The San Francisco 49ers are in the thick of the NFC playoff picture, but general manager Trent Baalke likely has his mind occupied with other critical issues. While the roster is all but set for the remainder of this playoff run, the 2014 season is already a burning issue at 49ers headquarters.
According to ESPN.com, free agency will kick off on March 11, 2014, which leaves just over two months for Baalke to lock up current players before the open market. The front-office staff will have to make the call on 12 upcoming free agents, as well as other players that could be released for salary-cap purposes.
While the 49ers would like to retain most, if not all of these players, impending contract extensions will also complicate the salary-cap forecast for the near future.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, wide receiver Michael Crabtree, linebacker Aldon Smith and guard Mike Iupati are all approaching the end of their respective deals. The ability to keep these young stars will undoubtedly shape the future of the franchise.
In order to do this, Baalke must first choose whether to keep or part ways with the following 12 players, weighing their impact on the team versus their impact on cap. While future cuts and restructured deals could change the ultimate decisions, this forecast reflects the current standing with an eye on the future.
Starting center Jonathan Goodwin has been a mainstay on one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, starting every game since joining the 49ers in 2011. Goodwin has also clearly earned the respect of the locker room, earning the Ed Block Courage Award from his teammates in December.
On the other hand, however, the veteran already agreed to a pay cut before the season just to remain on the team. The 35-year-old is faced with competition from the younger (and cheaper) Daniel Kilgore.
While Goodwin provides a strong veteran presence along the offensive line, the team will most likely look to trim his $3 million salary from the bottom line. With an abundance of draft picks in 2014, look for the 49ers to proceed with a competition between Kilgore and a capable rookie.
There are few players more versatile than Demarcus Dobbs, a college defensive lineman who adopted the second position of tight end in the pros. The former undrafted free agent has survived the cut for three seasons now, but his time could soon be running out in San Francisco.
Dobbs was suspended for this season's opener for violating the league's substance abuse policy, which is an obvious black eye. Additionally, current rookies such as Quinton Dial and Tank Carradine will be healthy for 2014, which makes Dobbs expendable.
With younger and more talented options on deck, Dobbs' days are likely numbered.
Acquired from the Cleveland Browns during the offseason, quarterback Colt McCoy was expected to replace Alex Smith as a competent backup. As a smart and athletic quarterback, McCoy seemed to possess the skill set that the 49ers desired.
However, McCoy was forced to restructure his contract just to remain on the roster in 2013, which leaves his status uncertain going forward. The team also seems to change backup quarterbacks at the drop of a hat.
McCoy provides a veteran presence, but he likely won't receive another groundbreaking offer in free agency. The 49ers could attempt to keep him early, but don't be surprised if McCoy is passed over by another veteran option or a cheaper rookie.
Prediction: Keep (Initially)
Cornerback Tarell Brown has established himself as a budding star over the past two seasons, but he could prove too expensive for San Francisco to keep.
Despite a November report from Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com, Brown never came to an agreement with the 49ers on an extension during the season. That contract instead went to cornerback Tramaine Brock, indicating that the 49ers are prepared to move on from Brown in 2014.
The 2013 franchise tag number for cornerbacks was near $10 million and could be even higher this season. With that option likely ruled out, Brown should be wearing another uniform next season.
Running back Anthony Dixon has endeared 49ers fans with enthusiastic play on special teams, but his impact on offense has been very limited in a crowded 49ers backfield. Dixon has expressed frustration with a lack of playing time, and he's unlikely to find it in San Francisco.
With Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James already ahead on the depth chart, redshirted rookie Marcus Lattimore will also be in the mix in 2014. Dixon's role at fullback will also revert back to starter Bruce Miller when he returns from injury next season.
Dixon has been on thin ice in previous years, but this is the year it finally breaks.
While wide receiver Kassim Osgood has put together a solid campaign as a special teams player, the 49ers will most likely look for a cheaper option in 2014. The team also initially cut Osgood after the 2013 preseason.
