The Toughest Decisions 49ers Will Have to Make This Offseason
In 2012, San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith spoke in detail about a window to win a championship, saying that, with the nature of free agency and the draft, teams like the one he is on can’t stay that stacked forever.
He’s not wrong; a salary-capped league won’t permit it.
And the Niners have even been able to stretch it to its limits by drafting well and getting several players to extend early on team-friendly deals, rather than waiting for them to expire, then re-signing and competing with market value. The front office has been awfully smart each season, projecting players and paying them for what they will do, not what they've done.
But to Smith's point about player management, teams change. It's the nature of the business.
With the expiration of deals, irregular cap figures, underperforming players and questionable sects of the team, the Niners will be looking at another considerable makeover this offseason. San Francisco has to address several position groups while righting itself financially and setting itself up for the future.
On the backbone of the Niners' plan is the fact that this team has been able to replenish its roster at Radio City each year.
For the 49ers—particularly since 2011 under coach Jim Harbaugh and the new regime—building through the draft and supplementing through free agency has been the philosophy, and it’s worked. But this offseason, in 2014, they’ll be relying on it once again in order to preserve the integrity of their team.
In fact, this might be their most important offseason since Harbaugh's inaugural campaign three years ago.
Fortunately, according to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, the 49ers project to have 13 draft picks, including six in the top 100.
This is a better situation than the one they were in last year, when they dictated the draft tempo and found value in every round. So even though there are several impending transactions that will make headlines, the 49ers have the mindset and the ability to go out and make this team better through self-analysis and the draft.
If the 49ers play their cards right, they can turn many of these tough decisions into opportunities. The following will present a look at what's on their plate this offseason.
Rebuilding the Interior Offensive Line
After two phenomenal years, the 49ers are going to have face facts: They’ll be rebuilding the offensive line again.
Starting right now, the interior line is going to be wide open to restructuring, including left guard Mike Iupati and center Jonathan Goodwin. With Iupati's price tag and Goodwin's place in life, the 49ers could be looking to address both positions this coming offseason—at least one for certain.
But they need to add new bodies to the O-line—guys that can start.
However important the two-time Pro Bowler may seem, San Francisco simply won’t be able to pay Iupati near his face value with all the other upcoming contracts. And with his physical style, wear and injury-prone ways, the front office might pass altogether.
While it seems outlandish because he was a high first-round pick that worked out, it’s very likely that they dip into the draft again for a new left guard, either in 2014 or 2015.
If it's 2014, they can take an interior lineman after Round 1 to develop. But if they wait another year, it could mean spending another first-round pick on a guard because that player will need to be able to play immediately.
Meanwhile, Goodwin’s deal is officially up, and the Super Bowl winner told Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News that he has already pondered retirement, so this may be his window to walk away. This makes center a position that they will undoubtedly address this year, and maybe pretty high.
All things considered, this will be tough since the 49ers had a polished veteran in front of a young, inexperienced quarterback in Colin Kaepernick. And while he may have been one of the weaker links in the line, replacing Goodwin will take some close attention because that player has to be ready to start right away.
Do they try to bring him back for a year at the veteran minimum? Do they count on Daniel Kilgore to step up and take over? Or do they look to the NFL draft and invest in a replacement? And if so, how high?
This will be a delicate situation.
Moving on from Donte Whitner
Now that Donte Whitner’s three-year deal has officially run its course, the 49ers will likely lose a second Pro Bowl safety to free agency in as many years.
And while this defense is as solid as any, don’t be mistaken—that is difficult to recover from when pure talent and steady play at that particular position is so rare to find nowadays.
But with other contracts taking precedence, there likely just won’t be room for the soon-to-be 29-year-old safety.
And even if the Niners wanted to stick him with the tag and keep him around for a year, it’d be at an $8.1 million figure, which they’d still need to fit under the cap, per NFL.com. There are walls popping up all over blocking this from happening. It’d be best to prepare for the loss of Whitner.
Fortunately, the 49ers are fluent in how to deal with this situation and will likely deal with it the same way they did a year ago when All-Pro free safety Dashon Goldson signed a whopping $41.25 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
And if their defensive acuity in the draft stays the same, there’s a chance they upgrade.
As the top two safety prospects in the upcoming draft, Washington State’s Deone Bucannon and Baylor’s Ahmad Dixon are two players that are bound to be on San Francisco’s radar. Once again, they’ll be on the lookout for a plug-in-and-play-type prospect.
With Bucannon and Dixon, it looks like these two are ready to go.
But this time, instead of trading up on Day 1, the Niners can perhaps wait till Day 2 to snag one of these guys (allowing them flexibility in Round 1). At the end of the day, the team will save money and enhance the strong safety position for 2014 and beyond.
What to Do with Frank Gore?
Carrying a $6,404,183 figure in the upcoming season, 49ers "mystical" running back Frank Gore will be the 10th-highest paid player at his position in all the NFL. Not to say he isn’t worth every penny, seeing as how he has been a top-10 rusher in each of his past three seasons.
