In restoring the San Francisco 49ers' brand—a prodigious turnaround spearheaded by head coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke—a lot of new faces entered the locker room. Three drafts, multiple promotions and several notable exits from the old regime made this a very different team.
While the changeover has been significant thus far, the 49ers are just getting started.
Now, that 2011 class, which had a great deal to do with this team’s 180, has to get paid. That includes a top pass-rusher and transcendent player at the quarterback position, so it couldn’t get any pricier. The Niners will need to clear up a lot of cap space in order to lock down a number of key players.
And as free agency approaches on March 11, they’ll obviously like to have some options if there is a player available they feel can make this team better.
There are ways they can enhance the roster and save money simultaneously.
And though it’s not appealing, cost cutting is one of the most effective things this front office can do starting right now. So, continuing to build for the future and outsource monetary cutbacks against the cap, here is a look at some options they may explore:
Carlos Rogers, CB
Carlos Rogers is listed as the No. 1 cornerback for San Francisco since he signed as a free agent in 2011 under the new regime, but it’s time to move on.
This signing had its upside, but the Niners got to call it.
They got one exceptional year out of him when Rogers tallied six interceptions and notched his first Pro Bowl nod, and that made it worth it. He was a good defender, born anew in this fly-around defense. It even segued him into a new deal.
But his play has tapered off ever since, and more often than not, Rogers is the guy quarterbacks pick on.
Even though they can get through seasons with double-digit wins with him and he’s been okay in the slot, he will always be a liability in the postseason. And even if the team wanted to restructure to keep him because they value his leadership and contributions in the slot, there’s no guarantee he’d be willing to take less.
Here is what Rogers said, via Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee:
The last three years, I played the most snaps on this whole team, period. Why would I take less? That was our approach last year. This year? It may be something different. I know the average for a cornerback—the average—is still high.
Cutting Rogers, who will turn 33 years old in July, will provide the 49ers with north of $5 million in cap relief.
If they can trade him for anything at all, it’d create over $8 million in space and net them something in return (but that is doubtful). It’ll likely come down to an outright release. And with him being the weakest link in the secondary, it should still make for a relatively painless decision by the front office.
They’re scratching and clawing while looking for money-saving options right now, and this is staring them in the face.
Unloading Rogers would save them more than any other player on the roster. This incoming draft class is also overflowing with cornerbacks and happens to have several exceptional nickel prospects. So, the defense should be able to upgrade for far cheaper as well. It makes sense from every angle.
The inevitable exit of Carlos Rogers will be a good thing.
Potential Savings: $5-8 million
Frank Gore, RB
The 49ers' all-time leading running back, Frank Gore, was a top-five rusher for most of the season, having one of the better years of any NFL back. And it was a tough year for the 49ers offensively. They had their struggles, which really brought Gore’s value to this offense to the foreground.
He’s a crusader, a warrior and still the centerpiece of the offense.
And due to his particular skill set—which involves patience, vision and slipping tackles, rather than straight-line speed and agility—he continues to function at a high level this late into his career. Gore has not showed any signs of slowing down, bolting for 1,128 yards and nine touchdowns this past season.
He’s off three straight 1,000-yard campaigns (3,553 yards and 25 touchdowns in that span).
He’s also the best blocking back in the NFL, via Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus.
But the fact remains that Gore has a $6.45 million hit against the cap this season, which is far too much to spend on a running back, especially one who will be 31 years old operating in a talent-ridden committee. The Niners, who always reassess their contracts, will not be able to justify this.
Anticipating this crossroad, the understanding has long been that they’d try to get Gore to restructure his deal. Easier said that done, of course. Money complicates things, and tragic splits are never surprising because of it. His status with the team is contingent on taking roughly half of what he’s making.
So, Gore either bends, or they have to explore other options.
If he feels he has to earn the total sum of that contract the 49ers originally promised—perhaps after being one of several NFL players scammed out of millions—then the Niners could explore a trade in the same way they did with ex-quarterback Alex Smith.
In that sense, Gore would be part of discussions, and he could land somewhere that is convenient for him.
The Miami Dolphins in particular, which reportedly could be interested in tailback LeGarrette Blount, may be open to listening to what the 49ers have to say. Of their recent draftees, neither Lamar Miller nor Daniel Thomas has stepped up and stolen the spotlight.
