Breaking Down San Francisco 49ers' Salary-Cap Situation Heading into Free Agency

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Breaking Down San Francisco 49ers' Salary-Cap Situation Heading into Free Agency
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Wide receiver Anquan Boldin has emerged as the No. 1 offseason priority for the San Francisco 49ers.

Like it or not, the San Francisco 49ers' salary-cap situation will have a direct effect on what the team is attempting to do this offseason, during free agency and heading into the 2014 NFL draft.

We all know the basic story behind how this works. 

San Francisco currently reigns as one of the elite teams in the NFL.  It has a solid core of players carried over year after year, plus additions of youth and depth to supplement losses in previous seasons.

This, in turn, helps keep the proverbial "window of opportunity" open when it comes to retaining that level of effectiveness from one season to the next.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Replacing Dashon Goldson with Eric Reid in 2013 was one way to minimize cap concerns.

If a team can continuously manage its cap constraints, that window can effectively remain open indefinitely.  Yet we all have seen various teams fall victim to an inhibiting salary-cap situation on an almost yearly basis.  Look at what happened with the Baltimore Ravens before the 2013 season, for a good example.

The 49ers are no different when it comes to addressing these concerns.

There are a number of various factors that shall have direct influence on San Francisco's salary cap heading into the start of free agency in March.  Contract extensions will have an impact, and there are pending free agents that the 49ers need to decide upon.  There may be cap casualties as well.

These factors, and more, shall have direct influence on what the 49ers elect to do moving forward.

In this article, let us break down San Francisco's cap situation and try to predict how the team will get around the constraints that have befallen teams in the past.

 

 

Paul Sakuma/Associated Press
Head coach Jim Harbaugh (left) and GM Trent Baalke (right) have the 49ers sitting at No. 20 in NFL cap space.

Where Do the 49ers Currently Sit?

Before we move any further, let us take a look at where the 49ers rank in terms of cap space.

According to Spotrac.com, San Francisco is currently sitting on a net amount of $121,433,927—$13,741,111 under the cap, which places them at No. 20 in terms of NFL teams' cap room. 

49ers' 2014 Salary Cap Position (as of February 28)
NFL Rank Team Cap Rollover Estimated Total Cap Cap Space
No. 20 San Francisco $2,175,038 $121,433,927 $13,741,111

Spotrac.com

Per Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports, the NFL-wide salary cap was recently set at $133 million, good for a $10 million increase from 2013. Plus, the 49ers will enjoy having a $2.175 million carryover of unused cap space from the previous season.

The top 51 contracts amount to a $119,456,495 hit against the cap, per Spotrac.

These figures put the 49ers in a delicate, if not necessarily precarious, situation heading into free agency.  With a number of their own free agents and current roster players having a direct impact upon these numbers and those heading forward, it will be interesting to see how the 49ers brass decides to move forward.

On the positive side of things, San Francisco does not have a laundry list of free agents whose departures could spell disaster.  Most of the current roster is locked up through 2014, including many of the perennial stars that have made the 49ers great in recent years.

Yet one cannot entirely overlook these free agents altogether.

Eleven of San Francisco's 13 pending free agents are unrestricted, and a few are notable names.  We shall get into those players shortly.

Some may stay, and some may go.  It all depends on what general manager Trent Baalke and contract guru Paraag Marathe, along with the rest of San Francisco's front office, decide to do as they consider the numbers previously mentioned. 

 

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Anquan Boldin developed a rapport with Colin Kaepernick in his first season with the 49ers.

49ers' Free Agents

As stated above, San Francisco has a total of 13 free agents—the list can be viewed here.

Spotrac.com
Current list of 2014 49ers free agents per Spotrac.

Of that particular list, fives names should jump out: Anquan Boldin, Donte Whitner, Jonathan Goodwin, Tarell Brown and Phil Dawson.

Role players like Anthony Dixon, Eric Wright, Demarcus Dobbs, Perrish Cox and Kassim Osgood can also not be entirely overlooked.

Let us start with Boldin—widely considered to be the No. 1 offseason free-agent priority the 49ers have.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
Boldin is considered the top free-agent target by the 49ers this offseason.

Boldin, who made $6 million in his first season in San Francisco, hinted on Twitter that he would like to return, thanking the fans for welcoming him during his first season with the 49ers:

Yes, this could be conceived as mere "talk" and nothing more.  Until the pen is put to paper, nothing is official.

But the two sides appear close to a deal, as tweeted by Adam Schefter of ESPN:

If those developments are true, the 49ers will retain the services of a player that generated 1,179 receiving yards on 85 receptions in 2013—clearly a favorite target of quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

While the numbers of this potential deal are yet to be released, it is reasonable to speculate that the new contract would be something like a two-year deal worth perhaps $15 million.

