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San Francisco 49ers: Is Right Guard Alex Boone Underpaid?

San Francisco 49ers guard Alex Boone (75) during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game against the St. Louis Rams in San Francisco, Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Bryan KnowlesContributor IIIMay 29, 2014

As the San Francisco 49ers open for their initial OTAs, they are missing their starting right guard.

Alex Boone has been absent from OTAs, reportedly because he is unhappy with his contract, according to Bill Williamson of ESPN.com.  The former undrafted free agent out of Ohio State has started every game over the past two seasons for San Francisco, and he is looking for an appropriate bump in his compensation.

Alex Boone's Contract
YearBase SalarySigning BonusRoster BonusWorkout BonusCap Hit
2014$2,000,000$340,000$200,000$50,000$2,590,000
2015$1,200,000$340,000$400,000$50,000$1,990,000
Spotrac.com

Boone has two years left on his current contract, with about $3.9 million left coming his way.  In terms of average salary, his current deal has him as the 39th-highest paid guard, though some of that is brought down by low base salaries in 2012 and 2013.  In terms of his 2014 cap hit, Boone’s actually the 30th-highest-paid guard in the game.

How much should Boone be paid, on the free market?  It’s hard to get a precise number for that, because there’s a lack of solid statistics for play on the offensive line.  Offensive linemen work in tandem so much as well that it’s hard to isolate a particular player’s success, especially on the interior of the line.

Pro Football Focus’ advanced charting stats are torn on Boone.  In 2013, he only graded out at negative-2.1 (subscription required), 40th best in the league.  In 2012, however, Boone’s grade of 24.2 had him as the third-best guard in all of football, behind only Marshal Yanda and Evan Mathis.

Reinhold Matay/Associated Press

Personally, I feel Boone’s “true value” is much closer to the 2012 number than the 2013 grade.  San Francisco’s offense took a hit across the board last season due to the injury to Michael Crabtree and the lack of established backup options.  It caused the offense in general to go into a tailspin, as defenses could key in on the run game for the majority of the season.  That makes the job tougher for all players, including Boone.

So, for the sake of argument, let’s call Boone a good offensive lineman, perhaps a rung down from the top guards in the league.  What are similar players making in free agency?

I went back through the past few years of free-agent guards, looking for guards under the age of 30 who match Boone’s general profile.  I left off players like Logan Mankins and Carl Nicks, who are essential building blocks to their respective franchises.  Boone is good, but he’s not up to those levels quite yet.

Recent Free-Agent Guards
PlayerTeamYearsTotal ValueSigning BonusAverage
Andy LevitreTitans6$46.8 million$10.5 million$7.8 million
Ben GrubbsSaints5$36 million$7.2 million$7.2 million
Justin BlalockFalcons6$38.4 million$11 million$6.4 million
Louis VasquezBroncos4$23.5 million$5 million$5.875 million
Richie IncognitoDolphins3$12.9 million$3.25 million$4.3 million
Mike BrisielRaiders5$20 million$2.8 million$4 million
AverageNFL4.83$29.6 million$6.63 million$5.93 million
Spotrac.com

These are the sorts of players Boone and his agent will likely be comparing themselves with.  Whether you think he deserves to be placed on the high end with Andy Levitre and Ben Grubbs, or on the low end with Mike Brisiel and Richie Incognito, that’s still more money than Boone’s making at the moment.

In a vacuum, then, bumping Boone up by about $1 million a year or so would seem to be a fair agreement.  It would bring Boone into the top-20 paid guards in the league, while acknowledging that he is under contract and has to report eventually.

Unfortunately for Boone, things aren’t happening in a vacuum.  There are three factors counting against him in his efforts to get a larger contract.

First of all, he has two years left on his contract, rather than one.  Even if the 49ers don’t touch Boone’s contract this season, he’ll be back for 2015.  Even if Boone decided to hold out for most of 2014 for some reason, the 49ers still control his rights for the next year—and if he holds out for long enough, it would actually extend the deal through 2016 because the contract would toll over.

Other players need to be extended in the near future.
Other players need to be extended in the near future.David Goldman/Associated Press

Secondly, the 49ers already have quite a few players they have to focus on extending, limiting the amount of money that they could send toward Boone.  As it stands right now, Crabtree, Mike Iupati and Colin Kaepernick all are set to hit free agency after the 2014 season.  The team is going to be hard-pressed to keep all three of them under contract, and one or more will probably have to be let go.

While Boone’s an excellent player, I’d rank him as less important to the team than any of those three.  Asking for an extension while the 49ers are making decisions regarding the next set of expiring contracts may not be ideal timing.  Perhaps Boone could get an influx of cash in 2014, but anything affecting future salary caps would be tough to negotiate.

Thirdly, the 49ers have options in case one of their guards decides to leave.  Behind the duo of Boone and Iupati, some decent competition is brewing.

One player would be the loser of the center battle, as both Daniel Kilgore and Marcus Martin have experience playing at guard.  If Iupati or indeed Boone end up leaving, either player could start at one of the guard positions.

Both Joe Looney and Adam Snyder also have experience playing guard, though Looney is a better prospect at this point than Snyder is.  You also have third-round pick Brandon Thomas, who will spend this season on injured reserve but will be back in time for next season and is a lock to make the roster then.

So, while Boone is underpaid for his performance, he really lacks the leverage to force the 49ers to renegotiate his contract as it stands.

Boone should be back with the team sooner rather than later.
Boone should be back with the team sooner rather than later.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

It’s only OTAs, so it’s not like Boone’s missing any crucial time.  In fact, Boone’s absence might give some of the reserve guards more reps, so that might help in the long run.  I think the endgame for this particular standoff is Boone reporting to camp and playing out this season under his current contract, with an understanding with the front office that he’ll be taken care of after the team deals with the three big upcoming free agents.

This seems like a story for the doldrums of the offseason.  I don’t expect this to last even until training camp, much less into the 2014 season.

Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers.  Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.

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