Heck, don't be surprised if the 49ers decide to take care of one or even both players before their rookie contracts expire. This is the blueprint so to say for general manager Trent Baalke.
The 49ers will have some tough decisions to make if they want to keep core players like Kaepernick and Smith intact for the next five or six years. Like so many other teams in the NFL, the salary cap isn't on the 49ers side for the foreseeable future.
This means less opportunity in free agency, which could also affect their ability to use the franchise tag. The last time the 49ers used the tag was in 2012.
Said player? None other than Dashon Goldson. As we all know, Goldson eventually left the 49ers for greener pastures, but can you blame him?
Will the 49ers use the franchise tag this season? Well, the likelihood of this occurring is slim-to-none. As we speak, the 49ers have a little over $5 million in cap room. This number should increase, but not enough for the 49ers to seriously consider using the designated tag.
Nevertheless, let's explore a few names that could receive the franchise tag designation.
Anquan Boldin, WR
For just a sixth-round pick, Anquan Boldin was a godsend for Colin Kaepernick and this 49ers offense. What were the Baltimore Ravens thinking?
At age 34, most teams would be looking to replace Anquan Boldin. It's only natural. Teams want to get younger at every opportunity. The Ravens are a prime example, though Joe Flacco's mega contract had something to do with it as well.
However, when your 34-year-old receiver is outplaying the young guns, priorities begin to shift. Anquan Boldin did just that in 2013, recording 85 catches for nearly 1,200 receiving yards and seven touchdowns.
Not to mention his excellence in the last two postseasons.
Trent Baalke understands the value of Anquan Boldin, but with key free agents in 2015, the 49ers have to use their money wisely.
While the franchise tag is an option, there is little chance Baalke tags the veteran receiver. The current franchise tag number for receivers, which will increase/decrease in the coming months, is $10,537,000 million.
The 49ers currently don't have the cap space to offer such a deal, which somewhat puts this conversation to rest. The tag could be a stopgap until the team works out a two-or three-year deal with the veteran receiver, but even that is stretching.
Likelihood of getting tagged: 5 percent
Donte Whitner, S
Hitner Whitner is scheduled to hit the open market in the hopes of securing his last long- term deal in the NFL. Will that be with the 49ers or another safety desperate team?
The 49ers like Whitner, but how much?
From past events, namely the contract negotiations with Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson, the 49ers don't value the safety position in Vic Fangio's defense. Goldson can attest to that.
Now, I think the situation with Whitner is a bit different. Goldson was far more superior, and his contract proved as such.
Whitner came off a great season, but the 49ers understand his limitations. His deep ball coverage this season was solid, but 2014 seemed more like an aberration.
Don't get me wrong; Whitner brings a ton of great qualities to this defense. He sets the tone with his bone-crushing hits, and his intelligence in the backend of this defense will be hard to replace.
The real question is, how does Whitner value himself? If he believes himself to be a top shelf safety, he'll expect top shelf money.
Trent Baalke can ill afford to use his precious cap space on a veteran safety. The franchise tag is an option, but if used, the 49ers can kiss their chances of re-signing key free agents like Anquan Boldin or Tarell Brown.
The current franchise tag number for safeties is nearly $7 million. According to Joel Curry of CBS, this number could increase to as much as $8 million in the coming months.
I like the 49ers chances of re-signing Whitner, but the negotiations could get ugly in the process.
Likelihood of getting tagged: 2 percent
Phil Dawson, K
Phil Dawson enjoyed one of his best seasons as a pro kicker. In tying his career high in field goal attempts (36), Dawson actually made a career high 32 field goals in 2013.
I predicted Dawson would have a nice debut season with the 49ers, but even he outperformed my expectations. Nevertheless, franchise tagging a kicker?
It happens a lot more than we think. Franchise tagging kickers or special teams contributors in this day and age isn't all that uncommon.
They usually have low tag numbers, and most teams actually use that time to work out a long term deal with that respective player.
However, the situation with Dawson is somewhat out of the ordinary.
Dawson has been franchise tagged twice in previous seasons, meaning he'll qualify for a substantial increase if he's tagged a third time.
If the 49ers tag Dawson, by rule, he'll receive the quarterback franchise tender. The 49ers aren't paying over $15 million in 2014 for a kicker.
In all likelihood, a deal between the two sides will get done. It just makes too much sense for both sides.
Likelihood of getting tagged: 1 percent (if that)
The 49ers will find free agency a bit tricky this year. In years past, Trent Baalke had time on his side before the inevitable pileup that will ensue in 2015 with key free agents looking for big deals.
Baalke will be up to the challenge, but tough decisions will need to be made in the coming years. It all starts this offseason.