Unpleasant business endeavor or not, the San Francisco 49ers' front office will start breaking down the team’s salary cap before the offseason even begins.
Alright—go ahead and let out a collective “Ugh,” “Really?” and any other dismissive remark.
Yes, the 49ers just secured the No. 5 playoff seed in dramatic fashion. They are indeed postseason bound.
One would think they should commit their undivided attention to the upcoming wild-card matchup with the Green Bay Packers.
Forty-niner fandom, for its part, surely wants nothing to do with any contractual or free-agent-related matters when its beloved team undergoes another Super Bowl run.
And why should it feel any different?
But the NFL, as we all know, is a business—and a bottom-line, dog-eat-dog one at that.
San Francisco’s team brass can ill afford any financial missteps that would cripple the franchise monetarily or personnel-wise.
Sustaining a future winner is just as important as winning now.
Fans remember all too well the playoff drought suffered between 2003-2010 due to cap mismanagement. It was the desolate period that followed seven straight appearances and postseason berths in nine of 11 seasons and one Super Bowl title between 1992-2002.
So on that note, let’s evaluate the 49ers’ salary cap situation ahead of the 2014 offseason.
According to Joel Corry of CBS Sports, the NFL unveiled a 2.68 percent increase in the 2014 salary cap over this season’s $123 million.
The preliminary figure of $126.3 million will stand until the official cap comes out some time before March 11 when the league year begins.
Corry, a former sports agent, reminds us of a few useful tidbits:
Each team's actual salary cap (known as adjusted salary cap) is typically different from the NFL's set amount because unused cap room can be carried over from one year to the next and other adjustments can further increase or decrease cap space…Salary cap accounting changes in the offseason. Only the top 51 cap numbers count on the cap.
Despite their accuracy, the above information indicates we can only work with unofficial approximations.
Much data lies beyond the public’s access at this point in time.
But with those changing dynamics aside, here’s a look at how the 49ers currently find themselves in the $126.3 million financial picture.
|Rank||Team||Offense Cap||Defense Cap||Estimated Total Cap||NFL Cap|
|13||San Francisco 49ers||$47,564,404||$66,999,416||$120,209,176||$126,300,000|
As a result of all this, San Francisco has a meager $6.09 million in spending capital for next season.
That ranks as the 13th-most cash-stricken among 32 NFL teams.
Fortunately, it isn’t as desperate as the Dallas Cowboys’ $23.19 million deficit.
But it’s also not the $66.58 million that the crosstown rival Oakland Raiders have at their disposal—dysfunctional overall franchise notwithstanding.
The 49ers' situation is made all the more regrettable because of certain contractual obligations.
To wit, general manager Trent Baalke must decide the future of 12 valuable free agents.
Wide receiver Anquan Boldin, strong safety Donte Whitner and cornerback Tarell Brown are all priority re-signings.
Boldin led the 49ers this season with 85 catches for 1,179 yards. He produced seven touchdowns and was a chain-mover who netted a team-high 62 first-down plays.
Pro Football Focus shows that Boldin had just six drops out of 123 targets. Colin Kaepernick compiled the league’s third-highest passer rating (118.6) and did not throw a single interception when targeting him.
Boldin’s hands, toughness and winning blue-collar mindset were pure gold.
Most unfortunate, though, is that Boldin—as one player—made as much in 2013 as the 49ers have in cap spending for all of 2014 ($6 million).
There is no doubting his case for a higher-dollar, multi-year contract.
Defensively, Whitner and Brown are key members of the secondary.
Whitner ranked fourth on the team with 73 tackles and second with 12 pass breakups. He also added three tackles for loss, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
The reputable minds at Pro Football Focus graded Whitner as the No. 5 overall safety. He earned top-seven marks against both the run and pass.
That included a mere 52.1 completion percentage and 66.8 passer rating allowed in his coverage area. He surrendered just two touchdowns through 16 games as the quarterback of this defensive corps.
Brown, meanwhile, is a quality cover back in his own right.
Despite being replaced in the starting lineup by Tramaine Brock due to injury, Brown managed a third-leading 11 pass breakups in 13 games. He forced a sub-60.0 completion percentage (57.5) to opposing quarterbacks on the season.
Furthermore, these critical players represent only one-third of the free-agent class.
Quarterback Colt McCoy, kicker Phil Dawson and linebacker/special-teamer Michael Wilhoite are three additional significant pieces.
Yes, NFL teams are generally reticent when it comes to revealing the necessity of certain uncelebrated roles.
But even the 49ers cannot deny the importance of having a functional backup at the most indispensable position on the field.
