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How a Drastically-Lowered Salary Cap could Affect the 49ers and Jimmy Garoppolo in 2021

Will the 49ers be able to afford Jimmy Garoppolo?

Any plans for the future the 49ers thought they had no longer apply. The Niners need to throw them out and start over.

Because now they need to prepare for a future in which the salary cap goes down, not up.

Usually, the cap goes up at least $10 million every year. But this year, there’s a global pandemic and teams won’t be able to fill their stadiums with fans, so revenue will plummet and so will the salary cap.

According to reports, the cap will drop from $198 million in 2020 to $175 million in 2021, when the 49ers will have more than two dozen unrestricted free agents, including All Pro left tackle Trent Williams, All Pro tight end George Kittle and All Pro cornerback Richard Sherman. Meaning the 49ers will have to create additional cap space they didn’t think they would need just to keep some of their key players.

And it will be hard to assemble a Super Bowl contending team with such an expensive starting quarterback. If the cap indeed drops to $175 million next year, then Jimmy Garoppolo will take up 15.4 percent of the 49ers’ cap space -- an extremely high number. No quarterback ever has won a Super Bowl while taking up more than 13.1 percent of his team’s cap.

So what can the 49ers do about Garoppolo?

They can extend his contract in 2021 and backload it so he’s more affordable the next few years. But the 49ers could have extended his deal this offseason and chose not to.

They also could ask Garoppolo to take a pay cut. But I highly doubt he’d take one.

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Or they could trade Garoppolo and create $24.1 million in cap space.

For the sake of discussion, let’s say the 49ers trade Garoppolo back to the Patriots next year for a first-round pick. Then, the 49ers could use that pick to trade for another quarterback.

But whom?

Probably not Aaron Rodgers. Trading for him wouldn’t save the 49ers money. He would cost them roughly the same amount as Garoppolo. But there’s another quarterback in the NFC North the 49ers might want: Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.

The Lions are rebuilding. This offseason, there were rumors they shopped Stafford, and the NFL Network’s Michael Silver reported Stafford would welcome a trade.

This upcoming season seems like Detroit’s final chance to make something happen with Stafford, who has been their starting quarterback since 2009. He will be relatively cheap in 2020, when he will take up a reasonable 9.9 percent of the Lions’ cap space. But in 2021, his cap number will jump to $33 million for the Lions, meaning his cap percentage will jump to 18.9. He’ll be way too expensive for the Lions if they still aren’t contenders.

But he would be relatively cheap for the 49ers if they trade for him, because the Lions gave him a $50 million signing bonus in 2017, which the 49ers wouldn’t be responsible for. He would cost them $20 million in 2021, and take up 11.4 percent of their cap space. Meaning he would be cheaper than Garoppolo and save the 49ers money.

Of course, it’s possible Garoppolo will earn an extension or accept a pay cut, and the 49ers won’t have to trade for Stafford.

But no one knows how the pandemic will affect the future of the NFL. There may not even be a season this year -- we’ll see. The 49ers must prepare for a world in which they can’t afford their starting quarterback.