Cost-Effective Moves the San Francisco 49ers Can Make This Offseason
The San Francisco 49ers will have a busy offseason this spring. Regardless of whether they win the Super Bowl this year, they will be a team with a big target on its back. Add to that the resurgent Seattle Seahawks and a young, up-and-coming St. Louis squad with plenty of draft picks at their disposal after trading the second pick in last year's draft, and the 49ers look to be facing very stiff competition within their division for years to come.
They also currently trail only the Chicago Bears and the Kansas City Chiefs in terms of overall payroll. So the moves they make this offseason are going to have to be cost-effective ones if they don't want to run into salary-cap hell like they did toward the end of the glory days and Eddie Debartolo's tenure with the team at the turn of the century.
There are a few cuts they could make, a few signings in free agency they could make and of course they could nail some of their draft picks. All of these possibilities could be cost-effective moves, but let's look strictly at the current roster first.
Once free agency starts after the Super Bowl, we will look at some potential cost-effective signings the 49ers could make. But for now, let's examine some options on the current roster that could go a long way toward clearing some salary cap space for the 49ers.
Author's note: The following players' salary figures are for the current year (2012) and reflect the players' salary cap figure, not their overall salary. For instance, Alex Smith has a base salary of 5.5 million in 2012, 7.5 million in 2013 and a cap figure of 9.5 million. All figures are from altiusdirectory.com
No. 1: DO Not Bring Back Randy Moss
Randy Moss doesn't really make a whole lot of money. $2.5 million for a future Hall of Famer sounds cheap.
But if you replace "Randy Moss" with "Player X" and look at the stats, tell me if that player is worth $2.5 million. Moss' 28 receptions for 434 yards and three touchdowns is the sort of production the 49ers could expect from a player making half his salary or less. Kyle Williams could easily match that sort of production, and even after a torn ACL he probably represents more speed on the outside than Randy Moss does now.
Williams and 2012 first-round pick A.J. Jenkins make far less money combined than Moss. Even with A.J. Jenkins' completely abysmal season this year, he will be given every chance next year to make meaningful contributions. Those two players combined should be able to surpass Moss' production by a long shot, and the return of Mario Manningham adds further depth to a position that isn't so weak that it needs to pay an aging veteran twice what it could sink into a first-round pick from this year's draft.
Moss may be retiring at season's end anyway, making the whole issue moot. But as valuable as he has been in the locker room and in the film room this season, he simply isn't earning his salary on the field.
Letting him walk makes the most sense at this point. It would clear the way for a group of young receivers who all have the potential to surpass the production Moss has provided this year.
No. 2: Cut or Restructure Carlos Rogers
Carlos Rogers hasn't been a bad cornerback by any means, but is he earning his millions this year? Absolutely not, not when considering he might be the third-best cornerback on the team and the other two (Chris Culliver and Tarell Brown) are making far less than he does.
Like I said, Rogers isn't a horrible cornerback, but with just one interception this year (owing to a poorly-thrown ball by Tom Brady and not Rogers' play on the pass) he has still regressed considerably from last year. Cutting Rogers may be a bit drastic, and would probably only happen if he looked absolutely horrendous in training camp next summer.
Restructuring his contract might be the better way to go. He would most likely be resistant to the idea since his current contract is the last big payday he will earn in his career. But perhaps the 49ers could restructure it so that he takes a slight pay cut with more guaranteed money that doesn't count against the salary cap for next year.
Much of what the 49ers do with Rogers will depend on what the 49ers do in the draft this April. If they take a cornerback in the first round who looks like an immediate starter or at least a very solid third cornerback in nickel situations, the 49ers may just eat Rogers' contract if he shows more signs of slowing down in training camp.
For now, I expect the 49ers to do whatever they can to avoid having his entire yearly salary count against the cap next season. But we will have to wait and see.
No. 3: Franchise Dashon Goldson
The 49ers made Dashon Goldson their franchise player last year and it cost them $6.2 million this season. All indications were that he wanted in the neighborhood of $8 million per year for several years rather than the franchise tag. If the 49ers had done that, he would have been the third-highest paid player on the team. As it stands now he still makes more than all but four players on the team.
As good as Goldson has been for the 49ers, he isn't the fifth-best player on the team. And he isn't worth more than $8 million per year.
