4949 Centennial Boulevard, Santa Clara. Head coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff are feverishly at work, preparing for a prospective Super Bowl run, while general manager Trent Baalke is nearby making sure the San Francisco 49ers have just as good a chance, if not better, next year.
Since these two have joined forces in the front office’s decisions, the 49ers have been in a constant state of ascension.
They’ve gone from a below .500 team, last at 6-10 in 2010, to three straight seasons with double-digit wins and playoff berths. That is a historic mark for a new head coach within this franchise, which is saying something if you recall that gentle white-haired man in the '80s—the one branded “the Genius.”
On top of trimming up the roster and getting the best of returning players, they’ve infused a lot of new talent. Many of these players have not only provided great depth, but some have also stepped up as marquee players for the team. There is a harmonious blend of youth, talent and experience.
It’s easy to see that this is a team that is not only built to win now but is built for the long haul.
Of course, during this constant evolutionary process, there have been a lot of tough decisions that had to be made. In the competitive environment they’ve cultivated, along with their structural philosophy, it is very hard for players to stick around. San Francisco is always rubbing two nickels together while trying to get the absolute best bang for its buck.
With deals upcoming and changeover at several positions, 2014 projects to be the 49ers' greatest challenge yet.
The onus is on the 49ers to get creative with savings and become a bit more flexible with their monetary philosophy while keeping their eye on the prize. Remember, it’s not just about surviving the offseason, it is about trying to improve across the board.
The following will provide an overview of how the 49ers can save money, optimize player talent and cut dead weight in the offseason.
Which free agents will the 49ers prioritize this year, if any?
- Anquan Boldin, WR
- Donte Whitner, SS
- Jonathan Goodwin, C
- Mario Manningham, WR
- Phil Dawson, K
- Tarell Brown, CB
- Colt McCoy, QB
- Anthony Dixon, RB
- Demarcus Dobbs, DT (RFA)
- Eric Wright, CB
- Kassim Osgood, WR
- Michael Wilhoite, ILB (RFA)
- Carlos Rogers, CB
- Jonathan Baldwin, WR
- Garrett Celek, TE
- Adam Snyder, OL
- Craig Dahl, S
Can the 49ers get better in the middle of the line, solidifying this unit for the future?
Offensive line is going to be a focus of San Francisco’s this offseason, particularly at the nucleus with center Jonathan Goodwin likely moving on.
Aside from his contract being up, his age, abating play and willingness to return to the game puts Goodwin’s future with the Niners in question.
As Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus reported, Goodwin is on pace to let up more pressures in 2013 than he has in two years prior with the team. This line has been hemorrhaging in the middle, and for a team that likes to pound it up the gut, he’s not much of a mauler.
Adding onto the down season, the 49ers' 35-year-old center told Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News that “there have definitely been [retirement] thoughts here and there.” That being the case, if the front office elects not to redo his deal, the Super Bowl champion center might not be too bothered.
In all likelihood, the 49ers and Goodwin will part ways in 2014.
This saves a boatload, seeing as how Goodwin averaged a take-home of $3.6 million per year. He was in the upper percentile on San Francisco’s books. A mid-round center won’t cost them nearly as much (roughly $650k per year). And if they go with someone already on the roster, then all the better.
Monetarily, this creates all kinds of options.
The resourceful move here is to push one of the two young guards, either Daniel Kilgore or Joe Looney into the spot, once again tapping their in-house farm system. Both of which were mid-to-late-round draft picks that survived cuts and figured to be challengers to start one day.
However, it has not panned out that way.
When you watch them perform on game day, filling in as backups or in the jumbo package, the physical prowess of an every-down player does not appear to be there. Neither has inspired much confidence. A few years in and they’re still backup-quality linemen.