At the end of the day, Osgood caught only one pass this season, providing little value outside of special teams. Expect Baalke to replace him with a younger free agent or a cheaper rookie.
Safety Donte Whitner is a Pro Bowl player, providing stellar leadership and quality play in the secondary for three seasons in San Francisco. At only 28 years old, Whitner is also still in the prime of his career.
With Brown likely to leave in free agency and cornerback Carlos Rogers a potential cut candidate, Whitner's experience in the defensive backfield could be too valuable to let go. Rogers is looking at an $8 million salary in 2014, which the 49ers simply cannot afford to match for an aging player on the decline.
As noted by Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com, Whitner has also expressed a strong desire to return. If the two sides can reach a reasonable compromise, the 49ers would be foolish to let Whitner walk.
Troubled cornerback Eric Wright has faced his fair share of legal troubles during his NFL career, but his ability as a player is tough to argue.
Once awarded with a five-year, $38 million dollar contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Wright is a valuable talent in the secondary available at a bargain price. Making slightly more than half of a million dollars in 2013, the 49ers are unlikely to find a better corner for that price range.
While other teams will be wary of Wright's past, the 49ers will likely look to him for stability in the defensive backfield. If Brown and Rogers are both allowed to walk as expected, Wright should return for another season in red and gold.
After David Akers' ups and downs in 2012, the 49ers have learned the importance of a reliable field-goal kicker. The 49ers rely on field goals as much as any team in the league, which would appear to make current kicker Phil Dawson a priority.
Dawson put together an excellent season in 2013, converting 32 of 36 tries and nailing the game-winner in Green Bay during the Wild Card Round. Coach Jim Harbaugh has also adamantly lobbied for keeping Dawson, which should be enough to make his case.
Brought in as a high-profile free agent after playing the role of Super Bowl hero with the New York Giants, wide receiver Mario Manningham has failed to make an impact in two years with the 49ers. After catching 42 passes in his debut season, Manningham seriously injured his knee in a 2012 contest with the Seattle Seahawks.
Manningham also ended this season on IR after just six games, which gave him little opportunity to show his worth. Counted on as a reliable option out of the slot, Manningham simply hasn't been able to remain healthy.
The 49ers receiving corps was a disaster this season, and an overhaul could be in order. With rookie Quinton Patton also earning his reps late in the season, Manningham and his $3 million salary from 2013 are more than expendable.
Similar to Osgood, linebacker Michael Wilhoite is a veteran special teams player that could fall victim to the numbers game. What separates Wilhoite is his ability at linebacker, where he admirably performed in place of an injured Patrick Willis earlier this season.
The 49ers currently possess 13 draft picks in 2014, which will most likely provide Wilhoite with competition for next season. If he's to remain on the roster again, he'll have to earn it.
Prediction: Keep (Initially)
The true million-dollar question: Will wide receiver Anquan Boldin be back in 2014?
On one hand, Boldin kept the offense afloat without Michael Crabtree and has served as an invaluable leader and mentor on the offense. Given his clear chemistry with quarterback Colin Kaepernick, it's scary to imagine where the 49ers would be right now without Boldin in the early going.
On the other hand, Boldin commanded a $6 million salary in 2013 and is currently 33 years old. The Baltimore Ravens dealt Boldin because of his cap figure last year, so could the 49ers be forced to make him a cap casualty as well?
Boldin is a consummate pro, but will he be willing to take a discounted rate to avoid moving to a third city in as many years? That will likely make the ultimate decision for Baalke and the front office.
Kaepernick's progression would clearly benefit from a full season of Boldin and Crabtree, but the team will struggle to afford the former. The team will likely use that money to extend the younger and more talented Crabtree, which could leave Boldin as the odd man out.
Baalke is as creative as they come with building the roster, but past history would bet against Boldin's return in 2014. With that said, this is also the hardest situation to read.
Tom Smeaton covers the San Francisco 49ers as a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. For more analysis, follow Tom on Twitter at @smeaton49.