He’s had 2,717 yards from scrimmage and 18 touchdowns in the past two campaigns alone, still executing as a significant cog in this offense. This team is obviously far more competitive when the game plan is centered around Gore and that power approach, which ultimately covers up Kap’s inexperience.
But the fact is, running backs just don’t get paid that handsomely this late in their pro careers.
Carolina Panthers tailback DeAngelo Williams is the only other 30-year-old player set to earn more, and he’s riding out an eyebrow-raising contract. That’s a team that hasn’t been smart with money. So when taking Gore's contract into account, combined with the extra deals the 49ers have to hand out, there's a problem.
They can’t overpay but want to retain Gore.
They can't trade him because he's an icon, and as Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News said, "a ring belongs on his finger."
And since the team’s all-time leading rusher proved he’s still got legs left, and there’s a lot of uncertainty in regard to what LaMichael James and Marcus Lattimore will bring to the offense, San Francisco needs to make sure No. 21 is around for at least another year.
The Niners just can’t pay him $6-plus million.
After speaking with Joel Corry of the National Football Post, it’s very plausible that a 31-year-old Gore restructures his deal again, perhaps signing a two-year extension that provides immediate cap relief in 2014. At this point in his career, money is no object—he’s been paid well over the years.
And knowing the competitive fire that burns within Frank Gore, he may still be driven by the thought of a championship.
He knows better than anybody that the team is close. Three straight NFC title visits under Harbaugh confirms as much. Hopefully the front office can play to that and get him to take less money, finish out his deal and help ring in the three-headed backfield that will likely replace him after the 2014 season.
Anquan Boldin: One More Year?
Wideout Anquan Boldin has gas left in the tank—nobody is denying that.
Few cornerbacks still want to get in the ring with No. 81.
He’s a very physical and effective player, and what he did for the 49ers this past season won’t be forgotten. In an instant—that instant being Michael Crabtree’s Achilles tear in OTAs—Boldin went from being a luxury to a necessity in 2013, demonstrating his worth all over again.
He immediately went to work with the quarterback, functioning as the team’s one and only wideout for the majority of the season at 33 years old.
You don’t typically see that type of productivity at that position at his age. On top of reaching new career milestones in San Francisco, including 11,000 yards all time, Boldin became the 49ers’ second consecutive 1,000-yard receiver after the team had a decade-long drought.
Can the Niners keep him, though?
The 49ers basically have the entire 2011 draft class to re-sign, plus wide receiver Michael Crabtree to think about. That’s the deal they should focus on. But it’s hard to argue that there wasn’t an accord between player and team; it seems Boldin wants to stay and San Francisco would love to have him again.
With Boldin’s renowned professionalism and the 49ers being a first-class organization, there was an instant kinship. This could help negotiations.
So, naturally, rumors began to heat up. Shortly after the NFC title loss, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk may have been a little enterprising with his report, reading a bit too much into a end-of-season tweet by Boldin:
Thank you @49ers fans for embracing my family and I during our first year in San Francisco. Your support this year was amazing.— Anquan Boldin (@AnquanBoldin) January 20, 2014
The report from PFT implies that since Boldin used the words “first year” in regard to his stay with the 49ers, that there will indeed be a second. It’s not illogical, but it is a little tough to cling to. Boldin could’ve been at a drive-thru window when he tweeted that out or doing laundry.
Who knows how deliberate he was or wasn’t with his word usage?
Nevertheless, opinions and reports have already begun to funnel around the Bay Area regarding Boldin’s status with the team. CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco recently told 95.7 The Game that, “If Anquan Boldin wants to be with the 49ers, I’m pretty certain he will be back.”
This made the outlook seem hopeful given the rapport between Boldin and the 49ers.
Last month, San Francisco general manager Trent Baalke told that same local radio station that he had brief discussions with Boldin’s representation regarding next year and was hopeful about retaining him, per Yahoo! Sports. So there is an indication of which way the team may be leaning.
But, truthfully, you just never know.
If the 49ers get further into talks with quarterback Colin Kaepernick and wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who are both in line to earn top dollar at their respective positions, maybe management finds that Boldin is a luxury it can’t afford and that going to the draft would be more pertinent.
Do the 49ers Make a Change on Offense?
The 49ers have one of the more staunch coaching structures in the National Football League—one that is ripe with experience and innovative tactics. Taking over this desolate offense in 2011—installing a compatible system and cleaning up the technical side—the coaching staff completed an extraordinary turnaround.
It made a mistake-prone and talent-deprived offense balanced and proficient while using a brilliant flow of old-school and college-style designs that germinated in the NFL.
Even though the Niners didn't have the most effective offense in the league, it still broke new ground.
The high-volume run packages, pre-snap motions, unbalanced lines and sleight-of-hand techniques also caught opponents off guard, leaving players chasing their own tails. It was a new way to attack defenses. The offense got past or removed defenders from the play without even having to block them.
But teams have since caught on.
Now, we’re seeing a unit that is more lethargic, as if it’s topped out. It's not going backwards, but perhaps it's reached its ceiling.
Defenders, particularly on top-10 defensive teams, simply aren't biting anymore, and many of the play designs live and die by that. It's made the offense sluggish and inconsistent at times. The Niners need to begin to strengthen and rely more on traditional offensive concepts—the simple things like route designs and blocking schemes.
