s even a question. If you could play a full season with fans, I don’t see how you don’t go that way. The economic impact is too major. If it’s possible to play it with fans by pushing it back, I don’t even see what we’d be discussing.” Worse, losing fans at games for a year could have an impact past 2020, in how fans used to going to games would have old habits broken, and may realize it’s easier to stay home and watch from there.

• Of course, the union will come into play on these decisions, and the first place would be connected to the salary cap. If the season went on without fans, and that $100 million figure is a ballpark reality (making the losses $3.2 billion league-wide), we’d be talking about a $48 million hit on the salary cap. In that scenario, the league and union would likely work together to “smooth” the cap (spreading the cap decrease over multiple years instead of dropping it by the full amount in one season), perhaps by borrowing from the benefits money or future years. But that, obviously, would have an impact down the line. And it wouldn’t be surprising to see it slow negotiations with big-ticket players in the coming months, with so much uncertainty ahead.

• So that’s why players and teams would probably be O.K. with moving the schedule back, if it meant preserving that much revenue. It also wouldn’t be too difficult, with most football stadiums having their non-football concert and event dates in the warmer months, giving the league the option of moving games into January, February and March.

• How far could the league move the Super Bowl back? It’