Which San Francisco 49ers Player Should Be Extended First?
General manager Trent Baalke has done an excellent job of locking up key talent during his tenure with the San Francisco 49ers, but the most difficult hurdle may yet be on the horizon.
As reported by Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com, the post-June 1 release of cornerback Carlos Rogers is now officially reflected on the team's salary cap. While this new windfall leaves the 49ers with an estimated $8.165 million in cap room, there's no shortage of players lining up to reap the rewards.
Among the headliners approaching the end of their contracts with San Francisco, Baalke must now prioritize negotiations with several key contributors. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, wide receiver Michael Crabtree and guard Mike Iupati are all eligible for free agency after 2014, among others.
Of course, other long-term contract concerns also come into play when allocating money for future seasons.
The 49ers possess one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, but keeping talent together is arguably as difficult as building it up in the first place. With position and potential earnings in mind, these are the players Baalke should look to lock up first before hitting the open market.
No. 6: Chris Culliver, CB
The release of cornerback Carlos Rogers opened new doors for fourth-year pro Chris Culliver.
Competing for a starting job after missing all of 2013 with a knee injury, Culliver enters the new season with a distinct advantage in experience. The South Carolina product started six games in 2012 and mostly impressed outside of a disastrous Super Bowl appearance.
While more experienced than most corners on the roster, Culliver is still a relatively unknown commodity. Before an off-field incident put Culliver in the ire of the public eye, however, Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com had reported in March that the 49ers were interested in extending his contract.
Due to his injury history and off-field concerns, it is likely that the team could re-sign Culliver to a reasonable new deal. For those same reasons, he will also be easier to keep in the future than his higher-profile teammates.
No. 5: Mike Iupati, OG
Guard Mike Iupati has panned out about as well as any analyst could have expected, gradually gaining recognition among the elite at his position.
A dominant run-blocker and stable presence inside, Iupati has a lot to do with the success of the 49ers running game over the past few seasons. Iupati's All-Pro level of play will justify a huge offer, however, which may be more than the 49ers can muster.
Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee recently told Bleacher Report's Adam Lefkoe that Iupati is unlikely to fit into San Francisco's salary cap. As one of the top guards in the NFL, the market value for Iupati could very well exceed $6.5 million per season.
Losing a top lineman would be a bitter pill to swallow for such a stout rushing attack, but the business side of the game may leave Baalke without a choice.
No. 4: Alex Boone, OG
While not on the same level as fellow lineman Mike Iupati, guard Alex Boone has also been a very effective player for the 49ers.
Boone has started all 32 games since taking over in 2012, but has been absent from OTAs in the pursuit of a new contract. According to Bill Williamson of ESPN.com, Boone is unhappy with his current deal, which expires after the 2015 season.
As with Iupati, however, Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee told Bleacher Report's Adam Lefkoe that Boone is unlikely to get a new deal. Boone's lack of leverage simply stems from depth on the line, which includes new additions in tackle Jonathan Martin and Clemson guard Brandon Thomas, a third-round pick.
Boone is under the 49ers' control for two more seasons, which makes a resolution unlikely in the near future. In the end, however, the contingency plan is very much in place to avoid investing too much in their disgruntled guard.
No. 3: Michael Crabtree, WR
After slowly coming along throughout his first three NFL seasons, wide receiver Michael Crabtree finally realized his vast potential in 2012.
Recording career highs in catches (85), yards (1,105) and touchdowns (nine), Crabtree's rapport with quarterback Colin Kaepernick was evident from the start. An Achilles tendon injury forced the star wideout to miss 11 games in 2013, but his ability is well-documented as he enters a contract year.
That said, Crabtree's interests in negotiations are also well-documented. After being selected with the No. 10 overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft, Crabtree proceeded to hold out into the start of the regular season.
If money is the leading factor in contract talks once again, Crabtree is as good as gone given the current salary-cap situation. The 49ers simply can't afford to match the going rate for top receivers unless Crabtree is willing to be creative with his deal.
If the past is any indication, Baalke may be better served using his time and resources on other players from the start.
No. 2: Vernon Davis, TE
Tight end Vernon Davis has proved himself to be one of the top receiving threats at his position, twice hauling in 13 touchdowns in a single season. Clearly a favorite target of quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2013, Davis would certainly be counted on to step up should wide receiver Michael Crabtree leave after this season.
However, according to Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com, the top target is skipping OTAs out of protest for his current contract. Davis is currently signed through the 2015 season.
As with guard Alex Boone, the 49ers will most likely work on more pressing matters before addressing their tight end. On the other hand, Davis is also already among the top-paid players at his position, which could allow the 49ers to more easily find a middle ground for contract value.
It's tough to see the 49ers allowing both Crabtree and Davis to walk in consecutive years, but Davis seems to fit better into the financial plan. Although older than Crabtree, Davis' value due to position difference may set him apart.
That should be enough to keep him in San Francisco for the long-term.
No. 1: Colin Kaepernick, QB
It's nearly impossible to win without a difference-maker at quarterback in today's NFL, and there may be no one more closely tied to his signal-caller than 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been "the guy" since Harbaugh benched incumbent starter Alex Smith halfway through the 2012 season. There have been plenty of ups and downs since that fateful decision, but Kaepernick's promise is unquestionable at this point.
As pointed out by Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com, the new boost in cap room is most likely designated to extend the franchise quarterback. Baalke has stated that he wants the Kaepernick deal done before training camp.
David Fucillo of Niners Nation has also speculated Kaepernick as the first extension target, albeit with concerns over remaining space for other players.
While the price tag will likely be a drain on the overall salary structure, Kaepernick simply has to be the No. 1 priority in San Francisco. Top-tier quarterbacks just don't come every year, nor are they normally found in the second round of the draft.
Before the final interception in the NFC Championship Game, Kaepernick had single-handedly kept the 49ers afloat on offense. His ability to completely take over a game is a rare talent, even as his skill set continues to grow.
Thrown into the fire with wild success, Kaepernick still has room to improve despite his thrilling potential. The key for Baalke is to make sure that his growth continues in a red No. 7 jersey.
All statistics and accolades according to Pro Football Reference, while all contract information according to Spotrac.com, unless otherwise attributed. Tom Smeaton is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and can be found on Twitter by following @ByTomSmeaton.