Editor’s Note: This story was initially published on May 20, as part of NBC Sports Bay Area’s “GM Week,” where we theorized hypothetical acquisitions for each of our teams. We’re resurfacing Thursday in light of Jamal Adams demanding a trade from the Jets.
The 49ers made the wrong choice with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, but the player they should have chosen instead of Solomon Thomas is not Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes or the Houston Texans’ DeShaun Watson.
It’s New York Jets safety Jamal Adams.
If there’s one NFL player who could take San Francisco’s already-dominant defense to the next level, it’s him. It would be tremendously difficult — and costly — to rectify that draft mistake, but as good as Adams is, it’s absolutely worth trying.
49ers receive: Jamal Adams
Jets receive: Jaquiski Tartt, Dante Pettis, 2021 second-round draft pick, future pick(s)
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Let me first begin by saying that Tartt is a good-to-great strong safety in his own right, and the 49ers are a different team when he’s not on the field. Tartt missed the final four games of the 2019 regular season, over which the 49ers allowed an average of 31.75 points against per game. In the first 12 games of the season — for which Tartt was active — they averaged 15.25 points against.
He is a homegrown player who has improved each year and is a critical member of San Francisco’s back seven. But, he also is somewhat injury-prone, and most importantly, is entering the final year of his contract, for which he carries a $6.275 million cap hit.
If Tartt performs in 2020 as the 49ers hope and expect, he surely will command a hefty salary on the open market, quite possibly north of $10 million per season. And, if he regresses considerably, San Francisco will either have to stick with him or find his replacement.
But in this scenario, I’ve already done that.
Adams, 24, is more than three years younger than Tartt and already is a superior player. He has been selected for the two most recent Pro Bowls, and last season, was named a First-Team All-Pro and ranked the 37th-best player in the NFL Top 100. Pro Football Focus graded him as the fifth-best safety in all of football, who excelled both as a blitzer (second-best) and in coverage (seventh-best). His 6.5 sacks led all defensive backs, despite missing the first two games of his career.
So, why on earth would the Jets entertain offers for him? Well, they already did — at last season’s trade deadline. That didn’t sit well with Adams at the time, and from the sounds of it, the situation hasn’t improved all that much. Adams had made it clear he wanted a contract extension this offseason, but the Jets, so far, only have picked up his fifth-year option. He skipped New York’s voluntary offseason program in protest, and the relationship between player and organization certainly appears to be somewhat rocky.
Adams reportedly wants to be the highest-paid safety in the NFL. If the Jets ultimately don’t want to pay that — or if the situation becomes untenable — then the 49ers would be wise to tempt them with anything reasonable to get a deal done. San Francisco has its own salary constraints to worry about, but given the current contending window, you get the star player and then let cap guru Paraag Marathe do what he does best.
To pry Adams away from New York, however, it’s going to cost a pretty penny. This offer, though, might be the kind of package they’d ultimately accept.
In Tartt, they get a plug-and-play replacement for Adams who would allow them to employ the same kind of defense while spending less. He is a quality player who is still in his prime.
Pettis has yet to establish himself with the 49ers, but let’s not forget he was a second-round pick two years ago. The Jets are going to go as far as quarterback Sam Darnold will take them, and while they’ve added a couple receivers this offseason, he can never have enough weapons at his disposal.
Regardless of which players San Francisco would offer in return, it’s highly unlikely the Jets would accept a package without ample draft compensation. The 49ers wouldn’t offer the same kind of package the Los Angeles Rams ultimately gave up to acquire Jalen Ramsey after getting a front-row seat to the disastrous effects it has had on their roster, but a second-round pick — or two — is an entirely different matter.
The money works in both ways in the immediate, and while the 49ers likely would have to do some belt-tightening in relatively short order, it absolutely would be worth it for them. Adams is the ideal player to not only help the 49ers capitalize on their current contending window, but also extend it, too.
As for the Jets, well, it might not be worth it for them, but no matter how they end up losing Adams — if that’s what happens — they’re never going to get fair value. The longer they wait, the less contractual control they have over him, and consequently, the offers will get worse and worse.
Adams probably isn’t going anywhere for a while, if at all. But if the 49ers have an opportunity to acquire him, they should do anything within reason — and maybe a little outside of it — in order to do so.
That’s the price to pay to rectify the mistake.