Mike Iupati is set to become a free agent after the 2014 season unless he and the 49ers can work out a contract extension.
Iupati was selected in the first round of the 2010 draft. He was the 17th overall pick and immediately stepped into the starting lineup as a rookie. He started 60 consecutive games until a knee injury sidelined him for four games this past season.
Iupati returned and started the 49ers' final two regular-season games and also three playoff games. Unfortunately, Iupati suffered a broken fibula in the NFC Championship Game. The injury did not require surgery, and the 49ers expect Iupati to be ready in plenty of time for training camp.
Heading into the 2014 season, the 49ers have several tough contract decisions, all of which will affect their salary cap. The status of players such as Anquan Boldin, Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner, Jonathan Goodwin and Phil Dawson are all up in the air.
Whether to sign Iupati to a contract extension now is another one of those very tough decisions.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke have built a very solid offensive line. The 49ers are one of the best rushing teams in the NFL, and a key reason is the strength of their line.
Iupati is one of the most devastating run-blockers in the league. As a pass-blocker, Iupati is good, although not great. His greatest asset is his powerful one-on-one blocking for the 49ers' ground attack.
He will also be only 27 years of age when the upcoming season begins. He is in his prime and should have many years of excellent football left.
Iupati has one year remaining on a five-year, $15.1 million contract. He can become an unrestricted free agent following the 2014 season.
He has a base salary of $2.77 million in 2014, but his cap number is slightly over $4.4 million.
The key is whether Baalke can find a way to get a deal done now and fit Iupati into the 49ers' very tight salary-cap structure.
The cap situation is likely to only get worse as Michael Crabtree, Aldon Smith and Colin Kaepernick's contracts are also expiring after this season. With a base salary under $1 million, Kaepernick is currently a bargain, but that will change soon enough.
Iupati is a two-time Pro Bowl selection and was a first-team All-Pro in 2012. He is definitely a valuable player, but in light of the 49ers' salary-cap constraints, an extension now is highly questionable.
A player in a similar position as Iupati, Ben Grubbs signed a contract with the New Orleans Saints prior to the start of the 2012 season. Grubbs was also a two-time Pro Bowl selection when he signed his deal; he was the same approximate age that Iupati is now.
Grubbs inked a five-year, $36 million contract. Although there are different ways to front-load or back-load the salary-cap implications, that averages out to slightly over $7 million in cap expense per season.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, if Iupati wants anything near this range, it's unlikely San Francisco will be willing to make it happen.
If Iupati is willing to sign an extension for five years and no more than $25 million, then he becomes much more attractive to the 49ers. However, that would be below his market value, and it's more probable Iupati will explore free agency.
Tackles are the most highly paid offensive linemen in the league as they are usually tasked with stopping the opponents' top pass-rushers. Tackles also need to be bigger and more athletic than most guards, so top-flight tackles are hard to find.
Guards, although very important, are not as highly valued as the top tackles in the league. Also, it is often easier to find a player who can play at the guard position in the interior of the line, as opposed to being out in space, exposed, as a tackle is.
The reality of the 49ers' situation is that they will need to spend their money on Kaepernick, Aldon Smith and their wide receivers. In addition, their defensive secondary needs to be shored up, and there simply is not enough money to go around for everyone.
Iupati will likely get caught in this numbers game, and 2014 could very well be his final season in a 49ers uniform.
A football team has a certain window of opportunity to win a Super Bowl with its existing nucleus of talent. The 49ers have come close three years in a row, and that window of opportunity with the veteran core is already beginning to close.
Prior to the start of the 2014 season, we will quite possibly see the departure of four veteran starters. Rogers, Brown, Whitner and Goodwin all may not return.
The window of opportunity for the 49ers' other core veterans to win together is most probably open for one last attempt. Frank Gore, Justin Smith, Crabtree, Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis are all reaching an age or contractual status where their collective future with the 49ers is in doubt.
Unfortunately for Iupati, it looks like he could very well be a salary-cap casualty after the 2014 season. It is doubtful that the 49ers will be able to retain him when there are other players and positions that are a higher priority.
All salary-cap data courtesy of Spotrac.com.