They need a back pretty badly, if only a stopgap while they rebuild the offensive line.
Gore is a Florida native, a University of Miami alum and also has his home and family in the state.
The Dolphins also have the No. 19 overall pick in this year's draft, so it's possible the Niners pursue a trade that includes them swapping spots in Round 1 and/or potentially adding picks to the 2014-15 drafts.
While it appears risky and maybe even unethical to trade Gore, it is not outside the realm of reason.
Fans only have to remember the years that Joe Montana spent as a Kansas City Chief or Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott and Roger Craig as Oakland Raiders.
Now, with any luck, No. 21 agrees to restructure in order to make one last go at a title and finish out his career in scarlet and gold. Obviously, it’s what both he and the 49ers would prefer. But if it doesn’t happen because he just took a team-friendly deal in 2011 that was back-loaded, buckle in and brace yourself.
Potential Savings: $6.45 million
Jonathan Baldwin, WR
Wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin is entering the final year of his rookie deal in 2014, which comes with a $1.4 million cap hit.
That just won’t do for what he is—not for a benchwarmer. They can add a better rookie receiver in the middle rounds of the draft at one-third that price (roughly $500k). There is no way the team keeps Baldwin around at that rate, especially when they know he doesn’t have much to offer.
This year, the 49ers had a dire need at the position. They were waiting for someone to assert themselves every week, and it never happened.
In his foul debut with the Niners, Baldwin had three grabs on a total of nine targets for just 28 yards (9.3 YPC).
The lengthy, 6’4” pass-catcher was one of the players with recurring chances to prove himself by helping this team out—and do so just from a complementary standpoint. He didn’t even have to be “the guy,” but Baldwin failed even at that modest task.
Not even with his daunting height or 42-inch vertical.
He just isn’t a very good route-runner, which is sort of fundamental in the NFL. It’s largely why he can’t succeed. He’s not confident or precise in them, so quarterbacks don’t look for him. And when he garners a target, there’s less than a 50-50 chance he catches it.
He’s almost unplayable.
The former first-rounder has done nothing in the NFL and will likely be on his third pro team this coming season.
Potential Savings: $1.4 million
Ray McDonald, DT
First off, let’s make this clear: The 49ers will not cut Ray McDonald.
He is a very good NFL starter. In fact, he’s one of the most underestimated players in the league. He sets the edge, puts a chokehold on the run and rushes the passer, all from the end spot in San Francisco’s 3-4.
Another reason they won’t release him is because he also carries a $4.2 million dead-money hit in 2014, which makes up nearly 80 percent of his salary. Given the talent and low savings, it wouldn’t make any sense whatsoever.
But they may want to see what the market looks like for McDonald.
He does have a noticeably high cap figure for someone unglamorous, and the front office may want to get it off the books. McDonald will be earning over $5 million in each of the next two years, which is the apex of his contract, and it also makes him a top-10 earner on the team.
It’s kind of pricey, and the 49ers want to attack more if they’re going to spend top dollar.
They also have a potential colossus in Tank Carradine, who, as a former top-five prospect, may be ready to get in the lineup as more than a situational player. If we’re being honest, had Carradine been healthy and drafted to any other team but the Niners, he’d be a starter from Day 1.
He’s also earning just over $1.1 million this year.
So it’s not like they wouldn’t have a replacement, and they may potentially have a better one for less cost.
It’s all about whether the 49ers want to act on McDonald this year or wait till next year when he is older and his value is lower—not to mention the extra $5 million they would’ve spent by keeping him another year. But right now, he’s 29 years old (will be 30 for the 2014 season) and is a talent without a ton of mileage.
If they’re going to hit the ejector seat, now’s the time.
There could be trade value here, and the Niners could theoretically get younger and better for cheaper while saving money to put toward other contracts, such as Anquan Boldin, Colin Kaepernick, Michael Crabtree or outside players. They’ve never hesitated to shop players, and they need to now more than ever.
And in the meantime, they could benefit from having perhaps a one-year-wonder pairing of Justin Smith and Carradine on opposite ends.
The Niners have the leeway to make these moves because of how stable their front seven is, largely thanks to D-line coach Jim Tomsula. It wouldn’t even have a drastic effect on their draft needs or the lineup, as the 49ers have played without McDonald and continued to dominate up front and win games.
Potential Savings: $5 million
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