The other direction, of course, is going to the draft. Here are the top five centers available in the upcoming draft, per CBS Sports:
|Travis Swanson||Arkansas||6'4"||318 lbs.||1-2|
|Weston Richburg||Colorado St.||6'4"||300 lbs.||2-3|
|Bryan Stork||Florida St.||6'4"||300 lbs.||3|
|Tyler Larsen||Utah St.||6'4"||312 lbs.||3-4|
|Gabe Ikard||Oklahoma||6''3"||298 lbs.||4|
Rather than spending in free agency, which they’re not likely to do, the 49ers need to identify a guy they like and bring him in via the draft. Ideally, they’ll have a player who exceeds Goodwin’s production while infusing a center who can grow with quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
And hopefully, with their penchant for ground-and-pound football, said player will have a real nasty streak to him.
Projected Total Savings: $1-3M
Do the 49ers need to light a fire under Vance McDonald already?
As the No. 55 overall selection in the 2012 draft, tight end Vance McDonald did not have the best debut for the 49ers.
Questioned for his hands and consistency as a receiving tight end before joining the NFL, eight catches on 19 targets in his rookie year does not bode well for his ceiling.
There are rookies in this league who were drafted after McDonald, brought into way worse situations, who had more production than him in 2013.
Now, the 49ers are going to forge ahead with the 6'4", 267-pounder, obviously, but there must be some level of concern in terms of his ability to aid the passing game. He’d have to have a heck of a second season to turn it around. He didn’t even have a third of the aerial production as former No. 2 TE Delanie Walker.
And originally it was believed that McDonald had more upside as a receiver.
That did not prove to be the case. He has not earned the trust of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and there haven’t been signs of progress. While McDonald remains a wily blocker in the trenches, the 49ers utilize “22” personnel far too much for him to not be multidimensional.
That being the case, the front office would do well to part with third-string tight end Garrett Celek and create a very legitimate competition for Vance McDonald at the No. 2 spot in 2014. The NFL draft is the best place to do this, and San Francisco has the picks to spend to make this a reality.
If he falls to Day 2, there is one player the 49ers have to mark down as a BPA (best player available), and that’s Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro.
This is a can’t-miss pick, as Amaro is an ideal fit as a joker tight end in this offense. North Carolina’s Eric Ebron and Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins are also top players at the position. Depending on how the first round shakes out, one may slip by to Day 2.
If any of these are inconvenient picks and don’t work out on draft day, Trent Baalke must be on the lookout for a pass-catching tight end.
Frankly, they don’t need to emphasize run- and pass-blocking nearly as much this time around, and they can instead bring someone in who will push McDonald to get on the jugs machine and work out with Kap.
Projected Total Savings: $500k
The 49ers' cornerback unit looks to be the best value group in the NFL in 2014.
Cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown, the only two starters the 49ers went into this season with from last year, are both likely out in 2014.
The reason the 49ers did not release Rogers in 2013 was because he had a dead-money hit of $6.5 million and a cap hit of $7.3 if he were to stay on. It did not make much sense to cut him, seeing as how they’d have to pay another cornerback and would’ve saved less than a million dollars.
However, this coming year, Rogers will be owed over $8 million, which is a team-high on the season. And unlike 2013, there is a significant difference between the cap hit and the dead money. The 49ers will save in the ballpark of $5 million by releasing Rogers, which is a ton.
As the weakest link in the secondary, possessing a cap figure that he is nowhere near worth, the 49ers won’t think twice before cutting him.
The team also had a notable carryover from last year, including Brown’s $2 million contract blunder that San Francisco saved on, via Brian McIntyre of Yahoo! Sports.
Brown, 28, is unlikely to be re-signed, but it does not hurt San Francisco’s chances of fielding another strong corner unit. In fact, the Niners now have the leeway to go out and get better at the position. They would save an awful lot of money by releasing Rogers and not extending Brown.
So, what’s the ideal plan?
Well, the 49ers will have Tramaine Brock returning in his role, likely competing for the starting job. Chris Culliver will be back from his injury, and the 49ers have the option of re-signing Eric Wright to another minimal deal to be San Francisco’s No. 3 corner. This is a very solid “big three.”
And moreover, Cully is still on his rookie deal, and Wright has his heart set on playing for the Niners and is still proving himself, earning just $500k this year. This trio will be the best value grouping in the league. It has the makings to be better than this year’s No. 3-ranked pass defense, and for a lot cheaper.
