San Francisco 49ers: In years past, the Niners would jettison NFL-worthy players — even starters — on cut-down day. That didn’t happen this year.
Around Santa Clara, roster cut-down day used to be a stressful event.
Making the 49ers the 53rd team necessitated the release of NFL-caliber players. The rest of the NFL was watching who was let go from Santa Clara, knowing that the Niners’ roster was the deepest in the league.
Other teams’ treasure has turned out to be San Francisco’s trash.
In 2020, the Niners released Jauan Jennings but signed him to the practice squad. They exchanged linebacker Jonas Griffin for a late-round draft pick in 2021. In 22 games for the Broncos, he has 92 tackles. Running back JaMychal Hasty was released on cut day last season and went on to have a solid season as the Jaguars’ third-down back.
Are any of these players likely to make the Pro Bowl? No. Even after leaving the Bay, they are not household names.
But the fact that the Niners felt compelled to move on from them was telling.
They’re both solid and capable NFL players. The Niners simply had too many players of that type in camp.
It was an excellent problem to have.
However, it is no longer an issue for the Niners.
On Tuesday, when the 49ers’ roster was reduced to 53 players, there was no such glaring omission.
In fact, the Niners kept a few players who made me scratch my head.
It emphasizes the most significant difference between this season’s Niners team and Kyle Shanahan’s previous teams:
The 49ers built a consistent Super Bowl contender with the league’s deepest roster, but that depth has dried up for 2023.
Don’t get me wrong: the Niners still have a great team, but it’s top-heavy.
This season, San Francisco had eight players on the NFL’s annual Top 100 list.
The problem for the 49ers is that great players deserve great, big contracts. Success comes with a cost. The Niners have rightfully paid their top players over the last few seasons, with the exception of Nick Bosa, but that doesn’t leave much money to fill out the rest of the roster. The Niners have eight players who collectively account for more than half of the salary cap. (Two players from that group are no longer with the team: Dee Ford and Trey Lance.)
It’s difficult to imagine anyone beating the Niners in a weak NFC this season if their top players stay healthy.
But the Niners aren’t known for their ability to stay healthy.
In previous seasons, the Niners’ depth has been critical, as the team has lost the most games due to injury in the NFL over the last decade. The 49ers have consistently been one of the league’s most injured teams under Shanahan.
The Niners’ super-deep rosters have allowed them to weather the storm of bad luck.
However, having a top-heavy roster means hoping that the team’s consistent bad luck changes.
At this point, I doubt it will happen. The Niners running out of quarterbacks in the NFC Championship Game was perhaps the football gods’ final cruel joke.
However, they injured both of the Niners’ kickers this preseason, so it’s difficult to say they’ve slowed down.
The good news is that these days, the 53-man roster cut down is little more than a made-for-TV event. The NFL roster is never static. Someone who made the team on Tuesday could be released on Friday if the team finds an upgrade.
And, bless him, Dontae Johnson is always around.
The shoe is still on the other foot for the Niners this season. They’re now a team that must scour the waiver wire for small free-agent wins at the bottom of the roster.
Don’t let anyone convince you that the Niners aren’t a Super Bowl contender this season. They still have an excellent roster.
While this team’s ceiling is Super Bowl-level, Tuesday demonstrated that its floor is lower than in previous years.