Will 49ers defensive backs Tarell Brown (No. 25) and Donte Whitner (No. 31) celebrate together again in 2014?
The San Francisco 49ers’ past, present and football future have all come to a head at the start of this 2014 offseason.
Extensive regular-season success followed by close-but-no-cigar playoff moments comprise San Francisco’s past.
A devastating NFC Championship Game loss coupled with an injury-riddled aftermath dominates this team’s present.
And preserving a sustainable winning formula in the face of daunting salary-cap restrictions and everything that came before it will dictate the 49ers’ future.
General manager Trent Baalke and newly-promoted team president Paraag Marathe have a considerable task on their plate. They must assign contract value to key free agents and long-term assets in an effort to win both now and in successive seasons.
They must do so within the confines of just $6.09 million in available spending capital, to boot.
Vital players set for the open market include WR Anquan Boldin, SS Donte Whitner and CB Tarell Brown. Contracts have also expired for career-high-setting K Phil Dawson and ace special teamer and reserve ILB Michael Wilhoite.
These five 49ers were instrumental in making this latest championship-game run. They all need new deals.
Furthermore, a host of former first-round draft picks will require substantial raises.
WR Michael Crabtree (2009), LG Mike Iupati (2010) and OLB Aldon Smith (2011) are all deserving of extensions as top members among their positional groupings. They are undeniable blue-chip pieces that San Francisco must build around with their impending contract years in mind.
Oh, don’t forget about that Colin Kaepernick guy. Put him in the above contingent as well.
And since we’re on the subject of 2015 free agents, team brass must decide the futures of 30-year-old franchise back Frank Gore, potential No. 1 corner Chris Culliver and league-best fullback Bruce Miller, among others.
Remember—a mere $6 million and change sits in the piggy bank. Boldin earned that much in 2014 alone.
For a quick bit of perspective, let’s underscore why these players are so essential to the 49ers.
- Led the 49ers with 85 catches for 1,179 yards and 62 first downs
- Tops in the NFL with zero interceptions when targeted, per Pro Football Focus
- Single-handedly carried the team’s receiving corps during Crabtree’s 11-game absence (including a go-ahead touchdown in the conference championship)
- Fourth on the team with 73 tackles, second in pass breakups (12) and forced fumbles (two) and third with two interceptions
- Sixth-ranked safety per PFF by allowing 52.1 completion percentage and limiting opposing passers to 66.8 rating when targeted
- Quarterback of the secondary and helped develop rookie Eric Reid into a competent starting free safety
- San Francisco’s most consistent and versatile corner since 2011
- Can line up both outside and in the slot, as well as fill the nickel role off the bench
- Third with 11 pass breakups and was the team’s highest-rated cover man in the NFC title game, according to PFF
- Career-best 32 made field goals, including 27 straight during the regular season
- Kicked three game-winners, with his last one sending the 49ers into the Divisional Round
- Was a perfect 7-of-7 during the playoffs
- No. 1 on the 49ers with 14 tackles and overall coverage rating on special teams, per PFF
- Led the team with 20 tackles (three for loss) when filling for Patrick Willis in Weeks 4 and 5
- Quality backup ILB that can cover, tackle and defend the run
The next four elite players, meanwhile, are clear-cut franchise centerpieces.
Crabtree is a true No. 1 wideout and Kaepernick’s most trusted target. He ranked seventh in the NFL with a 72.0 catch percentage, fourth with 543 yards after the catch and third with 2.55 yards per route run during his last full season in 2012, according to PFF.
He returned this season from a torn Achilles and helped the 49ers go 7-1 with him in the lineup (playoffs included).
Iupati, for his part, is one of the premier interior linemen in the NFL. He pulls as well as any guard in the run game and is an intelligent, athletic and powerful blocker in the trenches.
The 2012 All-Pro missed his first playing time in four seasons as a 49er (four games) and made the Pro Bowl despite having a relatively down year.
Fellow All-Pro Aldon Smith is without question an upper-echelon pass-rusher. He owns 42 sacks in 43 career games.
Smith tallied another 3.5 quarterback takedowns in the 2013 playoffs. He was an unstoppable force through most of those three contests.
Pro Football Focus has also awarded Smith with top-five ratings against the run over the past two seasons. He is much more than a one-trick pony—he is a complete linebacker.
And Kaepernick, well, is the franchise’s future at the most important position on the field. There isn’t much need to elaborate.
Coming back full circle, how do Baalke and Marathe fit these indispensable players underneath the ever-constricting salary cap?
Could they place a franchise tag on either Whitner ($8.1 million) or Brown ($11.3 million) after freeing up other contracts?
The latter two scenarios don’t seem plausible. Bleacher Report’s own Dylan DeSimone does not believe that retaining both of these defensive backs is at all feasible.
Knowing management’s commitment to fiscal responsibility and its supreme eye for young talent, the 49ers will fully utilize the draft. The team will aim toward a youth movement in maintaining this franchise’s Super Bowl-contending status for years to come.
But oh is that easier said than done.
San Francisco can at least take solace in the seamless transition when it replaced Pro Bowl free safety Dashon Goldson with first-round pick Eric Reid. The former crashed and burned in Tampa Bay with his $41.25 million, while the latter became a Pro Bowler himself.
Drafted by the greatest! Knew Jerry would take me 😁 pic.twitter.com/uTQzcwyOOo— Eric Reid (@E_Reid35) January 23, 2014
There seems to be a high likelihood of that occurring once again with Whitner (minus the crashing and burning).
CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco fortunately notes that the 49ers have the luxury of 13 selections in the upcoming draft. That includes one first-, two second- and three third-round picks.
Yet, predicting how Baalke, Marathe and the rest of San Francisco’s front office navigate these complex, franchise-deciding times is beyond the capacity of yours truly.
That said, recent track records hint toward a positive outcome and another honest pursuit of a sixth Lombardi Trophy.
In 2014—and beyond.
Follow me on Twitter @jlevitt16