On top of that, the Niners have a young up-and-comer in Darryl Morris, who until now has fulfilled a special teams role.
The word from HQ is that the 49ers like him very much. Given how Brown and Brock were able to step in as backups, and considering the success of seventh-round draft pick Marcus Cooper in Kansas City, it is likely that the smoke around Morris may actually be a fire.
After all, he has lived up to the hype as a special teams gunner.
So with Brock, Culliver, Wright and Morris, the 49ers have four sharp-looking corners with potential to add another top draft talent to that unit.
They’ll have their pick of the litter in the first two rounds. Potential targets include Justin Gilbert (Oklahoma St.), Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (Oregon), Jason Verrett (TCU), Darqueze Dennard (Michigan St.) and Bradley Roby (Ohio St.) in Round 1.
Then Florida’s Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, as well as Kyle Fuller out of Virginia Tech, may be options on the second day.
The savings the 49ers will have on the cornerback unit, while improving, may be the most significant of any position group in San Francisco. It will allow them to spend/draft high at other positions, too. Expect this group to be better than ever in 2014, and remember that it was a savior for the front office.
Projected Total Savings: $6M
Who should the 49ers look to pair with Michael Crabtree? Or do they re-sign Anquan Boldin?
In reality, you have to figure wide receiver Anquan Boldin has maybe a 50/50 shot of returning, depending mostly on his contract demands and if it will leave the 49ers with enough spare cash to divvy up elsewhere. Obviously they can work on the language and make it so Boldin is rewarded for his production.
But overall, it’s a number they’d like to keep low.
Odds are, they’re going to view him as a Randy Moss-type deal, which means he’ll be offered a deal in the ballpark of $2.5-3 million, plus incentives to raise the ceiling on the contract. Boldin, 33, is playing for double that guaranteed this year and is having his best season since 2009.
If it’s less about the money for Boldin and more about finishing out his illustrious career on a contender, then there’s a chance they can hammer out a deal.
But of course, the 49ers don’t have to bend.
With a loaded wide receiver class, there’s a chance they bypass the option and look to draft a new body that can develop with star wideout Michael Crabtree. Somebody equally as talented for cheaper, who can mature and grow within this system so they don’t have to worry about this position again next year.
With all this talent, first-round prospects are going to be available in the second round, and top-10 caliber wideouts will be available in the mid-to-late first round.
The 49ers, who have consistently missed on wideouts, have a rare chance to pick from such a rich crop and manifest their stud pairing for the future. You’re looking at possible combinations of Michael Crabtree and:
- Mike Evans (Texas A&M)
- Marqise Lee (USC)
- Sammy Watkins (Clemson)
- Davante Adams (Fresno St.)
- Jarvis Landry (LSU)
- Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt)
- Allen Robinson (Penn State)
There’s a chance for a dynamic duo.
On top of that, backups Jonathan Baldwin and Mario Manningham are two more that must go in the offseason.
Manningham has only had nine catches on 23 targets this year, which is terrible, and he would need a heck of a postseason to even garner consideration by the front office. Even then, it seems like a long shot. In two years with the team, he only played in 18 games, racking up 534 yards and just one touchdown.
That is well below average. Injury aside, this signing just did not live up to expectations.
And Baldwin, well, hopefully the 49ers can quietly dispatch of him without reminding fans that he is the last remaining connection to the 2012 first-round draft pick, which they officially confess to throwing away once he’s released.
The only two building blocks the 49ers need to have carry over from 2013 is Crabtree and Quinton Patton.
With an upcoming draft-class flush at the receiver, the Niners can do anything they want around those two. The limitless possibilities should scare other teams around the league, especially knowing how strong San Francisco is everywhere else on the roster.
Projected Total Savings: $3-6M
One of the things we learned this year about the 49ers is that even at 30 years old, running back Frank Gore has still got legs left.
