Which Free Agent Departure Will the San Francisco 49ers Miss the Most in 2014?

Tom SmeatonContributor IIIMarch 21, 2014

Which Free Agent Departure Will the San Francisco 49ers Miss the Most in 2014?

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Coming off the heels of three consecutive playoff runs, the San Francisco 49ers will have a bit of a different look after the first wave of free agency in 2014. 

    The 49ers have left the big spending to other franchises but several new faces will find themselves starting in red and gold next season. That's mostly due to star players finding their way out of San Francisco for greener pastures, or at least for a contract with a little more green. 

    General manager Trent Baalke has the positive problem of limited cap space for an excess of talent, but there's no denying the quality of some of this year's early departures. Baalke has had to allow years of starting experience, Pro Bowls and championship rings to walk out the door, leaving the team with a few holes on the path to a title.

    Still armed with a plethora of draft picks and the possibility for more signings, the 49ers have more than enough time to patch up the roster before the season begins. However, with past performance and current contingency plans in mind, some players will prove harder to replace than others. 

No. 5: Carlos Rogers, Cornerback

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Veteran cornerback Carlos Rogers rebuilt his career in San Francisco after flaming out as a first-round pick in Washington, but his time had clearly run out in the bay. 

    After watching his role diminish in contrast to his robust cap figure, the 49ers had little choice but to part ways with Rogers and his $8 million cap hit, per Spotrac.com. The infamous 4th-and-7 play in the NFC Championship Game was just the icing on the cake. 

    There was little room for the 49ers to keep Rogers without a pay cut, but his experienced presence will be missed in the secondary. Having already replaced safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner in the past two seasons, losing another Pro Bowl defensive back starts to work toward a compound effect. 

    At the end of the day, Rogers started a number of meaningful games for three very successful defenses. Maintaining his salary wasn't an option, but that doesn't mean Rogers will be easy to replace. 

No. 4: Anthony Dixon, Running Back

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    After accepting a three-year, $3.5 million offer from the Buffalo Bills, there's more to replacing running back Anthony Dixon than finding 56 yards and two touchdowns on the remaining roster, per Spotrac.com

    Even though Dixon failed to ever develop as a true offensive threat, his value as a special teams ace cannot be overstated. The fan favorite role was natural for the enthusiastic Dixon, who also proved his versatility as an occasional fullback when pressed last season.

    Dixon's ability as a goal-line back will also be missed with punitive running backs Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James left behind him. The 49ers will surely hope for last year's fourth-round draft pick, Marcus Lattimore, to compensate for that role in some regard. 

    Fellow special-teamer Kassim Osgood currently also sits on the open market, making Dixon's loss even more damaging for that unit. For his jack-of-all-trades style, Dixon's void will be difficult to fill. 

No. 3: Donte Whitner, Safety

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Safety Donte Whitner is the best player on this list, but the early signing of ex-Colts safety Antoine Bethea helps offset this loss significantly. 

    Whitner accepted a four-year, $28 million contract from the Cleveland Browns, according to Spotrac.com, and the 49ers were simply unable to match that amount within their salary cap. Stat sheet totals of 63 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles can probably be replaced in 2014, but there's more than numbers to this league-leading defense. 

    Whitner's hard-hitting presence will certainly be missed on a physical defense, but his penchant for personal fouls will not. While his coverage has improved dramatically since signing over from the Buffalo Bills, occasional lapses still left some to be desired. 

    Only time will tell if Bethea will prove to be an adequate successor, but Whitner's Pro Bowl level of play and championship experience cannot be overlooked. 

    San Francisco lost a core leader in the defensive backfield, but his established replacement brings him down on this list. With the entire secondary clearly in transition, losing Whitner may be the least of their problems in 2014. 

No. 2: Jonathan Goodwin, Center

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    Associated Press

    It's no secret that 49ers make their money with the running game, and center Jonathan Goodwin has served as the anchor of the offensive line in every game for the past three seasons. 

    According to NFL.com, the 49ers ranked third in the league with 31.6 rushing attempts per game, also racking up the third most rushing yards with 137.6 per game. On a team that frequently runs between the tackles, solid center play is a key component to the offense. 

    Goodwin also clearly earned the respect of his teammates, voted for the 2013 Ed Block Courage Award, according to 49ers.com

    After 12 years in the league, however, the 49ers decided to move on from Goodwin in favor of the younger and cheaper Daniel Kilgore. With little NFL experience to speak of, the Kilgore experiment is a key story to follow on one of the most consistent offensive lines for the past three seasons. 

    Goodwin's age probably proved a tough sell for Baalke, but Kilgore's unproven pedigree raises at least a minor red flag heading into a pressure-packed season for the 49ers offense. 

No. 1: Tarell Brown, Cornerback

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    Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

    Cornerback Tarell Brown battled injuries for most of 2013, but the rise of fellow corner Tramaine Brock doesn't fully offset the loss of this key defensive player. 

    With Brown moving to the nearby Oakland Raiders, the 49ers lost an experienced starter at the thinnest position on the roster. It's also easy to forget that just last summer, B/R's own Tyson Langland called Brown "the NFL's Best Cornerback You Don't Know About."

    Is Brown an All-Pro talent or an elite lockdown corner? Frankly, no.

    However, he did serve as a capable starter on one of the best defenses in football. With Rogers out of the picture and third-year cornerback Chris Culliver coming off of a major knee injury, Brown's stable presence will prove hard to replace. 

    Even after 2013 saw his lowest totals in tackles (38), passes defended (12) and interceptions (zero) since Jim Harbaugh took over, Brown will prove to be an overlooked commodity in the new season. Considering the uncertainty left behind in San Francisco, No. 25's departure fully earned the top spot on this list.

     

    All statistics according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted. Tom Smeaton covers the San Francisco 49ers for Bleacher Report and on Twitter at @smeaton49