49ers want to keep Arik Armstead, but it won't be easy

Arik Armstead was a valuable part of the 49ers' defensive line but re-signing him to the franchise tender would eliminate most of their cap room. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Fresh off posting the best season of his career in time to possibly become an unrestricted free agent for the first time, San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Arik Armstead leaves no doubt about what he'd like to see happen this offseason.

"I'm from Northern California, I've been here my whole career, I would love to be here and continue my career here," Armstead said. "I feel like we have a special team that I want to be part of and [we're] trying to get back to the Super Bowl."

To be sure, for as much as Armstead would like to stay with the 49ers, they want to welcome him back. The Niners have a handful of priority free agents they'd like to keep -- including free safety Jimmie Ward and receiver Emmanuel Sanders -- but Armstead towers over them all.

On the surface, that sounds easy enough. Armstead wants to stay. The Niners want him to stay. How hard can it be? Well, it's not so simple.

First and foremost, the Niners must figure a comfortable price for paying Armstead within the confines of their salary cap structure. The Niners project to have in the range of $20-21 million after a couple of projected cap cuts. That number could increase with more subtractions and contract restructuring.

Therein lies the first big decision the 49ers will face this offseason: whether to use their power to retain Armstead's rights by using the franchise or transition tag. Amounts haven't been set yet but for a defensive end -- the position Armstead will qualify for -- it is expected to be around $18-19 million for the franchise tag and $15-16 million for the transition tag.

In other words, a tag would eat a large portion of the Niners' available cap space, even though Armstead recently said he'd be fine with the team using a tag on him. If a new collective bargaining agreement comes with a bigger-than-expected increase to the salary cap, that could open the door further to a tag, assuming nothing changes with the cap mechanism in a new CBA.

Armstead has repeated his desire to stay in recent months, telling ESPN in December that he "can't even imagine" playing somewhere else. A Sacramento native who played collegiately at Oregon, Armstead's circle of friends and family is close by and he has played all five NFL seasons for the 49ers. Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner is one of his closest friends -- they were teammates at Oregon and with the Niners.

In 2019, Armstead surged to the best season of his career, finishing with 54 tackles, 10 sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery while starting all 16 games for the second time in his career. Those 10 sacks were one more than he had in his first four seasons combined.

Armstead continued to produce in the postseason, with eight tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble in three games. Pro Football Focus ranked Armstead the league's 30th-best player in 2019, when he piled up 73 quarterback pressures (including playoffs) on his way to an 89.8 overall grade, fourth-best among edge defenders. That came while playing both end and tackle on one of the league's most fearsome defensive lines.

"Arik is an excellent player," general manager John Lynch said. "He had an excellent year. I think everything is on the table. We want to find a way to keep him and make him a part of the 49ers for a long time."

While Armstead played at a high level in 2019 and was solid in 2018, his production was undeniably higher in his contract season than any previous year. Some of that can be chalked up to simply being healthy, but some credit should also go to the 49ers surrounding him with elite talents such as Buckner, Nick Bosa and Dee Ford.

Armstead has earned a sizable contract but if he hits the open market, he could cash in at a level beyond the Niners' comfort level.

One league personnel executive compared Armstead to defensive lineman Trey Flowers. Flowers had a strong 2018 for the New England Patriots (57 tackles, 7.5 sacks, three forced fumbles), performed well in the playoffs (six tackles and two sacks in three games), then found himself one of few solid defensive lineman to hit the open market. The Detroit Lions signed Flowers to a five-year, $90 million deal with $50 million in guarantees. It was a lot of money for a player who never had more than 7.5 sacks in a season.

Armstead, 26, is the same age as Flowers, coming off a better season than Flowers had (though Flowers had more production earlier in his career) and there's a chance his price could go into Flowers' range if he hits the open market as the best defensive end available.

"I'm not just an unrestricted free agent," Armstead said. "So, obviously, the Niners still have my rights. It's not my ultimate decision."

Another tag-related option: tagging Armstead and attempting to trade him the way Seattle did with Frank Clark and Kansas City did with Ford last year. The complicating factor is the Niners would need to have the framework of a deal in place because Armstead signing the tag would hamper their ability to do other deals.

Which means the best route to keeping Armstead would be to sign him to a long-term deal, possibly one that pushes a large part of his guaranteed money into 2021 and beyond.

Given that the 49ers also want to re-sign Buckner and tight end George Kittle as both enter the final year of their rookie deals, it's fair to wonder if the Niners can afford to do all of that. But there are some larger salaries they can shed beyond next season that would make those deals more palatable.

Traditionally, San Francisco prefers to pay players up front, creating more future flexibility. But that approach might have to change a bit in order for the Niners to keep their nucleus around.

"This year was amazing," Armstead said. "But there's more to be done, more work to do and somebody's gotta do it. I'm excited that I'm entering this year and improving as a player. Excited for the rest of my career. I feel like I'm getting into a groove and I'm excited to take the next steps in my career and continue to be a better and better player and try to get back to the Super Bowl."