Sure, they put points on the board against the teams that they should, but there is a very real consistency issue, and the 49eres have several distinct vulnerabilities.
For starters, the red-zone issues have persisted for three straight years, regardless of who has been behind center or who has been lined up out wide. This has been the team's greatest enigma, and the one constant has been the play-calling. And ultimately, settling for field goals instead of touchdowns has cost them a number of games, and they've only lost a handful in the past few years.
That correlation is something to take note of.
Furthermore, in the media, the situational calls have garnered more attention than anything else, particularly when it comes to gimmicky plays, conservative give-up runs on third down or the abandonment of the run game altogether.
Added to which, during their constant personnel changeover over this three-year span, they’ve had serious growing pains.
It’s as if they don’t quite know what they are yet. With their powerful downhill style, emphasis on ball security and ability to spread it around on play action, they’re built like the 90's Cowboys—with a Randall Cunningham-esque improviser behind center—but they’re trying to be a makeshift version of Air Coryell.
There are lapses on the field because of it, and it looks a lot like a team having an identity crisis.
Now, it’s not like the 49ers have a bad offense, but with their lineup, its absolutely fair to say they’ve underachieved. And right now, it feels like they’re stuck in neutral. As if every drop has been squeezed. For the talent this team has on offense, it relies far, far too much on its defense and special teams units to bail it out.
And that’s a legitimate concern: that the offense has stopped moving forward and the window is closing on perhaps the franchise's all-time great defense.
So, what will the team do?
Now, in all likelihood, San Francisco might not want to risk the stability of its aforementioned coaching tree for the upside of improvement, even if consistency and a lack of scoring is the one thing holding this team back. But the Niners may want to look to add a coach that specializes in quarterback and/or receiver development, and passing schemes in particular.
The run game can practically function on talent alone—and coach Tom Rathman—but the aerial game needs significant attention. Namely, because there's a lot of questions:
Is Jim Harbaugh's vision for the offense not without its flaws?
Will the downside of the 49ers offense always be the red zone?
Evolving toward the pass, has the offense outgrown coordinator Greg Roman, who is a known run specialist?
It’ll be interesting to see how the 49ers approach restructuring their offense now that personnel does not seem to be the principal issue.
Coming Up on a Crossroads at the Wide Receiver Position
Right now, the 49ers have an unlimited number of directions they can go at the wide receiver position. It’s wide open.
They have three players that can play ball for sure (Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Quinton Patton) but only two with long-term futures (Crabtree and Patton), and one of those will require a hefty pay increase if they are to make him a part of the plan (Crabtree).
So even though it looks like the Niners have three viable wide receivers right now, they are not set up for the long run.
Fortuitously, this coming draft is stocked at the wide receiver position, and once again, the Niners have the picks to move up and take whichever player they desire. They might even take two wideouts in order to restock this corps.
The possibilities are endless, and it’s one of a few needs.
So, at 4949 Centennial in Santa Clara, Calif., one discussion you can bet Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke are having (if they haven’t already) is, do they extend wide receiver Michael Crabtree, and at what number? And right after that decision, they will have to decide how they want to approach the draft.
As the team's frailest position, and one it needs to settle once and for all, this will take careful planning.
Cutting Carlos Rogers, Letting Tarell Brown Walk
The 49ers are likely going to change out another rotation of players on defense this offseason, particularly in the secondary.
In addition to former first-rounder-turned-Pro Bowl safety Donte Whitner landing with his third NFL team, San Francisco might not be able to retain cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown, who were the two starters for three straight years under the new regime.
Unfortunately, Rogers, 32, has seen his game decline, which has led to many of those shoulder shrugs that you see above.
And at an $8 million cap figure, which is a team high, the veteran corner is likely to be shown the door. The 49ers can save north of $5 million by releasing Rogers, which is money they’d like to put toward another player. It’s always tough to cut a player, but this will have a silver lining.
The harder of the two losses, though, is Brown, who should’ve played his way into a new contract this year.
From 2011-2013, it’s easy to make the argument that Brown was the team’s most dependable and versatile cornerback. He played all over and could match up against every type of wide receiver in the league, from mega men like Calvin Johnson to lightning bugs like DeSean Jackson.
He lost a chunk of his salary due to a blunder by his agent, was hurt on two separate occasions this season and was exploited at a higher rate than we’ve seen in his previous games with the team. There was a lot of bad luck involved.
And it ultimately opened up the door for Tramaine Brock, whom they extended for four more years, likely with the money that Brown lost.
It’ll be tough for the 49ers to say goodbye to Tarell Brown, especially this way. He was a terrific player for this team, really helping with its resurgence once the Niners called him up from the bench.
The good news is they’ve got a number of players at the position, including Brock and a new possible front man in Chris Culliver. There is also Darryl Morris to consider and the prospect of Eric Wright returning on a team-friendly deal. They’ll fill out the rest of the unit in the draft, where they’ve recently hit on cornerbacks.
This unit is in good shape, but the onus is on the 49ers to successfully rein in a new group of starting corners in 2014.