He is still going strong and is likely to retain his job as the featured guy, even at 31. As it stands, Gore is signed on for next season, although his number is quite high. No running backs at that age earn what he earns.
In 2014, he has a cap figure of $6.45 million, which is not only one of the largest on San Francisco's books, but it's also the ninth-most in the NFL for running backs.
The 49ers have to chop this figure down.
Gore has been paid handsomely over the years and looks like he’s enjoying the game too much to give it up now. The 49ers would also like him to play mentor to Marcus Lattimore and a transitioning backfield. So, chances are he restructures to a one- or two-year deal and returns for perhaps his final season in 2014.
Looking around the league, 31-year-old Darren Sproles will be earning $3.5 million in attack-by-committee, and C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson will each be earning the same in 2014. This seems like the going rate and nothing too unreasonable or insulting to Gore.
By doing this, the 49ers are able to reduce his figure by 50 percent.
Projected Total Savings: $3M
How should the 49ers handle Donte Whitner?
Fans will have to come to terms with the fact that the 49ers might not be able to retain starting strong safety Donte Whitner, especially if the front office is planning to dish out long-term extensions in the offseason while trying to squeeze guys like Anquan Boldin and Phil Dawson in between.
Whitner also deserves to be paid like a top NFL safety.
In 2013, the reigning Pro Bowler has had his best season to date. On top of the body-rocking presence he brings, Whitner officially honed his coverage skills this year, playing a complete game. He is really the total package now.
And he’s only 28 years old, with maybe two or three good seasons left, tops.
If he is asking for top-10 money, which is not unreasonable, it's possible it’s in the $6-7-million-per-year range. That's double his current salary. Moreover, he’s played like a top-five player at his position, and those guys earn between $7.5-9 million. Either way, the 49ers would have to drop a chunk of change to keep Whitner.
He won’t play for peanuts like he did these past few years, nor should he.
But do the 49ers dig deep in their pockets to keep him? The fact that the front office was faced with a similar decision in cornerback Carlos Rogers, and is now regretting it, does not help Whitner’s case in the eyes of the organization.
In their mind, he’ll be 29 years old looking at 30, approaching a decline. And given their need to save cash and avoid tying up money in a player who’s likely peaked, the 49ers may look to the draft once again.
The top two options are Deone Bucannon (Washington St.) and Ahmad Dixon (Baylor), then there is a bit of a drop-off.
Either one of these guys projects to be able to plug in and play, and Bucannon in particular is like a clone of Whitner. They'd need to look high again at safety. Also, if the 49ers can’t redo Whitner and miss on one of these top two safeties, they could be in trouble. This makes it an even more delicate situation, so the 49ers need a Plan C.
Cornerback Chris Culliver moves to safety?
Two reasons the switch makes sense: (1) Good safeties are harder to come by than corners, seeing as how there are less on the field at a time, and thus less produced per draft. (2) Culliver is also returning from an ACL injury, and it might not hurt to move him to a position that requires less stress on the knee.
Furthermore, Culliver played safety at South Carolina, so this is not new to him.
2014 will be his fourth year with knowledge of Vic Fangio’s defensive system, and he has all the physical attributes you drool over in a safety.
At 6’0”, 200 pounds, Cully is a long, rangy defensive back who secretly packs a wallop. He possesses the desired coverage skills and blazing 4.4 40-speed, which potentially gives the 49ers a hawk to complement Eric Reid.
He projects to be a slick yet bullying safety, somewhat similar to Major Wright of the Chicago Bears.
Looking at the other side of the coin, it is an awful lot to expect Culliver to not only return from a very serious injury, but to also ask him to switch positions. He has played very well at the cornerback position and has a future as a marquee player in the secondary there.
Again, this is a plan C, but if San Francisco can’t redo Whitner and happens to botch the draft, this is an option, and it saves them some coin.
With several potential replacements for San Francisco’s durable, interchangeable secondary, the 49ers can move on from Whitner and remain successful for less money. And the team may have to because the league's fourth-best coverage safety can expect some phone calls in the offseason.
