February 24, 2024
In years past, the Niners would jettison NFL-worthy players — even starters — on cut-down day. That didn't happen this year.

Roster cut-down day used to be stressful around Santa Clara.

Making the 49ers the 53ers meant cutting NFL-caliber players. The rest of the NFL kept an eye on who was jettisoned from Santa Clara, knowing that the Niners’ roster was the league’s deepest.

San Francisco’s trash has proven to be other teams’ treasure.

In 2020, the Niners cut Jauan Jennings (but were able to sign him to the practice squad). In 2021, they traded away linebacker Jonas Griffin for a late-round draft pick. He’s made 92 tackles in 22 games for the Broncos. Last season, running back JaMychal Hasty was released on cut day and subsequently had a nice season as the Jaguars’ third-down back.

Are any of these players future Pro Bowlers? No. Even after leaving the Bay, they’re not even close to household names.

But it was telling that the Niners felt compelled to move on from them.

They’re solid, capable NFL players. The Niners simply had too many of those kind of players in camp.

It was a great problem to have.

It’s not an issue the Niners have anymore, though.

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On Tuesday, as the Niners’ roster was cut down to 53 players, there was no such jarring omission from the roster.

In fact, there were a few players the Niners kept that were head-scratching.

It highlights the biggest difference between this season’s Niners’ teams and Kyle Shanahan’s past squads:

The Niners created consistent Super Bowl contenders with the deepest roster in the league, but that depth has dried up for 2023.

Don’t get me wrong, the Niners still have an outstanding roster, but it’s top-heavy.

San Francisco had eight players in the NFL’s annual Top 100 list this season.

The Niners’ issue is that great players deserve great, big contracts. Success comes at a price. The Niners rightly have paid their top guys over the last few seasons, Nick Bosa excluded, but that doesn’t leave much cash to fill out the rest of the roster. The Niners have eight players who account for more than half of the salary cap combined. (Two players aren’t with the team anymore: Dee Ford and Trey Lance.)

Now if the Niners’ top players can stay healthy, it’s hard to imagine anyone beating them in a weak NFC this season.

But staying healthy isn’t the Niners’ thing.

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The Niners’ depth in past seasons has proven critical, as over the past decade, the Niners have lost the most games due to injury in the NFL. Under Shanahan, the Niners are consistently one of the league’s most injured teams.

Super-deep rosters have allowed the Niners to withstand that deluge of bad luck.

But to have a top-heavy roster is to hope that the team’s consistent bad luck turns.

At this point, I doubt that’s going to happen. Perhaps the football gods’ last, cruel joke was the Niners running out of quarterbacks in the NFC Championship Game.

Then again, they struck down both of the Niners’ kickers with injuries this preseason, so it’s hard to say they’ve let up.

The good news is that the 53-man roster trim down is little more than a made-for-TV event these days. Rosters are never static in the NFL. Someone who made Tuesday’s roster could be cut on Friday if the team finds an upgrade.

And Dante Johnson, bless him, is always hanging around.

Still, the shoe is on the other foot for the Niners this season. They’re now a team that needs to scrounge the waiver wire, looking for small free-agent wins at the bottom of the roster.

Don’t think for a second the Niners aren’t Super Bowl contenders this season. They still have a great roster.

But while this team’s ceiling is Super Bowl high, Tuesday proved their floor is lower than in years past.

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