There goes roughly a third of the 49ers' current cap space in 2014.

Another free agent that should plausibly be retained is Dawson, who earned $2.35 million in 2013.  Expect that number to remain the same, perhaps even decrease slightly, if he is re-signed.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Has center Jonathan Goodwin played his last days in San Francisco?

So what about the other free agents?

We can assume that Goodwin and oft-injured wideout Mario Manningham are both gone in 2014.  As far as Goodwin is concerned, Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area hints the 49ers may be wishing to get younger and cheaper at the position, perhaps promoting one of their own roster players from within.

Expect the 49ers to part ways with defensive backs Brown and Whitner as well.

The reason?

They will be too expensive in 2014.  Whitner posted a near $5 million cap hit last season, and Brown counted almost $2 million against the cap.  With both players in the midst of peak years, it is likely they will be looking for a sizable pay raise.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Safety Donte Whitner's contract may be too expensive for the 49ers to consider in 2014.

That is something the 49ers can simply not afford moving into 2014.  Expect San Francisco to supplement these losses via the draft.

 

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Safety Craig Dahl agreed to take a pay cut in 2014.

Restructured Contracts

Remember acting as a fantasy GM when you were in the offseason mode of Madden Football?  Remember how you could extend your current roster players' contracts to open up space against the cap?

Well, the 49ers are doing just that—and more—to create a little more breathing room.

San Francisco has already broached pay cuts to cornerback Carlos Rogers and safety Craig Dahl.  More on those developments shortly.

The team has also extended the contract for backup O-lineman Daniel Kilgore to a three-year extension, per Maiocco, which puts him in line to take over for Goodwin at the center position:

Kilgore has played in every game over the last two seasons, yet he has never started a regular-season game.

Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Is Daniel Kilgore the heir apparent at center following his contract extension?

It also opens up some more wiggle room under the cap if this means Goodwin will no longer be retained.

With Kilgore extended at roughly $1.8 million per year, Maiocco hints the 49ers may be looking to extend the contracts for No. 2 running back Kendall Hunter and fullback Bruce Miller, which may further alleviate some cap issues.

Then there are restructured deals and cap casualties.

Two of these restructured contracts focused on renegotiating deals for Dahl and wide receiver Jon Baldwin.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport
Seldom-used wideout Jon Baldwin's pay cut saves $755,000 in cap space.

The first of these deals was for Baldwin which was initially tweeted by Field Yates of ESPN, and the deal reportedly saves $755,000 in cap space:

Baldwin, who was active for only seven games in 2013 and posted a mere three receptions for 28 yards, will now compete for the 49ers depth chart in 2014.  If he never materializes into what the 49ers need, expect him to be gone in 2015.

Dahl also agreed to a pay cut following his first season in San Francisco when he became the team's backup safety behind Whitner and Eric Reid.

The renegotiated contract opens up $600,000 in cap space, per Maiocco.

With Whitner potentially departing via free agency, Dahl now stands as a potential favorite to earn a starting job.

What about other contract negotiations and pay cuts?

Bleacher Report's NFC West lead writer Tyson Langland speculates that Rogers is a prime candidate for a pay cut in 2014.  Amidst a four-year, $29.3 million contract, Rogers is the most expensive 49ers player in terms of cap hit—just over $8 million per season.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Cornerback Carlos Rogers is the most likely to have his contract restructured if he is not released outright.

At 32 years old, Rogers saw a decrease in playing time last season—partially due to injury—and in spite of his high snap count, it is reasonable to assume the 49ers are no longer envisioning him to be a part of their long-term plans.

Rogers was approached about a pay cut last season, and he refused, per Maiocco.  If he does so again, it is likely San Francisco will release him and save over $3.5 million, per Spotrac

Langland also listed running back Frank Gore as a potential candidate for a pay cut considering his salary counts $6.45 million against the cap.  Yet Baalke has indicated that the 49ers have no need to restructure Gore's deal via Maiocco.

Then there are all the talks surrounding a contract extension for Kaepernick, per Tim Kawakami:

But Kaepernick's deal differs from those of Rogers, Gore and Dahl in that the young quarterback is seeking a pay raise and not a decrease in his year-to-year salary.

One of the reasons behind San Francisco's ability to retain high-profile players is that Kaepernick is making virtually nothing compared to some of the other quarterbacks around the league with similar accolades.

Obviously a new contract will eminently change everything the 49ers do moving forward, but as of this point, nothing has been finalized.

