In a day and age where the salary cap is flat and dynasties are all but a memory, NFL teams are forced to make sacrifices often referred to as cap causalities. A pro team can only have so much talent, which is the reason organizations are forced to make brash decisions upon contract time.
For instance, two top wideouts emerged on the Pittsburgh Steelers, forcing the front office to pay one or the other. The management elected to pay Antonio Brown in 2012, while franchising Mike Wallace.
As we enter this season, Brown is signed until 2018, while Wallace is an unrestricted free agent expected to test the market.
But like we witnessed with Pittsburgh, teams are able to postpone contract talks on occasion by utilizing the franchise tender. This gives the front office time and flexibility to restructure salary figures and fit players under the cap.
The tag necessitates patience on the player’s part, but every so often, a tender precedes a significant contract.
With fiscal techniques like front-loading and back-loading contracts, teams can offset years when their highest earners receive grand sums. The tag also buys the organization time to get their affairs in order while guaranteeing they do not lose a player to free agency.
In a roundabout way, this is one reason restructuring of contracts has been a big theme in the 2013 offseason.
Unfortunately for San Francisco 49ers safety Dashon Goldson, it looks like his patience will go unrewarded. The March 4 franchise tag deadline has come and gone, with Goldson officially an unrestricted free agent.
Before the start of the 2012 season, the 49ers applied the tag on Goldson, ensuring he would be around for at least another year. Had San Francisco pursued this option for a second consecutive year, they would have had to prepare for a 120 percent pay increase.
The cap figure for a one-year hit man was too substantial for the Niners to endure, and thus they would lean on negotiations to get a deal done.
But how much should they pay Goldson?
Looking at the Numbers
In the past two seasons, Goldson has made back-to-back Pro Bowls and has solidified himself as an All-Pro safety. Since 2009, Goldson has accrued 14 interceptions for this San Francisco defense.
Goldson feels—perhaps righteously—that he is a top-five safety in the NFL and deserves to be compensated as such.
However, the Chargers do not have nearly as dense a roster as the 49ers. San Francisco has to distribute their cap space as fairly as possible to multiple league superstars. They have a lot of “top-five” guys, but they can’t pay all of them accordingly.
The top five safeties in the league by salary are: (1) Eric Berry, (2) Troy Polamalu, (3) Eric Weddle, (4) Michael Huff and (5) Antrel Rolle. The highest average belongs to Berry at an even $10 million with Rolle coming in at $7.4 million.
According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Goldson is looking for $8 million per year, which is top-five money for his position. And while he is widely considered a premier defender, there are fallacies in his game that are difficult to see given his position.
Pro Football Focus claims Goldson is one of the 49ers’ most overvalued players, behind Isaac Sopoaga, Alex Smith and Donte Whitner. Between his performance-based value and the cap hit, Goldson is costing San Francisco $1.2 million more than he should.
According to PFF, his average earnings should be $5 million per year, in which case he would be signed to be a five-year, $25 million contract. But between Goldson’s actual demands and the front office’s value of him, talks are at a standstill.
The football analytics web forum was also low on Goldson following the 2011 season when the safety was again without a contract. The Hawk finished with an overall grade of minus-8.1 that season, ranking him 69th of 87 qualifying safeties.
Things don’t get any better for Goldson in terms of his coverage grade, where his -5.7 grade sees him rank 72nd out of those same 87 safeties, this time sitting between Kurt Coleman of Philadelphia and Abram Elam of the Cowboys. Things start to look a little better for Goldson in run defense where his +0.5 grade, pretty much slap bang average, sees him rank 37th out of 87, as I said average.
For those wondering why three years have gone by and Goldson has yet to be paid, bet that the 49ers' front office is aware of his flaws.
Should the 49ers Make an Offer?
Niners chief contract negotiator and salary cap architect, Paraag Marathe, spoke on a four-man panel from the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last week. It was a thought-provoking forum that delved into economics in professional sports.
Marathe had an opportunity to discuss financial sustainability, using San Francisco’s current situation as a reference point. He explained why players like Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman were priorities, while other players were expendable.
This is not because they don’t want to keep everyone, but because the market value of a player versus the cap does not allow it. Marathe then discerned between the draft and free agency, citing the 49ers' defense as an example.
Marathe on the 49ers defense (h/t ESPN NFC West blogger Mike Sando):
We have the most expensive defense in the league on an average per-year basis, and that is not sustainable over time. Because of the cap, if every veteran on the team took a 15 percent discount on their market value, you couldn't field that team still under the cap because the difference between wholesale [draft] and retail [free agency] is so wide. You have to figure out which players to keep and which players to let move on and churn out. Because you have to continue to replenish the system.
The market value for an All-Pro safety will be high, and the 49ers are not in a position to pay Goldson what he is asking for. And when he begins taking visits with other teams across the league, that is going to drive up the price tag.
Goldson figures to land a multimillion-dollar deal with another organization that is desperate for an impact defender. This will cause the 49ers to “replenish the system,” which could not have come at a better time.
The upcoming draft in April features a number of highly regarded prospects. The first three rounds are laced with potential NFL stars, from Kenny Vaccaro of Texas to Bacarri Rambo of Georgia.
San Francisco may find that it would be cheaper to sign a free-agent safety for a year, like Ed Reed, and draft an understudy. Aside from being an upgrade, it would not endanger the state of the cap and it would begin the process of finding a long-term fix.
The 49ers will make an offer to Goldson—if they haven’t already—but it won’t be what he desires. San Francisco simply cannot afford to budge, which will ultimately lead to Goldson’s departure.
Unless Dashon Goldson’s heart truly belongs to San Francisco, then this is where they will go their separate ways.