Anquan Boldin, Donte Whitner and Phil Dawson were three of the San Francisco 49ers' most consistent performers in 2013. And they all could become unrestricted free agents by March 11.
The 49ers would surely like to have them all back. But with only so much money to spend, the Niners could let any or all of them go.
With tough decisions looming, I put myself in the shoes of general manager Trent Baalke. I ranked the free agents—who are listed here—based on how much the 49ers need them in 2014.
In ranking their importance, I considered their 2013 performance, projected their future performance in the short term and predicted how hard they would be to replace.
Anthony Dixon, RB
The four-year veteran has made his mark on special teams. He's also contributed in short-yardage rushing situations, most notably scoring on 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line in the NFC Championship Game.
With Marcus Lattimore expected to return for the 2014 season, Dixon may fall to fifth on the 49ers depth chart (also behind Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James).
Kassim Osgood, WR
Osgood is almost exclusively a special teams player, and he's a master of his craft. I nearly put him in the No. 5 spot on this list, but I ultimately favored someone who played hundreds more snaps in 2013.
Perrish Cox, CB
Cox received some valuable playoff experience, playing a combined 83 defensive snaps in San Francisco's two postseason wins while Carlos Rogers was hurt. Cox did not play against the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game. With so much uncertainty surrounding San Francisco's cornerback corps, the Niners could sign Cox to a cheap deal for depth purposes.
Jonathan Goodwin has had a helluva run in San Francisco.
He's started every game in the last three seasons for the 49ers. In 2013, he played 98 percent of the team's offensive snaps.
However, his career in San Francisco could be coming to close. CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco wrote that the 49ers are likely to give a younger play the starting center spot in 2014.
Though Goodwin has been a steady performer in San Francisco, he's hardly been spectacular. He's received a negative score in pass-blocking by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) in each of his three seasons with the team.
If the Niners don't re-sign him, they could go with Daniel Kilgore or Joe Looney. If they want to avoid the unknown, they can offer the consistent Goodwin a one-year deal.
The fact that I considered Phil Dawson over the next three players on this list is a testament to how great he was in 2013.
The 39-year-old kicker set a franchise record by converting 27 consecutive field-goal attempts. Overall, he made 39-of-43 attempts (playoffs included).
If there weren't so many quality free-agent options at the position, Dawson would be higher on this list. But if the 49ers allow him to slip away, they could sign Steven Hauschka, Jay Feely, Josh Brown, Graham Gano or Adam Vinatieri.
In other words, they'll more than likely end up with a decent kicker if Dawson signs elsewhere.
Tarell Brown has been an integral part of the 49ers secondary for his entire seven-year career. He often doesn't get the credit he deserves.
However, when Brown missed three games with a rib injury, the 49ers defense looked just as good, if not better, without him. The Niners went 3-0, including their 19-17 regular-season win in Week 14 against the Seattle Seahawks.
Credit Tramaine Brock for filling the void during Brown's absence. Brock was given a contract extension, which could be considered an ominous sign for Brown's future in San Francisco.
I made the case for the 49ers to cut Carlos Rogers here. If the Niners do cut him, they may be more inclined to keep Brown.
Even if they cut Rogers and lose Brown, they have options. Chris Culliver should be ready for the 2014 season. They could also re-sign Perrish Cox. And, of course, there is always free agency and the draft.
Ultimately, Brown is more important than Dawson because it's harder to find a steady cornerback than a steady kicker. But it would not be a disaster if Brown signed with another team.
The difference between Donte Whitner and Tarell Brown was small. But the veteran strong safety is a slightly more important free-agent priority because he had a better season in 2013, and San Francisco's current replacement options aren't as strong.
Whereas Chris Culliver could fill in for Brown seamlessly, Craig Dahl is simply not even close to the player Whitner is.
The issue with Whitner is mileage. For a player who relies so much on his speed and physicality, the 28-year-old could lose his effectiveness rather quickly.
This 49ers regime has been extra cautious with safety contracts (see Goldson, Dashon). Team decision-makers already know Whitner isn't the fastest or best coverage safety, and they may want to cut ties now before his inevitable decline.
However, Whitner's leadership has been a valuable part of San Francisco's chemistry. And he is one of the best tacklers in the league from the safety position.
If the Niners let him walk, they'd have a tough time replacing him. But, the 49ers' No. 1 free-agent priority was more effective than Whitner in 2013 and would be just as hard—if not harder—to replace.
"But wait. Didn't you write a week ago that the 49ers can afford to let Boldin walk?"
If that was your first thought, I owe you an explanation. All along, I've been in support of the 49ers re-signing Anquan Boldin. But, I do believe they can afford to let him go if he demands too many years or too much money on his next contract.
It would be lunacy to not offer Boldin a short-term, team-friendly deal. He had 1,179 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in the regular season. He had 136 receiving yards against the Carolina Panthers in the divisional round. He scored a touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game.
Unquestionably, he had a great year.
CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco tabbed Boldin and Dawson as the two 49er free agents most likely to be re-signed.
He cited a Boldin tweet from after the playoff loss to Seattle, which stated, "Thank you @49ers fans for embracing my family and I during our first year in San Francisco. Your support this year was amazing."
It sounds like he wants to come back.
The 49ers need to be careful they don't overpay for Boldin. He's 33 years old, and the Niners still need to clear enough cap space to re-sign Colin Kaepernick, Aldon Smith and Michael Crabtree within the next year.
If they let Boldin walk, they'd likely replace him with a cheap free agent and a high draft pick. The draft is always a crapshoot, and San Francisco's last two first-round picks used on wide receivers show that. They took Crabtree in 2009, which has panned out. They took A.J. Jenkins in 2012, and that selection was a disaster.
The chances the 49ers fully replace Boldin if they let him go are slim. And that's why he's their most important free agent, even if they can survive without him.