The 2020 San Francisco 49ers sure don’t seem to be in a rush. Well pass rush that is. There are a number of ways to explain why their pass rush is nearly non-existent. The easy response is to point to injuries, and that is a valid reason. The 49ers lost Nick Bosa early in the second game of the season and Dee Ford has been out since playing 46 snaps in the season opener.
The second and more accurate response is that John Lynch blew it when he chose to move on from Deforest Bucker. The decision to trade Buckner to Indianapolis sent the 49ers most consistent pass rusher out of town, and the results are showing on the field.
Don’t believe me? Consider this, Buckner was able to average seven sacks per season during his first three seasons in San Francisco. He was able to put these numbers up despite playing alongside players far less dominant than Nick Bosa and Dee Ford.
It goes beyond just Buckner. The defenses in 2017 and 2018, prior to the days of Bosa and Ford, were able to average 94 quarterback hits and 33.5 sacks. Meanwhile the 49ers pass rush is currently on pace to finish 2020 with a total of 69 quarterback hits and only 27 sacks. In other words, they’ve fallen off a cliff.
The 49ers put themselves in this situation by choosing to give out big contracts to players who don’t have a track record of success or being healthy, such as Arik Armstead and Jimmie Ward. Armstead joined the team one season before they drafted Buckner. Armstead broke out for 10 sacks in 2019 but, during his first four seasons with the 49ers, never had more than three sacks in a season and six total over that time.
Ward was drafted in the first round in 2014, the final season in San Francisco for Jim Harbaugh. Ward has been able to play all 16 games in a season only one time in his career but, despite the health issues and the fact that Ward has a total of one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery since 2017, was able to make himself a favorite with the 49ers coaching staff and front office.
Following the loss to Kansas City in the Super Bowl the 49ers front office decided the best course moving forward would be to sign Armstead to a five year contract that would pay an average of $17.5 million per season, and reward Ward with a three-year contract that would average $9.5 million per season, a total of $27 million per year on average. Meanwhile Bucker was signed to a contract with an annual average of $21 million following the trade to the Colts. At first glance, the 49ers appeared to have come out on the better end, because they were able to keep two players instead of keeping only one. As is the case with most NFL contracts though, the devil was in the details.
Yes, the 49ers were able to squeeze low cap hits for Armstead and Ward in the first year, but that is because the big money in terms of cap hits was pushed back, while the Colts took a big cap hit in Year 1 for Buckner. The problem for the 49ers is that they now have two players who have historically underperformed that next season will eat up $23.5 million of a reduced salary cap while the Colts will be taking a cap hit of only $17 million for Buckner. To make this even more unattractive, the Colts will incur no dead cap if they were to move on from Buckner following the 2021 season. Meanwhile, the 49ers will find themselves stuck with cap hits over $20 million for Armstead from 2022 on with dead cap totals of over $11 million until 2023.
Diving a little deeper into the details of the Ward deal is just as bad for the 49ers. While they are using only $3.5 million in cap space this season, that number jumps to $11 million in 2021 with a dead cap hit of $9.5 million and $11.5 million in 2022 with a dead cap of $4 million.
The Ward contract makes even less sense when you consider that the team spent a third round pick, the 95th selection in the 2018 draft for safety Tarvarius Moore. Moore played well in 2019 for the 49ers, starting their first three games while Ward recovered from an injury, even intercepting a pass in the Super Bowl. Moore is still playing on his rookie deal, which carries with it a cap hit of slightly more than $1 million in 2021.
Forget about the fact that the player the 49ers chose to replace Buckner with, Javon Kinlaw, has been a disappointment so far. These moves have tied the team to a couple of bad players well beyond this season, and that is on John Lynch.