While coach Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers are in the midst of a very real Super Bowl run, it isn’t too early to examine the state of next year’s salary cap. That way, NFL followers can fully grasp and appreciate this window the 49ers have in front of them.
It’s not often you see this kind of assemblage of talent.
That being said, it’s going to be difficult to keep it together, especially for a team strapped for cash. Sixteen clubs have at least $10 million in cap space in 2014, while the 49ers are currently situated with the 19th most in the league ($6.29M), per OvertheCap.com.
That puts them in the bottom half of the NFL, which is no surprise, given their plethora of talent.
So there will be casualties.
This is a scary time for the 49ers, since they know they won’t be able to extend everyone they’d like to.
A team can’t pay a top-10 quarterback, a top-10 receiver, a top-five guard and a top-five pass-rusher in the span of an offseason—if at all. The salary cap won’t allow teams to corner the market like that.
Not to mention all of the utility players that have stepped up in between.
Nevertheless, general manager Trent Baalke and chief operating officer Paraag Marathe have as fluid a system as any.
Between their contract language and rapport with their players, they have an opportunity to optimize the cap each season. Even still, 2014 could be their greatest challenge yet, and some unpopular decisions may be on the horizon.
Colin Kaepernick, the revolutionary dual-threat quarterback, is in line to rake in just $1,883,333 in 2014, which is still part of his rookie deal.
Needless to say, that will change.
As it stands, Kap is still playing under a deal that had him pegged as a second-round pick turned backup QB. When in reality, in 2014, he will be entering what is essentially his third year as a starter (2nd full campaign). And he's proven quite a bit since then.
How far he takes this team before then will likely impact his upcoming deal, putting him in the $100-120 million range (whether fans agree or not).
Besides, the 49ers have gotten away with highway robbery so far, only spending $2,843,160 on the entire quarterback position this year.
Few Super Bowl teams can say that. And of that sum, more than half has been wired to the bank account of backup Colt McCoy, who is actually making more money than Kaepernick this year.
McCoy’s deal will be up at the end of this season, and the 49ers will look to extend their franchise quarterback.
A new backup will likely be handpicked in the draft.
Furthermore, San Francisco is very different from a lot of other clubs out there in that they have talent all over the roster and cannot afford to dedicate too much cap space to one individual. It would compromise their entire monetary structure for the long-term. The balanced, well-rounded team they field would become more quarterback-centered.
That’s dangerous because Jim Harbaugh runs a three-phase team.
Kap’s deal will need to be team-friendly.
It can’t be like the Joe Flacco deal, which is essentially a three-year, $62 million deal, per Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun. This gives him the third-highest average of all quarterbacks in the NFL, ahead of iconic signal-callers such as Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
The 49ers front office must come to terms with Kap, make him realize the importance of the surrounding cast—which he learned first-hand without having wide receiver Michael Crabtree—and work to write in lucrative signing bonuses and performance escalators. On top of which, they can also backload it with the incentive of more cash.
The quarterback position will become one of the richer position groups in 2014, as it should be, but San Francisco will do its best to protect the integrity of the cap.
One of the most inconvenient price tags on San Francisco’s books in 2014 is Frank Gore’s $6.45 million sticker.
Removing cornerback Carlos Rogers from the equation—who is likely the odd man out—this would make Gore, a 31-year-old running back, the seventh-highest earner in 2014. Common belief is that the team’s all-time leading rusher restructures his deal to stick around, cutting his base and taking less from the roster bonus, which is high.
Overall, he's set to make top-10 money for his position.
Compared to other players earning in that same ballpark, only Carolina Panthers tailback DeAngelo Williams is in his 30s. It's mostly 25-to-28-year-old workhorses like LeSean McCoy and Matt Forte making top dollar. For Gore, the position and age are both red flags, and football logic suggests that it’s not a smart way to spend money.
The Niners will want to keep Gore, just not at that price. Look for them to cut that number in half, down to roughly $3-3.5 million, which should work for the aging vet.
He shouldn’t be looked at to carry the load anymore, joined by three other up-and-comers in Kendall Hunter ($754,805), LaMichael James ($905,154) and Marcus Lattimore ($570,146). It should be a unified effort that moves the ball next year and helps this positional group brace for life without No. 21.
And for how talented a faction this looks to be, the lack of money spent will be even more impressive.
Wide receiver Jon Baldwin is set to earn $1.1 million in 2014, all of which is non-guaranteed.
These are dollars they can add to the cap with his release, which they are certain to do. Baldwin's exit will mark the purge of the last remnant of the A.J. Jenkins experiment—the failed 2012 first-round pick now with the Kansas City Chiefs.
And as most remember, 49ers 2010 draftee Kyle Williams is already gone, too, having joined Jenkins in K.C.
