Behind Jim Harbaugh and this talent-laden roster, the San Francisco 49ers put together a spectacular run in 2012. Even though they did not bring home a sixth Lombardi Trophy, they had to be proud to return to the Bay Area as NFC champions.
With Super Bowl XLVII now a memory, it is time for the organization to start concentrating on the offseason.
Based on player performance in 2012, there could be cuts, contract restructuring and extensions ahead. Fortunately for the 49ers, they have a solid foundation in place and are not at risk to lose significant contributors this year.
49ers general manager Trent Baalke was proactive throughout the league year, most notably extending All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman until 2018. Under Baalke's command, this organization has meticulously operated through free agency.
They make their own players and the draft a priority, while free agency is purely supplemental for them. The Niners should focus on extending a number of names currently on the roster. Let's take a look at who the 49ers want to stick around long-term.
San Francisco’s No. 2 cornerback, Tarell Brown, had perhaps the finest season for the Niners’ secondary.
He did not have the flashy numbers but his consistent performance—and the fact that you never heard his name called for a negative play—was what defined him as a player. Brown can be attributed as the most dependable member in the secondary, yet he is the most underpaid.
In 2013, Brown will be entering the final year of his deal, after which time he will become an unrestricted free agent.
While the 49ers could let him play out his last season, they should work to extend him. He was drafted as a fifth-rounder in 2007 and has since developed into a solid starter. And with Carlos Rogers in his 30s, the team should be prepared for Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver as the future No. 1 and 2.
It would be a smooth transition and the team could continue to build around these two.
In the 2012 offseason, the 49ers partook in a tremendous gamble by moving tackle Alex Boone to interior line duties.
For years, the 49ers attempted to rebuild this offensive front with five men who were not only supremely talented but played cohesive football. The organization did this by investing three first-round selections and free-agent money since 2007.
Now, five years later, the Niners finally have a special corps of guys, and Boone was the final piece to that puzzle.
San Francisco had one of the best offensive lines in football this year—certainly the best run blocking line, bar none. Boone (6'7") was initially a concern because of his height. There was the question of whether or not he could consistently play with a low pad level.
Boone transitioned beautifully, which put San Francisco in a favorable position in the same year they found their next franchise quarterback.
The good news is Boone is locked up until 2015. The bad news is that deal is tailored for a backup left tackle. The 49ers will have to restructure Boone’s contract, which only pays him a base salary of $950,000 in 2013 and 2014.
Even though it is one of the stoutest rosters in the league, the 49ers have had liabilities in coverage. This offseason, the Niners should prioritize upgrading the secondary.
There could be some careful remodeling on the back end, but during this process it would be wise to extend free safety Dashon Goldson.
The two-time Pro Bowl free safety has been a multidimensional playmaker on defense for San Francisco. He has brought range as a hawking defensive back, racking up nine interceptions in the past two seasons.
Additionally, he’s been a punishing tackler.
Goldson has developed into one of the hardest hitters in the entire league. His high torque thumps send shockwaves through ESPN’s top-10 list by weekly. And more importantly, his identity as a player is synonymous with the team.
Unfortunately, the All-Pro safety will have an opportunity to hit the open market this offseason. As he was last year, Goldson should be looking for top dollar at his position.
The Niners have the option of tagging him again; however, doing so for a second consecutive year necessitates a 120 percent pay increase. With that being the case, the tender would cost the 49ers within the vicinity of $7.5 million.
The 49ers may want to explore untraditional options in order to retain Goldson.
No safety got beat more for TDs in the regular season than Whitner with 8. That's his third of postseason.— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) February 3, 2013
Given how the Super Bowl went down, the job security of strong safety Donte Whitner could be at risk. He had his worst game in scarlet and gold on the grandest stage, which is not the time to underperform.
Whitner was a liability in coverage and played a significant role in Joe Flacco receiving the Pete Rozelle Trophy.
Unlike Goldson, Whitner is under contract for another season. His deal does not expire until 2014, which may be longer than the 49ers are willing to wait. With Whitner still under contract, San Francisco will take a $4.83 million cap hit this coming season.
The Niners may want to move on from Whitner, and in doing so they can upgrade by drafting a replacement while clearing cap space for Goldson’s new deal.
The 49ers are at the mercy of free agency when two of their defensive linemen hitting the market. The contracts of Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois will expire at the end of the league year.
One of the biggest factors that will have a hand in this decision is age. Sopoaga is 31 years old, while Jean-Francois is 26 years old. With the 49ers being logical strategists, they will likely extend Jean-Francois at a premium.
Sopoaga may cost more than he is worth, and could find the money he is looking for on the open market. So when the clock strikes on free agency, it could work out for all parties involved.
But Jean-Francois should not be re-signed without bringing in competition. And given the position they are in, the 49ers may spend their top draft pick on a defensive lineman this year.
Jean-Francois has been a great contributor and role player for this team, and he deserves an opportunity to vie for the job.
This would be similar to the decision the 49ers made prior to 2011 when they allowed Aubrayo Franklin to test the free agency. The team extended second-string defensive lineman Ray McDonald and kicked Isaac Sopoaga over to nose tackle.
This course of action would also be fitting since Harbaugh believes competition brings the best out of his players.
One of the unheralded players on the 49ers is backup inside linebacker and special teams ace Larry Grant.
According to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, Grant played 62.7 percent of special teams plays in 2012, which was sixth most on the team. For scale, Darcel McBath played the most snaps with 68.9 percent.
Grant has also been a very serviceable linebacker when called upon. Last season, Grant started three games in place of injured All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis. He had 28 tackles and five pass deflections during that stretch.
Aside from being a consistent special teamer, he provides very good depth at the ILB position. Moreover, linebacker Tavares Gooden is also set to be a free agent, and if the Niners only bring back one, it should be Grant.
As we mentioned before, the 49ers should allow Sopoaga to walk but retain Jean-Francois. But there are a few other names that will need to either be re-signed or allowed to walk.
Randy Moss is atop the list of players with expiring deals who should not be re-signed in 2013. His biggest contribution to the team was his knowledge and experience. When the 49ers needed Moss to step up in the Super Bowl, he failed to provide.
Although Harbaugh and Moss are on good terms, there is no need for Moss to absorb a roster spot in 2013.
Tramaine Brock and Darcel McBath are also free agents. These two have provided depth in the secondary while contributing on special teams. Both are expendable commodities, though McBath really stepped up as a gunner in his first year with the team.
Brock, on the other hand, has been with San Francisco since 2010 but has not impressed enough to earn significant game day reps with the defense.
Delanie Walker is finally set to be a free agent as well. He has the ability and profile to earn a starting role with a larger salary, so the team may let him walk.
Leonard Davis was a solid signing who didn’t hurt the team at all. As the primary backup on the offensive line, he brought excellent peace of mind as a veteran and former Pro Bowler.
Fortunately, the Niners did not endure any significant injuries to the offensive line. On occasion, Davis saw reps in the team’s jumbo formations in short down and distances. San Francisco can offer him another one-year deal but they will likely go younger at the position.
Another player not expected to return is veteran linebacker Clark Haggans, who signed with the team after a season-ending injury to Parys Haralson. Haggans only played 4.1 percent of the snaps this season.
And finally, return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. will be a free agent this offseason. Ginn was less than spectacular all season and earned less and less responsibility as the year progressed.
With the emergence of LaMichael James, as well as Kyle Williams returning, the 49ers can afford to let Ginn walk.