But is he worth another $6.5 million or so? Maybe. And for one more season, the 49ers may be willing to find out the answer to that question.
San Francisco isn't very deep at the free safety position right now and there aren't many available in the upcoming draft. Kenny Vaccaro out of Texas won't be around by the end of the first round and the other free safeties all come with some question marks. Can Phillip Thomas out of Fresno State prove himself against the sort of top competition he didn't face at Fresno?
Eric Reid out of LSU is high on many draft boards, but his coverage skills need work and his tackling ability simply isn't up to par with what coach Jim Harbaugh expects.
Goldson may be the safest bet for one more year before he cannot be franchised any more.
Of course, Goldson may refuse the franchise tag and cause a really ugly scene if he does. It might also behoove the 49ers to explore the possibility of a longer-term contract in the neighborhood of three years and $21 million if they are that sold on him.
The smart move would be to try to bring him back for one more year, then let him walk.
No. 4: Trade Alex Smith
Does this really need to be said? Probably not, but I'll beat this dead horse one more time anyway.
Alex Smith is a starting quarterback in the NFL. He just isn't a starting quarterback for the 49ers. But the 49ers are paying him over $9 million—the highest salary on the team—and it simply doesn't make sense to do anything other than trade him for as many picks as they can get. Or the highest draft choice they can get.
In my opinion, San Francisco is best off trading for picks in the 2014 draft rather than the 2013 draft this April. They already have up to 13 picks available to them this year as it is, and could easily use them to move up a round or two in several places. Acquiring two first rounders this year may be a real coup for the 49ers, but it probably isn't likely.
What is a definite possibility is that they turn their picks in rounds five through seven into an extra second and/or third round pick or two.
The point is that the 49ers may end up with too many picks in this draft. There's only so many spots available. Any pick used on a player who falls victim to the numbers game and doesn't make the roster is simply a wasted pick, period.
Let's face it: This is the NFC Champion we're talking about. They don't really have that many holes on the roster.
The best and most cost-effective move is to trade Smith for picks that can either be used to acquire a higher selection this year or stockpile for next year. Since they probably already have enough picks now to move up, the smart move is to stockpile for next year. Smith gives them an early leg up on the competition in this respect.
No. 5: Players to Cut or Let Walk in Free Agency
There are several players on the roster who could and should be cut or allowed to walk in free agency.
Isaac Sopoaga: He currently earns $4,995,000 this season and simply hasn't earned it.
Sopoaga is still a decent contributor, but one weakness along an otherwise dominant defensive line is the inability to generate consistent pressure up the middle without resorting to stunts. The D-line has also been unable to stop bigger backs running right up the gut. Sopoaga is the guy asked to perform these tasks and while he's solid, he isn't spectacular and certainly isn't worth almost $5 million.
Sopoaga's a free agent this year and should be allowed to walk if he isn't up for coming back at a very reduced salary.
David Akers: no explanation needed here.
Delanie Walker: This is an interesting case. He makes $1.9 million this year and is a free agent who will probably be looking for a big raise. But if the market is cold to him, he might be worth bringing back for another year or two at under $2.5 million.
Will he come back for that kind of money? Is he worth it?
Maybe, but he needs to work on his pass-catching skills. He simply dropped too many passes this year.
Put simply, if Walker earns $2.5 million per year, he will be getting paid specifically to catch the balls that he dropped this year. I would let him walk for anything more than an even $2 million per year.
Leonard Davis: He doesn't make much at just under $1 million per year, but he hasn't contributed much. The 49ers have a couple of younger players in Joe Looney and Daniel Kilgore that could get some more experience without Davis on the roster. Both players make about half of what Davis does.
An Extra Move for the Prisoners of the Moment
Let's indulge in some fantasy here. Why not tear up Kaepernick's contract and sign him to a nice, fat long-term contract before his value goes through the roof?
If the 49ers are sold on this guy—and clearly they are—it would behoove them to lock him up for as long as possible and for as little as possible right now. I have a feeling his value is only going to get higher as his current contract plays out.
He's making about $1.1 million this year. If San Francisco was willing to pay Alex Smith nine times that, why not throw similar money at Kaepernick now? What about offering five years at $8 million a year?
Something tells me that that sort of money will represent a major bargain in a year or two.
Salaries of mentioned players under contract for next season: