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It looks like bringing back free agent left tackle Trent Williams just became even more important for the 49ers.
That’s because the NFC West rival Arizona Cardinals on Monday made a splashy addition to their defensive front, adding recently released star J.J. Watt on a two-year contract, the team announced. ESPN reported Watt’s deal is worth $31 million with $23 million in guarantees.
The move pairs Watt, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, with star defensive end Chandler Jones, whose 97 sacks lead the NFL since entering the league in 2012. Watt also rejoins his former teammate DeAndre Hopkins, the star receiver who was traded from Houston to Arizona for a package including a second-round draft pick last offseason. Hopkins has been vocal about his displeasure with the Texans — a growing sentiment throughout the league — since changing teams.
Watt has 101.0 sacks in his 10-year career, but durability has been a problem. Watt appeared in just three and five games in 2016 and ‘17, respectively, and played in just half of the Houston Texans’ games in 2019. He appeared in all 16 contests in 2020 for just the second time in five campaigns.
The future Hall of Famer isn’t playing at the same lofty level as he did early in his career. He had 9.0 sacks over the last two seasons combined and might be a better player against the run than as a featured pass rusher.
The $23 million in guarantees make it an expensive gamble on the soon-to-be 32-year-old. The upside for Arizona is adding another talented defensive lineman in a competitive division that now features Matthew Stafford with the Rams, Russell Wilson in Seattle and presumably Jimmy Garoppolo leading the 49ers offense that ranked second in scoring and fourth in yardage when the team went to the Super Bowl after the 2019 campaign.
Arizona ranked ninth in the league with 100 quarterback hits in 2020, according to Pro Football Reference, while their 48 sacks were tied for fourth-best.
Meanwhile, nothing has changed on the Williams front with San Francisco. He remains the team’s top free agent priority. He indicated throughout last season he wanted to return to the 49ers but was also willing to test the free-agent waters.
“It’s been 11 years in this league and I have yet to see a franchise left tackle go to the open market,” Williams said in January. “I think it would be interesting to kind of see what value holds. But regardless, like I said, and I’ve always maintained the same thing, I think San Francisco is my number one destination, and we’ll see how things work out.”
Williams and San Francisco agreed to a clause in his contract that prevents him from getting the franchise tag, which could mean he nets a deal worth upwards of $20 million per season in congruence with some of the league’s other elite players at the position that recently received long-term contracts: David Bakhtiari (Packers, $23 million per year), Laremy Tunsil (Texans, $22 million) and Ronnie Stanley (Ravens, $19.75 million).
Perhaps Williams would argue Watt joining the division will increase his already-lofty price.
49ers linked to Bridgewater
The NFL rumor mill has been hot and heavy with speculation surrounding Garoppolo’s standing with 49ers all winter, and that continued on Monday when The Athletic reported San Francisco’s brass made a call to the Carolina Panthers to check on the availability of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
That comes on the heels of 49ers general manager John Lynch last week saying he expects Garoppolo to remain the team’s starter in 2021, assuming he’s healthy.
There’s not much logic in the idea of the 49ers trading for Bridgewater, who is due to make $17 million in base salary in 2021. Bridgewater has never thrown for more than 15 touchdowns in a season (Garoppolo had 27 in 2019) while the Panthers have gone 4-11 in his starts. San Francisco, of course, is 28-8 with Garoppolo under center.
It’s more likely the 49ers would view Bridgewater as a backup candidate. Lynch and Kyle Shanahan have indicated the team plans on improving the quarterback room behind Garoppolo to insulate from another injury after Garoppolo appeared in six games in 2020 due to a high ankle sprain. The problem is Bridgewater’s current price.
But if Carolina were to go another direction (like trade for Deshaun Watson) and release Bridgewater, he would be an intriguing addition. Other veteran backups that would make sense for San Francisco include Garoppolo’s former Patriot teammate, Jacoby Brissett, former Bengals starter Andy Dalton, journeyman Tyrod Taylor and veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, who beat the 49ers at Levi’s Stadium with the Dolphins in October.
Alex Smith out of Washington
There’s another possible backup quarterback candidate available, albeit an unlikely one.
Former 49ers quarterback Alex Smith and The Washington Football team are expected to part ways, according to an NFL Network report, leaving the 36-year-old to find a new home if he wants to continue his playing career.
Smith, of course, was recently named the league’s Comeback Player of the Year by the Associated Press after returning to game action following his life threatening leg injury that cost him the 2019 season, and nearly his career. Smith returned to appear in 11 games last season and make eight starts, including a win over the 49ers in December that he exited early with a calf injury.
Bringing Smith back to San Francisco, where he wants to retire and continue raising his family, would be a feel-good story. But it’s unlikely Smith is high on the team’s list of options given his age and injury history. The 49ers would have a hard time justifying such an acquisition when the offseason mandate has been to alleviate the injury issues that derailed the 2020 season.
▪ Speaking of former 49ers with injury concerns, Washington this week is also expected to part with linebacker Reuben Foster, who signed there following his release from San Francisco before the completion of his second NFL season. The news came from a report from NBC Sports Washington.
The 49ers let Foster go following a late-night arrest at the team’s hotel room before a game in Tampa Bay in 2018 following a dispute with the same woman who accused him of domestic violence nearly a year earlier in a case that was thrown out by a Santa Clara County judge.
Foster tore his ACL during a practice with Washington in 2019 and never took a snap with the team. The 49ers traded up to the No. 31 pick in the 2017 draft to take Foster, who they said was the No. 3 overall player on their board.