With the way they draft, develop and bargain shop, it’s getting harder and harder each year for the San Francisco 49ers to retain players. They can only extend so many names in a salary-capped league, but fortunately there are options like the franchise tag that can prevent players from slipping through the cracks.
This offseason, the 49ers will have 10 unrestricted free agents set to hit the open market, including five starters, three key special teamers and a nickel corner.
Here is a look at San Francisco’s free agents to be, via Spotrac:
|Player||Position||Status||2013 Cap Hit|
Several of these guys have played their part, earning consideration when it comes to being retained. And of course, the Niners would love to have optimal stability year to year. With that in mind, let's narrow down who general manager Trent Baalke, head coach Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers front office may deem franchise tag worthy.
2014 Age: 29
Position: Strong Safety
Tag Number: $8.1 million
Strong safety Donte Whitner had a Pro Bowl campaign in 2012—his first ever—and followed that up with a far better season this year. In his three seasons with the team, the veteran defensive back piled up 173 tackles, 27 pass breakups, five forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries and five interceptions with one pick-six.
That’s insane productivity for a former first-round pick that was cast off by the team that brought him into the NFL. He almost didn't land with a team when he became a free agent in 2011. And since he's been with the organization, not only has he been a worker, but the most prominent part of Whitner’s presence has actually been his assertion as a defensive leader for the 49ers, particularly on the back end.
He keeps the guys inspired and controls it all.
Added to which, he is focused, well spoken, a motivator and team-first player. If the 49ers are going to look to retain one of their free agents, they might want to look at a player as productive and influential as Donte Whitner is. Even if San Francisco were going to tap the draft, he’d be hard to replace.
In theory, the tag would make Donte Whitner the fourth-highest paid safety in the NFL, ranking only behind Pittsburgh Steelers' Troy Polamalu, Kansas City Chiefs' Eric Berry and Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Dashon Goldson, who was originally allowed to walk because the team did not want to pay a safety that much.
This may be a preview of what is to come with Whitner.
Remember, the 49ers brought cornerback Carlos Rogers back on an extention and began regretting it once he began to decline the following year. Whitner will be 30 sooner rather than later, and the front office may have wished they pursued a safety in the draft and put that excess cash toward another former draftee due for a new deal.
If they tag anyone, it’s probably Donte Whitner, but it’s something they can bypass altogether with names like Baylor’s Ahmad Dixon and Washington State’s Deone Bucannon in the upcoming 2014 NFL draft. Remember, the front office will be looking to build for the long-term while saving money this offseason.
2014 Age: 34
Position: Wide Receiver
Tag Number: $11.6 million
After being acquired from world champions Baltimore Ravens for just a 2013 sixth-round pick, wideout Anquan Boldin went on to lead the Niners in receptions and yards, putting the team on his back in a number of games and emerging as its 1,000-yard receiver.
When Michael Crabtree went down in OTAs, Boldin transformed from a luxury to a necessity. And he didn’t miss a beat. He is still powerful on his routes and dominant at the catch point, proving to be a focal point in an offense, even at 33 years of age. It’s been truly remarkable.
Boldin works incredibly hard, has very real chemistry with quarterback Colin Kaepernick and sets a good example for those around him. On top of which, he solved a long-plagued position for the 49ers, which was a No. 2 WR. And he’s got a laser focus in the playoffs, where players have been known to take a dip.
All in all, it’s been a very successful run for the wily old veteran.
Tagging wide receiver Anquan Boldin would nearly double the 33-year-old’s salary from one year to the next, while making him the team’s highest earner in 2014. Historically, this is not how the 49ers manage their finances. They are very deliberate with their spending and don’t overcommit money to players that may have played their best years already.
They pay players for what they project to do, not what they have done.
With Boldin, it’s going to be tough to figure out a deal. They obviously would like him to return, given his masterful performance this season. Nevertheless, the 49ers have an awful lot of extensions to dish out to younger players that they’ve drafted. Boldin will have to take a backseat to that.
