After three straight NFC Championship appearances, the San Francisco 49ers will be looking to make the necessary upgrades in the offseason to ensure they dethrone the Seattle Seahawks and walk away with their first Vince Lombardi Trophy since 1994 in 2014.
Yet, before the 49ers get too far ahead of themselves, they have a couple of key items to take care of. In addition to putting together a top-notch draft class, general manager Trent Baalke has to re-sign two players who are vital to San Francisco’s success.
No, I’m not talking about strong safety Donte Whitner or kicker Phil Dawson. I’m talking about cornerback Tarell Brown and Pro Bowl wide receiver Anquan Boldin. However, it’s clear that salary cap space is scarce, which means Boldin must be the 49ers’ top offseason priority.
The front office staff has to get his deal done before they get anyone else's done. San Francisco can’t afford to let him get away. He means too much to quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers offense.
Despite being 33 years of age, Boldin was an absolute monster in 2013. He led the team in targets, receptions and receiving yards. Furthermore, he garnered 19 catches of 20 yards or more and was awarded a plus-17.9 grade from the folks at Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Based on PFF’s grading system, that was the second-best offensive grade on the team. The lone player who received a higher grade (plus-27.7) was left tackle Joe Staley. Staley may have garnered higher marks across the board, yet some would argue that Boldin single-handedly kept the 49ers’ offense afloat in 2013.
It’s hard to disagree with that sentiment. Even Kaepernick noted that Boldin helped keep the offense afloat while fellow wide receiver Michael Crabtree recovered from a torn Achilles. Here’s what the third-year signal-caller told Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle on Dec. 18, 2013:
We felt very comfortable with Anquan, obviously, he was a proven vet. The other receivers we had, we felt good about. But they hadn’t had the game-time experience, so it was something where we kind of had to see how things went through the season. We had some people do some good things, but I think the biggest thing was that Anquan played the way he did. That was one of the biggest factors for us. He came out and he’s played like a maniac this year.
Kaepernick’s right: Boldin did play like a maniac.
Nonetheless, statistics only tell a part of the story. Let’s go to the tape and break down Boldin’s most valuable attributes. This will give us a better understanding as to why he must be the 49ers’ top offseason priority.
On this first play against the Green Bay Packers, the 12th-year veteran out of Florida State showed off his ability to make tough catches in traffic. This ability proved to be huge, because it helped the 49ers offense sustain drives and keep the chains moving on third down all season long.
San Francisco deployed an “11” personnel set. Boldin was lined up in the flanker position on the right side of the formation, Quinton Patton was the split end on the left side of the formation and Kyle Williams was in the slot.
Green Bay countered with a 1-4-6 look. It rushed three and dropped eight into coverage. Even though dropping eight defenders in coverage is usually a sure-fire way to stop the pass, Kaepernick and Boldin ate the coverage up.
Why? Because Kaepernick had forever to throw.
Once Boldin found a soft spot in the zone between two defenders, Kaepernick tossed a beautiful pass high and to the inside. The ball was so well placed Boldin was able to climb the ladder and go up and grab the throw at its highest point. The end result was a 22-yard gain that amassed a first down on a third-down play.
This second play, vs. the Washington Redskins, hones in on Boldin’s talent as a route-runner.
The 49ers offense trotted out a “21” personnel set. Boldin was split out wide to the right, Jonathan Baldwin was split out wide to the left and tight end Vernon Davis was on the line of scrimmage. To defend the 49ers’ personnel package, the Redskins played zone coverage out of their base 3-4 defense.
Much like the Packers’ coverage on the first play, Kaepernick and Boldin worked over the Redskins’ defensive look.
From start to finish, cornerback Josh Wilson never stood a chance. Boldin ran a well-executed post route. The post route included a double move on the goal line that completely turned Wilson around. The lapse in coverage allowed Kaepernick to deliver a strike.
Nineteen yards later Boldin celebrated his fourth touchdown of the season.
This last play, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, spotlights Boldin’s proficient ability to make defenders miss and pick up valuable yards after the catch.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s offense used an “11” personnel grouping to offset the Buccaneers’ 3-2-6 alignment. Boldin was battling right cornerback Darrelle Revis on the left side of the formation, Mario Manningham was split out wide to the right and Crabtree was in the slot.
After the ball was snapped, Boldin ran a short in route over the middle of the field, which proved to work well versus man coverage. Once he caught the ball, he immediately turned to the inside and broke Revis’ attempted tackle.
The broken tackle permitted him to pick up 22 additional yards after the catch. If he wouldn’t have slipped Revis’ tackle, he would have been stopped for a three-yard gain. Instead, he tallied 25 yards total and converted a third-down attempt into a first down.
That play is the perfect example as to why big-bodied receivers are so coveted in the NFL. Breaking tackles and picking up huge chunks of yards after the catch give the offense a new dimension. It allows quarterbacks to throw short of the sticks on third down.
Obviously, quarterbacks don’t want to get into the habit of throwing short of the sticks, yet plays like that prove it's a viable option on 3rd-and-long. It also demonstrates a quality that won’t show up in the box score.
Based on the three highlighted plays above, it’s safe to say Boldin is still performing at a high level. By no means should the 49ers give him a long-term deal, but they should explore a two-to-three-year deal that would grant him the flexibility to retire at the conclusion of the contract.
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Over the Cap
So, what’s the going rate for a 33-year-old wide receiver that just posted a 1,179-yard receiving season in 2013? That’s the million-dollar question. When you look at his deal that expired at the end of this past year, Boldin averaged $7,020,833 annually (escalators included).
Odds are he won’t command $7,020,833 per year over the life of his next contract, yet one shouldn’t expect the numbers to fall off substantially. I would expect him to sign a deal that resembles that of Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker.
Prior to the 2013 season, Welker signed a two-year, $12 million fully guaranteed contract. If San Francisco can get away with guaranteeing one year of the two-year deal, they should. Nevertheless, it’s unlikely Boldin signs off on $6 million guaranteed. He’s looking for his last big payday and will push for a fully guaranteed deal.
The good news is, the 49ers could make some beneficial cuts and free up some extra salary cap space. Cutting cornerback Carlos Rogers alone would save the team $5,105,468. His cap savings would almost cover one year of the two-year deal.
No matter which way you slice it, Boldin must be the 49ers' top offseason priority. They can’t risk letting him hit the open market. If he does, another team could potentially swoop in and overpay. Then San Francisco would have to bank on finding his potential replacement in the draft.
As easy as that sounds, rarely does a rookie wide receiver come in and dominate from the get-go. The 49ers would be wise to re-sign Boldin, draft his potential replacement and let the seasoned veteran groom him over the course of the next two years.
With free agency less than a month away, it’s evident that San Francisco needs to get a new deal done sooner rather than later. The last thing they want to see is Boldin move on and find continued success elsewhere.
Unless otherwise noted, all cap numbers via Over the Cap.