Projected Total Savings: $3-7M
LaMichael James' multifaceted skill set allows San Francisco to explore changes on offense while potentially upgrading the unit.
The 49ers offense gets so much punch out of the slot already that this might seem like overkill at first.
But remember, the unit is bracing to lose both Mario Manningham and Anquan Boldin this offseason.
They have to be prepared for that. And considering Michael Crabtree’s growth alongside Colin Kaepernick, he’s finally proven to be a dependable perimeter weapon, which is an element the team needs. They need No. 15 on the boundary.
So, in terms of modernizing the offense, bracing for the free-agent losses and finalizing a role in the offense for soon-to-be third-year running back LaMichael James, this seems like a righteous plan.
Since Day 1 of being drafted, and even before then, it was always known that he would function best as a space player in the NFL. So far, all the 49ers have tried to do with James is get him going behind a fullback in a power offense, which has not produced the best results.
In addition to his expanding role as a true east-to-west running back, James can learn the intricacies of the slot position.
There is a ton of upside to putting him out there as an improvisational weapon that defenses have to keep tabs on. It’s become hard enough with Crabtree and Vernon Davis beginning to emerge as indefensible players at times.
With James mastering the slot position, they add another dimension.
Digging a bit deeper, option routes to James have potential to become a killer. He's known for his change-of-direction skills. His ability to stick and pivot and run those arrow routes to the sideline—or his ability to drag and post across the middle provide a bailout for Kap underneath—will help keep the offense in forward motion.
When everything else is taken away, James won’t be.
This is very similar to how the New Orleans Saints use their roadrunner Darren Sproles. His use is very deliberate, and coach Sean Payton has been able to mold an entire facet of their offense around the 5’6”, 180-pounder. They get him outside with room to wiggle free, allowing the quarterback to pick on linebackers.
Getting James active in the slot helps replenish San Francisco’s productivity there and costs the team nothing.
Projected Total Savings: N/A
We’ve saved all of that money, right?
Well it’s time to start locking up the franchise guys. For starters, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, outside linebacker Aldon Smith, guard Mike Iupati and wide receiver Michael Crabtree are the big four that need to be extended in the 2014 league year.
And in terms of surviving the cap, these are treacherous deals.
Depending on how the season ends, all four may deserve to be paid as top-five players at their respective positions. If you add it up, that’s $15-20 million to a quarterback per year, $10 million to a pass-rusher, $10 million to a wide receiver and $7.5 million for an interior lineman.
The well runs dry at some point.
Nevertheless, the club will be able to prioritize the retention of each of these players simply by using its eyes. Fortunately, this season the Niners were able to see how the team would fare without Crabtree and Smith, and it was pretty obvious who was more important.
Clearly, we now know that the No. 1 and 2 in terms of priorities are Kaepernick and Crabtree.
Head coaches and front offices pray to their lucky stars for an offensive chemistry as natural looking as the one between Kaepernick and Crabtree—you can build a unit around this connection alone. And their respective talents alone are second-to-none.
Hopefully, with the bond these two have and their success together, they’ll sign on as a package deal.
Moving on, the 49ers also have Tank Carradine and Corey Lemonier as up-and-comers in the front seven should the 49ers fail to come to terms with Smith. Hopefully Smith realizes this and takes his opportunity to stay with the Niners. The organization might’ve also caught a fiscal break with his off-the-field indiscretions.
San Francisco has all the leverage when it comes to No. 99 and may be able to explore incentive-based options to get him to stay.
Left guard Iupati is a tough deal to do because there is no doubting his status as a top guard. He might even deserve top money at the position. But it’ll be awfully hard for him to get it in San Francisco. Tackles are the top paid position on the O-line, and it’s hard to find Iupati the money he deserves.
Being the fourth guy on this list, due a substantial deal, the 49ers may skip right over him and redo Chris Culliver, Bruce Miller and Kendall Hunter. It seems like it’ll take a whole lot of rope by Iupati’s people, which does not seem likely for a 26-year-old guard on the top of his game.
It’ll be a miracle for them to keep him.