Frankly, there is no way they offer him an $11-plus million tag. If anything, they’d like to get a short-term deal done, which could be somewhere in the realm of $3.5 million per year. If the 49ers tagged Boldin at face value, he’d be the third-highest earning wideout in 2014, only behind Mike Wallace and Larry Fitzgerald.
San Francisco will try to extend him to some degree and odds are Boldin is open to what they have to say (via Sacramento Bee):
“I think any time you go somewhere, you don't want to just be there for a year. You definitely want to know that you're wanted. You want to feel like that's home. You don't want to feel like it's just a stop.” – Anquan Boldin
Back in December, 49ers GM Trent Baalke went on the local radio sports talk show, 95.7 The Game, and confessed to already reaching out to Boldin’s representation regarding his future with the team. This would infer that they are sniffing around for a new deal, perhaps short term, and not to apply the franchise tag.
Probability: Extremely Low
2014 Age: 39
Tag Number: $3.4 million
The 49ers have found their kicker—at least for the time being.
After enduring the downward spiral of former Pro Bowler David Akers—dangerously and mistakenly riding him into last year’s playoffs—the 49ers moved forward with Phil Dawson, who has been stout. This season, he went 32-of-36 from the field, including four boots from 50-plus yards out.
Perhaps the most impressive was Dawson’s streak of 27 consecutive field goals, which was a franchise record. He also hit multiple game-winners for this team this season, including one in Week 14 versus the Seattle Seahawks, and can be relied on to do so in the postseason.
After spending 13 years with the Cleveland Browns, All-Pro placekicker Phil Dawson is earning $2.35 million this year with the 49ers, making his potential franchise tag number over $1 million more.
Now, this is not to say he isn’t worth it, but that’s a whole extra chunk of change that can go toward somebody else’s long-term deal.
In all likelihood, San Francisco will find a way to bring Dawson back next season, and perhaps for one more year after that. But they will probably avoid using the franchise tag because it would be viewed as overpaying, which is something this front office does not do.
The way the 49ers would see it: a $3.4 million tag would make Dawson the third-highest paid kicker in the NFL behind Oakland Raiders' Sebastian Janikowski and Chicago Bears' Robbie Gould. They would like to reward him and keep him around, but they’re not going to pay him top dollar just because.
San Francisco will try to negotiate, luring him with winning as his career winds down.
Phil Dawson has made 32 of his last 33 field goal attempts (97.0%) dating back to Week 5, highest FG Pct in NFL in that time— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 6, 2014
2014 Age: 29
Tag Number: $11.3 million
Since the beginning of the Jim Harbaugh regime in 2011, cornerback Tarell Brown, who carried over from the old establishment, found a role as one of the best defensive backs for this top-ranked defense. He has been one of the team’s consistent starters, racking up 121 tackles and six interceptions in those seasons.
Brown also led the team with 41 pass deflections.
Originally, the thought was that he’d be a serviceable player until the team could acquire someone else, but he’s stuck around and exceeded expectations. Tarell Brown made his claim as the most dependable cover corner on the team—at least until Tramaine Brock entered the starting lineup.
Moreover, Brown was dinged up and had his least impressive season as a starter this year.
Philosophically, the 49ers do not spend on the secondary and north of $11 million per year is a lot to drop on a cornerback, even if you’re the Seattle Seahawks or Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But for San Francisco, this is a defensive unit that is built to defeat teams up front near the line of scrimmage. They haven’t drafted any corners high, nor have they spent on any of the ones in free agency over the years. We can expect them to forge ahead with this same philosophy and let Brown walk.
If the team intended to redo his deal, they would’ve already.
Instead, after a contract hiccup that caused him to lose a large sum of his salary, the 49ers generously reimbursed Brown $300k to part on good terms, via Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports. It wasn’t much, but it was a sign of good faith, showing they appreciate him. If the team were to retain him, they might not have done this.
It would’ve made sense to put it toward a larger deal.
From what we can tell, cornerback Tarell Brown will not be returning to the 49ers in 2014 and beyond. He will be missed, but general manager Trent Baalke will look to upgrade via the draft where the team has a fairly solid batting average. They’ll be able to get better for cheaper.
Probability: Extremely Low