Moving on down the list, it turned out that wideout Mario Manningham was not fully recovered after coming back from a dual-ligament tear in his knee. Odds are that he will not be retained after this season either, leaving just three more receivers that actually play offense: Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Quinton Patton.
Unfortunately, Boldin was in town as a mercenary, having been acquired from the Baltimore Ravens in the last year of his contract for a sixth-round draft choice.
He'll be 34 years old in 2014. And while the team would like to keep him on for another year or two, they really can't offer him much.
The front office certainly does not want to disrespect Boldin the way the Ravens did, especially after he essentially saved their season. But the fact is, with a loaded draft class and other more pertinent deals to distribute, he has maybe a 50/50 chance of returning.
And Crabtree is the priority at wide receiver.
The 49ers will likely present Boldin with a number and not move from it. Again, it’s not that they don’t want to keep him, but building for the future is more important. Trent Baalke has hit on a lot of draft picks that are now due for extensions.
So, for 2014, Crabtree ($4,770,443) and Patton ($592,875) will be the only two wide receivers on the books, and maybe the only two to be retained with a litany of other contracts to shell out. They will be the foundation of this wide receiver group going forward while the Niners look to rebuild via the NFL draft.
Fortunately, it is a loaded position this year, and San Francisco once again has a surplus of picks. The Niners can save money here, get a heck of a lot better for 2014 and structure for the long haul. And hopefully they can bring back special teams maven Kassim Osgood at his $940,000 base salary that only had a cap hit of $500k.
This is another position the 49ers can improve while saving money and instituting stability for the future.
San Francisco's superstar tight end Vernon Davis is due $7.36 million in 2014. Once cornerback Carlos Rogers is cut, that figure will make him the third-highest paid player that year behind tackle Anthony Davis and linebacker Ahmad Brooks.
All told, Davis has earned it.
He’s entering his best years yet, he’s finally in total sync with the quarterback, and he’s arguably in the best shape of his life. Since he was drafted, and even more so after his maturation process, the offense really evolved around Davis. They can’t pass or run without him.
He’ll earn every cent of this contract, and may be in line for a new one.
Davis will be 29 years old in 2014 and will be a free agent after 2015, which the 49ers aren’t going to let happen. See where we’re going with this? By extending him in the offseason, San Francisco can lower his figure in the immediate future, lock him up and give him more money.
And with this past season, he is beginning to join some of the all-timers at the position. So, since No. 85 is bound to be a 49er lifer, look for this to happen sooner rather than later.
Still learning the ropes, soon-to-be-second-year tight end Vance McDonald will still be on his rookie deal, with a two- or three-year window to prove he deserves another one after that. He will carry a cap figure of $817,995 next season. And for how many reps he gets, that’s a pretty good deal for San Francisco.
They’ll be banking on his development more than anything.
With Davis and McDonald, the 49ers appear set on their two tight end tandem for the next few years, pending unforeseen circumstances. And for now, they won’t be spending too much on the position. They have their prize and their investment. It’s a productive and cost-efficient methodology.
Lastly, the 49ers have been carrying No. 3 tight end Garrett Celek for the past couple of seasons.
The reason San Francisco needs to evaluate this spot is because they are more tight-end friendly than most teams, and they’ve had injuries there. For what they do, they need to have an above-average third option. From what we can tell, Celek does not offer anything unique and is replaceable.
He will have a cap figure of $572,000, which is not guaranteed, so the Niners can move on and add that to their payroll. Odds are they can find a better option in the upcoming draft with one of their many picks while spending less.
Blindside tackle Joe Staley is content with his deal, being in the midst of a six-year, $43 million contract that will see him in red and gold until at least 2018.
That’s key because he is the line’s most important player, having really evolved into one of the more nimble and technically proficient NFL tackles.
Unfortunately, the two players to his direct right—left guard Mike Iupati and center Jonathan Goodwin—are unlikely to stick around for the long-term.
Iupati has a base salary of $1.6 million in 2014, which will be his final year. The problem is, he deserves to be paid like a top-five player at his position, and that is fiscally impossible for San Francisco. Look at their linebacking corps. Look at their tight end and receivers…now look at their quarterback.
There is no cap space for a top guard.
With Goodwin’s impending departure, this will allow them to save the 49ers cap space by dipping into the draft (depending on where they pick). In all likelihood, it’ll be cheaper than the $3-plus million per year they were dedicating to Goodwin, who was not the perfect center.
So, by 2015, the 49ers will have likely replaced both Iupati and Goodwin in the draft.
However, the player San Francisco has the best chance of redoing is right guard Alex Boone, who could be extended by 2015. He is a homegrown talent, coming up the ranks when nobody else believed in him. But the Niners stuck with him, developed him and gave him a chance to start. So he is loyal.
Boone is not exactly a household name, so the team may be able to get him at a relatively good price.
