The San Francisco 49ers are in the midst of changing gears, preparing for an enduring trial of personnel decisions. With the upcoming draft and free agency, Trent Baalke will be looking to upgrade this roster once again.
Though, before they evaluate outside prospects, they have to do a bit of self-analysis. The Niners have a number of a role players set to hit the open market this offseason, and they must determine a course of action for each one of them.
One of the options provided to teams by the league is the franchise tag; each team is allotted one per year. This gives the team flexibility when contract negotiations break down and essentially allows organizations to postpone talks for a year.
QB: Franchise: $14.642 million
DE: Franchise: $10.984 million
CB: Franchise: $10.668 million
WR: Franchise: $10.357 million
OL: Franchise: $9.660 million
LB: Franchise: $9.455 million
DT: Franchise: $8.306 million
RB: Franchise: $8.079 million
S: Franchise: $6.798 million
TE: Franchise: $5.962 million
K/P: Franchise: $2.926 million
The rate of the tag is based on position, and fortunately for the 49ers, they are not in danger of losing expensive players. However, they have two featured role players that have been deemed "top priorities."
This offseason, it will likely be Dashon Goldson or Delanie Walker that is deemed worthy of the franchise tag.
Dashon Goldson, FS
In 2012, Goldson reluctantly played under the $6.212 million franchise tender extended to him. In three cumulative years as a starter, he failed to perform well in back-to-back seasons, seeing a decline in 2010. This may have been San Francisco's primary reasoning for not paying him the top safety money he sought.
But the team was not ready to see him leave, and it provided him another opportunity to earn his payday.
Following a brief absence from minicamp and OTAs this year, Goldson showed up for training camp, citing how the team comes first.
I just had to take it upon myself and realize, what's the task at hand? We've got a good football team here. We've got a chance to do something special this year. That's my main focus. What didn't get done didn't get done. I'm sure it will get done some time next year.
The 49ers free safety saw his second consecutive Pro Bowl season in 2012, truly standing out as one of San Francisco’s best defenders. He has established a presence on the back end, accruing nine interceptions and countless bone-chilling hits in the past two seasons.
And while he’s been a playmaker, he’s also been a risk taker in coverage and a burden when it comes to personal fouls. At a certain point, the Niners may want to move past his chancy style of play.
Though, as it stands, both sides are going to explore a long-term deal. There was a mutual interest expressed after the season, but any kind of deal will be easier said than done.
The value the 49ers set for him may not coincide with what Goldson believes he’s worth. For this reason he could wind up being a cap casualty, which would lead San Francisco to the draft for his replacement.
Of course, the franchise tag is an option again.
Although, when the tag is applied for a second consecutive year, the rate increases 120 percent. If the 49ers cannot get a long-term deal done, they are looking at a cap figure of $7,454,400 if they place the tag on Goldson.
This is a pretty substantial figure for one player, and in terms of salary, it would make him the team’s third-highest earner in 2013.
However, Goldson was originally looking for top-tier safety money. The ballpark figures being thrown around were comparable to the five-year, $40 million contract Eric Weddle signed with San Diego in 2011.
That has Weddle averaging roughly $8 million per year, which in theory, is more than Goldson’s potential 2013 tag would cost.
Delanie Walker, TE
The simple truth is that there are only two real candidates for the franchise tag, and Walker is right there behind Goldson.
The 49ers value his versatility and have gotten a lot of bang for their buck.
Walker has been multifaceted, blocking, receiving and even contributing on special teams. As the slated No. 2 tight end, he participated in 56 percent of the snaps on offense and 28 percent on special teams.
And when it comes to San Francisco’s high-volume rushing attack, Walker has fulfilled a pivotal role as a blocker. From his timing to his fundamentals, he's been consistent in his execution.
In this new innovative offense, there have several instances of Walker hitting a key block to spring a huge run. One of his most notable and signature moves is the wham block, which eliminates the defensive tackle from a given play.
In this type of assignment, Walker exemplified precision blocking and an ability to get from point A to point B uninterrupted. And in this Pistol package, which often necessitates a sidecar blocker, he has been an asset.
While he finished with over 300 receiving yards and three touchdowns, Walker had a team-high 11 drops. He talked to CSN Bay Area about this lingering flaw in his game:
I just think it's lack of concentration, not being focused on catching the ball, being a little surprised when it comes to me. Now, I got to make sure I'm not surprised and stay focused when the ball comes to me.
His unsure hands were a black mark on his otherwise effective team contributions. According to Pro Football Focus, Walker had the highest drop rate in the NFL with 30 percent, which is nearly double than second highest (Aaron Hernandez – 16.39 percent).
If the 49ers elect to use the franchise tag on him, it will cost them roughly $5.962 million for 2013. This would ensure that he stays on the team for at least one more year while San Francisco grooms a replacement.
Tyler Eifert, Zach Ertz, Nick Kasa, Levine Toilolo and Dion Sims are all interesting prospects at tight end that can be had in different rounds. They are a just few names among a well-stocked incoming class.
Determining the Tag
Why Not Anyone Else?
Goldson and Walker are the two main candidates for the franchise tag.
A third name that will be mentioned but not seriously considered is nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga. The reason they don’t bother with him is because for 31 percent of defensive snaps, he is not worth a $7.9 million hit against the cap.
Randy Moss and Ted Ginn Jr. are also not worth returning in 2013, as San Francisco will be looking to upgrade at wide receiver and kick return.
Ricky Jean-Francois and special teamers Tavares Gooden and Larry Grant are three potential but unlikely candidates for the tag. If the Niners were to franchise one of them, it would be Grant, who provides depth at ILB and plays a role on special teams.
The feeling seems to be that the 49ers and Jean-Francois could come to an agreement. He is younger and the more cost-effective option between him and Sopoaga, but there is also the chance that San Francisco lets them both go and builds through this deep draft class.
Who Gets the Tag?
If the 49ers are going to use the tag, it should go to free safety Dashon Goldson.
After re-signing NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and Andy Lee to new deals, the Niners might not possess the necessary capital to extend Goldson.
Even if they tag him, the 49ers will still need to brace for the cap hit. Also, it would not be out of the ordinary to see players restructuring deals. Once they fit Goldson under the cap, they will have to look to the draft for his successor.
There are plenty of prospects at the position this year, so this is good timing for San Francisco.
Trent Baalke is expected to engage in some spring cleaning, which could include several notables being removed from the roster. Alex Smith, Parys Haralson and Mario Manningham could be among the names cut or traded this offseason.
Donte Whitner and Carlos Rogers are also up for discussion. Together, their combined salaries will account for a $12,277,684 cap figure in 2013.
The Niners need to shed some of their unnecessarily heavy contracts, which would include newly appointed backups or players fresh off injuries. Moreover, if San Francisco restructures other contracts, it should be able to fit Goldson under the cap for 2013.
The 49ers are not obligated to use the franchise tag, but if they do, it will likely be on Dashon Goldson or Delanie Walker.
However, the special qualities that make up this year’s draft class could be sufficient enough to move past both Goldson and Walker. The 49ers could very well bring in new talent at both positions.
If the Niners are looking to be bold in order to make progress, they could allow all of their UFAs to walk and replace them with their estimated 14 draft picks and free-agent signings. And perhaps most favorably, the integrity of the team would not be at great risk.