The same goes for players who drive the winning edge on the seldom-acknowledged, but vastly integral, special teams unit.
McCoy is a high-IQ professional who boasts 14 career starts to his name.
He possesses the requisite intelligence and athleticism for running Greg Roman’s complex read-option/West Coast offense.
The fact that he threw only one pass all year is of no consequence—he is needed.
Dawson, for his part, was an elite kicker throughout 2013.
He made a career-high 32 field goals, including a 56-yarder and 27 straight from Weeks 5 through 17.
His final two conversions sent San Francisco on its way to the playoffs as the No. 5 overall seed.
And as unknown as he might be, Wilhoite was both insurance and difference-maker this season.
Wilhoite started in place of an injured Patrick Willis versus the St. Louis Rams and Houston Texans. He performed well in coverage against running backs and tight ends and led the 49ers with 20 tackles (three for loss) over that span.
The backup inside linebacker also served as the 49ers’ best asset on their coverage unit.
Wilhoite tallied the league’s fourth-most special teams tackles (14), recorded zero misses and ranked top five, per Pro Football Focus.
McCoy ($1.44 million), Dawson ($2.35 million) and Wilhoite ($480,000) could each seek pay raises.
The personnel staff must devise how to fit them under the cap or otherwise sign a cheaper available option.
Note: Michael Vick ($12.2 million), Adam Vinatieri ($3.4 million) and Karlos Dansby ($2.25 million) do not qualify.
Rounding out San Francisco’s notable free agents are Eric Wright, Demarcus Dobbs, Anthony Dixon and Kassim Osgood.
Wright offers good depth at cornerback, while Dobbs is a potential three-way player who operated as both defensive tackle and special-teamer in 2013.
Dixon (running back) and Osgood (wide receiver) are primary special-teamers who are otherwise expendable.
Center Jonathan Goodwin and wideout Mario Manningham will also likely find employment elsewhere.
Goodwin is set for retirement and has helped groom three-year lineman Daniel Kilgore as his replacement. Game-saving rookie Quinton Patton (see: sideline catch in Week 17) will step in for the oft-injured Manningham.
Lastly, and perhaps most impactful, a select group of marquee 49ers is approaching the time for contract extensions.
All-Pro left guard Mike Iupati, top wideout Michael Crabtree, leading sack artist Aldon Smith and, of course, Kaepernick all become free agents in 2015.
Every one of those players hold No. 1 value at their respective positions.
And none of them will operate under a 2014 salary greater than $4.77 million.
Baalke and chief contract negotiator Paraag Marathe will have their work cut out for them.
They must satisfy those four players monetarily, while also exercising financial responsibility with regard to the team as a whole.
Thankfully, fans can take solace in Baalke and Marathe’s successful work with past signings and restructuring of numerous big-name 49ers.
Marathe is the…salary cap architect…and works with…Baalke on various player personnel duties…[He] has played an integral role in…negotiating contract extensions in recent years with a number of key players, including - All-Pros LB Patrick Willis, DT Justin Smith, LB NaVorro Bowman, CB Carlos Rogers and LB Ahmad Brooks, Pro Bowlers TE Vernon Davis, RB Frank Gore, and OT Joe Staley and Pro Bowl alternates DT Ray McDonald, OT Anthony Davis and G Alex Boone.
Kaepernick clearly stands at the front of the contract-extension line. The leader of the free world concerning all things 49ers will get his in due time.
But Iupati, Crabtree and Aldon Smith are essential to team functioning in unique ways.
One can argue that each asset is equally deserving of a new deal.
Knowing the 49ers’ previous dealings with tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis, Iupati will receive his first. He is the key run-blocking guard on the best offensive line that powers the league’s No. 3 rushing offense.
Crabtree’s recent Achilles injury—not to mention a history of holding out—and Smith’s unresolved legal dilemma creates a whole new set of unquantifiable issues.
San Francisco’s front-office duo will have to employ some psychological and contractual wizardry when negotiating with these two players.
The same can also be said for Carlos Rogers, the defensive back who will make a team-high $8.09 million in 2014.
A cover man who allowed six catches for 113 yards and a 109.7 passer rating on Sunday simply isn’t worth upward of 10 figures.
So, taken altogether, where does this salary cap situation leave the 49ers?
With 6,090,824 problems.
Luckily, the 49ers' current Super Bowl viability ain't one.
Note: All salary information comes courtesy of Spotrac unless noted otherwise. Pro Football Focus provides all advanced statistics (subscription required). Additional player and team information was obtained from Pro-Football-Reference.com.
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