Also, for how major a contract Staley has, it is worth knowing that he only has a cap figure of $3.4 million next season, which ultimately helps provide leeway in negotiations with other players. It’s possible that this is space that could be used to get Alex Boone’s contract done.
After that, right tackle Anthony Davis just re-signed, so he’s good until 2020.
Obviously, All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith is San Francisco’s highest paid lineman in 2014 ($6,936,666). That figure will also make him one of the team’s highest earners overall next year.
No surprise there.
But in the grand scheme of things, the Niners have been able to save a great deal of money at that position because of him. He is like two men. Plus, with he and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula at the nucleus of this position group, San Francisco has been able to churn out a merry-go-round of defensive linemen over the years.
Unfortunately, the way this season ends could influence Smith and Tomsula’s decision to return next year, which is a scary thought.
It's puts this defense's most important position group in rebuilding mode all of a sudden.
Smith is getting closer to retirement, while Tomsula is getting legitimate head-coaching interest from teams around the league. Nose tackles Ian Williams and Glenn Dorsey might not be around forever, either, while left end Ray McDonald is nearing the final years of his deal.
Next year, the 49ers will have $17,359,484 tied up in the defensive line, which includes Smith, Williams, Dorsey and McDonald. They also have a stable of guys in Tony Jerod-Eddie ($495,000), Quinton Dial ($540,413), Tank Carradine ($1,124,473) and a developmental player in former Olympian Lawrence Okoye.
There are no certainties here—the future is really up for grabs.
They’ve got a few up-and-comers at the spot, but they’ll need to figure out this position for the long-term and look for a way to save some money in the process.
San Francisco has not hesitated to invest in this position.
As a result, they’ve gotten four All-Pros out of it (three first-team, one second-team). And for a 3-4 set, there is none better.
As far as their price tags, NaVorro Bowman is set to be the team’s highest-earning linebacker in 2014. This is not because he's necessarily the most important one, but because 49ers contract architect Paraag Marathe offset the deals that way. These deals necessitated a bit of creativity.
But it works out seeing as how Bowman was a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. He is being rewarded at the right time.
Then there is the matter of all-world linebacker Patrick Willis, who is the new icon at the position in the league (if he wasn’t already). The six-time Pro Bowler has a $5.2 million base salary this coming year and is only locked in until 2016. Also, he can’t restructure until April due to the CBA.
However, this is a deal management may want to take a look at.
Again, after speaking with Jason Hurley of Niner Cap Hell, it was brought up that Willis could be a candidate to get an extension soon. This would be something that would save money now, while extending his stay in the Bay Area.
It also fits with the way the 49ers have done things in the past, extending players before they reach the end of their contracts.
Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks was also re-signed recently and has the team’s second-highest cap figure in 2014 at $7.5 million. His number is significant, but it is unlikely to change. The 29-year-old is locked up until 2018, so there should be no concerns about his status.
Off-field issues will throw a kink in Aldon Smith’s next deal. But in hindsight, had he been as productive while remaining trouble-free, then it would’ve been a much harder contract to do. Smith is going to enter 2014 with a $4.57 million cap number and likely play this year out.
It seems San Francisco has an extended window to monitor his progress. Then, a year later, if it’s been a clear road to recovery, the 49ers would like to lock up the All-Pro pass-rusher. He is arguably the most efficient sack artist in the NFL, and it was a pick they hit on.
In 2011, when Texas A&M pass rusher Von Miller (Broncos) and LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson (Cardinals) were off the board and they passed on North Carolina’s Robert Quinn for the lesser known of two first-round prospects from Missouri, it was viewed as a bold move.
He should be priority No. 1 in 2015.
Besides, if the 49ers didn’t re-sign Aldon Smith for whatever reason, there would be 31 other teams knocking on his door. San Francisco will continue to dedicate cap to the linebacking corps.
Get a load of this: The highest cap number of any player in 2014 belongs to cornerback Carlos Rogers, who possesses a sizable figure north of $8 million.
On a career decline and approaching 33 years of age in July, there is no way the 49ers willingly take on that contract. This is perhaps the biggest no-brainer for an outsider to figure out. With this upcoming draft class, they can get 10 times better for 10 times cheaper.
So, it’s safe to say that Rogers will be finishing his last year in San Francisco.
In fact, perhaps the only reason he wasn’t let go before this season is because he had a dead money hit of $6.5 million, which would not have been worth the loss. They couldn’t invest elsewhere to replace him. But this coming offseason, the Niners will be able to add $5.1 million to the cap by releasing Rogers.
That is a huge chunk of change they will be counting on getting.
As for the rest of the cornerback group, San Francisco is getting an absolute steal, especially when you consider that this was a top-ranked pass defense this season.
