'We gotta go get him': Why 49ers broke tendency to sign Javon Hargrave

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Before San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan could pull off one of free agency's biggest deals, they had to get the blessing of chief executive officer Jed York.

Since Shanahan and Lynch arrived in 2017, the Niners have never been afraid to spend, but most of their biggest splashes have come in the form of extensions for their own players. Going into the free agent market and landing one of the biggest names available hasn't been their M.O.

"When you're going to spend in free agency, you better make it count because you're gonna spend a lot of money," York said.

So when Shanahan and Lynch asked York to rubber stamp their plan to break from tradition, he had one simple request: Find a game changer. As it turned out, Shanahan and Lynch already had one in mind in the form of defensive tackle Javon Hargrave.

"I said (to York), 'Well, we got the guy for ya and we gotta go get him,'" Lynch said. "That was the challenge, could we do it? There was a lot of competition for him, but we were able to do it. And I'm really excited about watching this guy. We watched him terrorize the league, terrorize us, and it's nice to have him on our side."

With York's approval, the Niners wasted no time making their push for Hargrave. As soon as the early negotiating window opened March 13, the Niners and Hargrave agreed to a four-year, $84 million deal with $40 million fully guaranteed. It wasn't the biggest offer the 30-year-old Hargrave got but it was the only one that gave him the financial security he sought while providing an opportunity to continue playing for a contender.

The 49ers' quick and aggressive pitch to Hargrave essentially eliminated other contenders, even those -- such as the Cleveland Browns -- who were willing to offer more money.

"It's not really a hard decision to make," Hargrave said. "Because I mean, that's all you like in football is winning and getting paid."

That combination made Hargrave's decision easy and gave the Niners another difference maker to the position group that has lone been their top roster-building priority.

"I couldn't believe it myself," Hargrave said. "I really couldn't. Sometimes when you are trying to go get the money, you have to go to a team that's in a rebuild mode. But when you can go to a team that was just in the NFC Championship, that's kind of an easy choice for me ... It really made me happy because I was real nervous about free agency on where I was gonna have to go. But I felt like this was the perfect situation."

Upon signing Hargrave, the Niners sent yet another message that their time to jump through the championship window is now. Entering free agency, they figured to take a similar approach to 2022, when they took one big bite of the apple by signing cornerback Charvarius Ward to a three-year, $40.5 million deal, then mostly went bargain shopping. But Hargrave was a much bigger bite than anyone anticipated. Among players signing with new teams this offseason, his deal is the largest among non-quarterbacks in average annual value.

If Hargrave can get the Niners back to their 2019 levels of dominance on the line of scrimmage, they believe he'll be worth every penny.

"He's a guy that -- he can make a difference," York said. "And when you have a Super Bowl-caliber defensive line, it gives you a chance to compete against the best teams in this league. And that's who we have to beat if we want to win a Super Bowl."

In many ways, Hargrave and the 49ers are an ideal match.

From San Francisco's perspective, adding Hargrave not only weakens the team that beat them in the NFC Championship Game, the Philadelphia Eagles, but should help atone for the 2020 trade of DeForest Buckner. Buckner's absence was supposed to be offset by Javon Kinlaw, the No. 14 choice in the following draft, but Kinlaw's first three seasons have been marred by knee injuries and the team is unlikely to exercise his fifth-year option for 2024 before the May 1 deadline.

Coincidentally, the four-year, $84 million deal was the exact length and cost of the contract Buckner signed with the Indianapolis Colts after the Niners traded him there. And while the Niners' defense has continued to thrive without Buckner, even finishing first in multiple key categories in 2022 such as points allowed and defensive efficiency, they haven't had the consistent pass-rush production from their tackles they did in 2019, when Buckner lined up next to ends Nick Bosa and Dee Ford and fellow tackle Arik Armstead.

In 2022, 49ers defensive tackles generated a combined 59 pressures, fourth-fewest in the NFL. Armstead, who missed eight games with foot and ankle issues, had the most pressures among Niners defensive tackles with just 14. There were 62 defensive tackles in the league who had more, including Hargrave (53) and Buckner (51), who ranked third and fourth, respectively.

Hargrave comes from the team that set the standard for pass rush in 2022. With the Eagles, Hargrave played alongside the likes of Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox and Haason Reddick on a defense that led the NFL with a whopping 70 sacks.

Over the past few seasons, Hargrave has regularly proved one of the NFL's most dangerous interior pass-rushers. His 14.1% pressure rate is best in the NFL among tackles with at least 500 pass rushes over the past two seasons and his nine sacks were the most by any player lining up at defensive tackle in 2022.

What's more, Hargrave has offered durability on par with Buckner, who missed one game in his four seasons in San Francisco. Hargrave has missed just three games in seven years and only two were injury related. It's easy to see why the Niners viewed him as the ideal Buckner replacement and tag-team partner for Bosa and Armstead.

"Our goal since we got here is to always build a D-line and for that to be the strength and we do feel like we have a very good D-line," Shanahan said. "But going back to 2019, I feel we had the best in the league by far then and took a little step back in the last couple years. Not that we were bad or anything (but) we didn't feel we were as quite as dominant."