 

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Could the 49ers bring back cornerback Tarell Brown if the numbers add up?

The Free Agent Market

Expect San Francisco's activity towards external free agents to be no different from the approach the team took in 2013.

The 49ers are not typically known for being high rollers when it comes to landing a prolific free agent.  Last season, San Francisco's biggest additions were supplementary in nature (i.e. linebacker Dan Skuta) or players that filled a specific need like Dawson, Dahl and defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey.

As reported by Maiocco, the 49ers are again not likely to go after any free agents that would carry a significant hit to the pocketbook:

One name that has been thrown around as of late is tackle Jonathan Martin:

In the wake of the fiasco that took place in Miami, the Dolphins could be evaluating Martin's trade value, which, at this point, is close to nothing.  The most likely case is that Miami receives zero enticing offers for Martin's services and subsequently release him, making him a free agent.

Bill Williamson of ESPN suggests the 49ers could be a potential suitor for Martin's services, especially given his ability to play both tackle positions—something of worth, especially in a backup role.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
There are ties between former Stanford tackle Jonathan Martin and his old head coach Jim Harbaugh.

But it is hard to establish this need beyond that of pure speculation.  Could San Francisco sign him?  Absolutely, but the feasibility of this actually happening is pretty low.

Another player Maiocco suggest San Francisco could target is Brown.  While I personally feel the 49ers are likely to part ways with the seven-year veteran, it is not too far removed from possibility that San Francisco retains him if his cost drops into something the team is willing to accept.

Still, the 49ers will be merely looking to add complementary pieces in free agency this offseason.  We can speculate which players may be the most likely targets, but one should not expect anyone with a big name—and likely a big contract—attached.

 

Michael Conroy/Associated Press
A prospect like wide receiver Mike Evans could supplement pending 49ers' losses in 2015.

The 2014 NFL Draft and Beyond

For the 49ers, getting younger and cheaper is the name of the game.

As such, the team will look to do this via the 2014 NFL draft.  Baalke has once again done a tremendous job in stockpiling picks, which will likely be used to trade up at one time or another during the draft.

We have covered some of the potential free-agent losses and cap casualties already and can also speculate how San Francisco will approach this year's draft with some of its future concerns in mind.

It is conceivable the 49ers look to replace Whitner, Brown and possibly others through the 2014 draft class.  There is considerable young talent in this deep pool of prospects, and San Francisco is assuredly paying attention to this.

Yet the 49ers may also be looking to their potential cap constraints after 2014 as well.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Retaining players like Michael Crabtree after 2014 will be a tough challenge for San Francisco's brass.

In addition to the aforementioned extension to Kaepernick, the 49ers also have to consider futures for some of their other star players.  These include linebacker Aldon Smith, wideout Michael Crabtree and guard Mike Iupati—all of whom could easily command a lot of cash.

Sure, it would be ideal if the 49ers could retain all of these players who are unquestionably entering their prime, but the NFL does not always provide ideal situations for teams to work with.

As it stands, how the 49ers address their current cap constraints will have a direct effect on what transpires in 2015.

It shall also have a direct effect on what the team does during the draft.  Drafting and developing potential replacements for players entering contract years is paramount to maintaining the "open window" of opportunity.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Baalke feels as if the 49ers are in good shape heading into free agency.

“We’re in good shape from the cap’s standpoint," said Baalke at the NFL Scouting Combine, via Maiocco.

I am not sure I would call it "good," given some of the intangibles the 49ers are facing this offseason and beyond.  But it certainly is not a disastrous situation either.

What the cap situation does indicate, however, is that the 49ers are in line for some tough decisions in the coming weeks.  Fortunately enough, San Francisco has proven adept when it comes to making the right choices in player personnel in recent seasons.

Saying goodbye to Dashon Goldson and hello to Reid is a perfect example.

What do you think of the current 49ers' cap constraints?

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Gone are the days when the 49ers gave lofty contracts to players like Jonas Jennings and Nate Clements.  Sure, contracts like that awarded to Rogers still remain on the table, but that sort of deal appears to be more of an exception than the rule.

2014 will be a challenging season when it comes to managing the salary cap.  Yet 2015 may be the year the 49ers have to face even tougher choices, especially after current negotiations are finalized.

The final conclusion?

San Francisco's salary-cap predicament is not perfect.  Few teams enjoy that luxury, especially at the level elite teams like the 49ers find themselves in. 

Yet it is far from disastrous either. 

 

All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.  Contractual information courtesy of Spotrac.com unless otherwise indicated.

 

Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers.  Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.

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