Every contending team has a window of opportunity, and the 49ers are in the midst of that open window right now. However, the window can close quickly, as injuries, age and high salaries can make it tough to sustain a championship-caliber team for very long.
Four key 49ers stars are beginning to get to a point in their careers where it's natural to lose a step or two. Frank Gore, Anquan Boldin, Justin Smith and Patrick Willis are all still excellent players, but for them, the key is to maintain their level of excellence, as opposed to achieving greater upside.
In order for the 49ers to maintain their high level of play and enhance their chances of winning another Super Bowl, critical decisions must be made, which will shape the future of the franchise.
Effective manipulation of the salary cap is a key to success in the NFL. San Francisco's GM, Trent Baalke, has done a good job managing the 49ers' cap. Looking ahead, their situation is not as dire as many contending teams.
The expected salary cap in 2014 is expected to be somewhere around $127 million. This would leave the 49ers roughly $6 million below the cap as they formulate the 2014 roster.
The 49ers have several impending free agents, including Anquan Boldin, Donte Whitner, Tarell Brown, Mario Manningham, Jonathan Goodwin, Phil Dawson, Anthony Dixon, Kassim Osgood and Eric Wright.
The 49ers would like to retain Boldin, Brown and Dawson. Osgood and Dixon are valuable special teams players and, along with Wright, are not that expensive.
The current players who will likely not be returning are Manningham and Goodwin. Manningham has not sufficiently recovered from his severe knee injury of 2012, and Goodwin is 35 years of age.
The biggest question mark appears to be Whitner. He is making roughly $4 million this season, and although he is having a very solid year, he has never been a great cover-man in the secondary. In addition, officials seem to be targeting Whitner for his hard-hitting style.
Whitner has been extremely valuable as a mentor to rookie safety Eric Reid. How much more the 49ers feel he can teach Reid may be the deciding factor as to whether he will be retained.
There are also several players with very high cap numbers who will either be asked to renegotiate their contracts or will be cut loose in cap-saving moves.
Carlos Rogers has a 2014 cap number of over $8 million, which is the most glaring number on the books. He will need to come down significantly from that number, or he will be jettisoned.
Other players will likely be asked to renegotiate. Candidates include Vernon Davis with a 2014 cap number over $7.3 million, Patrick Willis with a cap of $6.9 million and Ray McDonald with a cap over $5.3 million.
Looking further ahead, Colin Kaepernick, Michael Crabtree, Frank Gore, Aldon Smith and Mike Iupati are all eligible to become free agents following the 2014 season. It would behoove the 49ers to extend some of these players early, before they reach the point where they can become free agents.
My gut instinct tells me that Rogers, Goodwin and Manningham will all be gone after this season. Whitner will be offered a one-year extension.
However, if Whitner is looking for a long-term, mega-deal, he will also be allowed to leave, in much the same manner as the 49ers let free safety Dashon Goldson walk prior to the 2013 season.
Baalke will do everything possible to maintain salary-cap viability, and he has proven to be a master at this.
Baalke has had made some questionable and downright poor draft selections, especially in 2012 with A.J. Jenkins, LaMichael James, Joe Looney, Darius Fleming and Trenton Robinson, but his cap management has been excellent.
The 49ers' window of opportunity is open, and it will be up to them to storm through and bring home another Super Bowl title. Baalke's job is to bolster the roster while maintaining cap flexibility.
If Baalke is successful, the 49ers could have another couple of years with this core group, as they chase their sixth Super Bowl title in franchise history.
Contract data courtesy of spotrac.com.