Cornerback Tramaine Brock, who may be vying for a starting job next year, will have a $2 million cap figure. That’s unheard of for a veteran starter. Not to mention a very good one. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Brock was one of the top-rated corners in coverage this year.
The Niners are also expecting to get Chris Culliver back in 2014, who missed this past season with an ACL injury. If he returns to full strength, the 49ers will have another huge boost at the group for almost no cost. Culliver will be earning $794,719, which will increase with the performance escalator to about $1.3 million.
Eric Wright and Perrish Cox were also serviceable and played for peanuts this past year.
If the 49ers can get one of them back at the same price, it would be worth it again. Then there is Darryl Morris, a soon-to-be second-year undrafted free agent cornerback from Texas State. This was an individual that showed promise and could thrive in the farm system in San Francisco.
Morris will be earning just $495,000 in 2014 and always has the potential to be the next young sensation in this secondary.
From a value standpoint, this projects to be the best position group in San Francisco for how much it costs.
The deep part of the field continues to be a spot where the 49ers project to save money this upcoming season.
Rookie phenom Eric Reid is set to earn $1,927,444 in his second year and won’t be able to redo his deal for a couple seasons, per the CBA.
This is ideal for the San Francisco defense because they’re getting Pro Bowl-caliber play from Reid already, and he’s only going to get better.
However, he’ll have increased responsibility in 2014. It seems very possible that Reid will be the veteran safety back there with the Niners and strong safety Donte Whitner expected to come to a crossroads. Whitner is not on the books because he is set to be a free agent after this year.
Many have been skeptical that the team can get a deal done with Whitner. It seems like a long shot.
And while the 49ers have the option of the franchise tag, that will cost them a total of $8.1 million, which is out of their range. The draft looks like the most feasible solution to this conundrum the front office will be faced with. Whether it’s the first or second round, they may be looking to pick high again.
On top of being thrifty, this approach will get Eric Reid his long term partner-in-crime, too, so they can avoid growing pains in future years.
As for the backups at the position, Craig Dahl is signed on for another year at $1,883,333, while Ray Ventrone is still under contract for $855,000. It’s conceivable that they remain the on the roster for another season at least, seeing as how they’ve each been factors on special teams.
The 49ers made placekicker Phil Dawson the 12th highest paid kicker in 2014, luring him away from Cleveland with a winning tradition.
After enduring the downfall of David Akers, this turned out to be a huge under-the-radar pickup for the Niners. Dating back to Week 5, Dawson has made 32 of his last 33 field goal attempts (97 percent), which is the highest percentage in the NFL in that time, per ESPN Stats & Info.
Night and day from their 2012 situation at kicker.
He has also had two notable game-winners, including one versus the Seattle Seahawks and one in the Wild Card round against the Green Bay Packers. Dawson also set a franchise record for consecutive field goals with 27 made. Even though he will be 39 years old next year, the 49ers don’t need to move on yet.
Since Dawson has waited a long time to compete for a Super Bowl, and with his window closing, the odds are good that San Francisco can bring him back next year at the same price. With two interested parties and this not being a position that demands a lot of cap, there is no reason why this shouldn’t get done.
Then there’s All-Pro punter Andy Lee, who has a figure of $2.4 million next year and is locked up until 2019. He is not going anywhere.
Overall, this is a tandem the Niners want to retain as long as possible. Special teams legs will not be a position of emphasis in the offseason, nor should it hamper their ability to make other signings.
Now, assuming the cap is $128 million this year, the 49ers adjusted projection puts them $10.133 million under the cap (at $118M before cuts).
The release of Carlos Rogers also creates an extra $5 million in breathing room, putting them at $15.03 million under the cap.
Cutting ties with Jon Baldwin, it goes to $15.99 million. Then follow that with cuts of tight end Garrett Celek and linebacker Darius Fleming—who has had back-to-back ACL tears in both knees—and that will comfortably situate San Francisco at $17,096,797 under the cap.
According to Jason Hurley, this new figure also includes an estimated $2,306,810 carryover from the remaining 2013 cap space. The NFLPA cap report has San Francisco at about $57,000 less, which happened after the $303,000 drop from the gift the 49ers gave to cornerback Tarell Brown.
That was to compensate him for losing $2 million of his salary. A thank you for services rendered before they part ways in the offseason.
Another thing to account for: Mike Iupati, Alex Boone, Bruce Miller and Chris Culliver are all expected to receive performance escalators, which could roughly equal out to $5 million (will recoup with Carlos Rogers). But again, the Niners are ready for this and it shouldn’t affect things.
Still, the important thing is that 49ers should not have a problem re-signing Colin Kaepernick after this season as long as he’s willing to take a cap-friendly deal. And as mentioned prior, the language matters. The 49ers want to protect the integrity of the salary cap so they can provide him with weapons for the future.