San Francisco 49ers: Colin Kaepernick and the Rest of 2015's Free Agents

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San Francisco 49ers: Colin Kaepernick and the Rest of 2015's Free Agents
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

With news that both Alex Boone and Vernon Davis are in the market for new contracts, now is as good a time as any to look into the San Francisco 49ers’ long-term salary-cap situation.

Boone and Davis both feel they are being underpaid compared to their value.  Boone, as the 40th-highest-paid guard, has something of an argument, while Davis, as the second-highest-paid tight end, has less of a leg to stand on.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Davis may have to wait his turn.

Both may have to wait in line, however.  Both Boone and Davis are signed through the 2015 season, and the 49ers have five players currently penciled in as starters whose contracts are set to expire after this season.

Boone and Davis will have to wait until decisions are made about players like Colin Kaepernick and Michael Crabtree before they can get their contracts dealt with; the extra year they each have on their deal makes them a much lower priority.

The 49ers currently have about $128.2 million scheduled against the cap in 2015, which would leave them about $12 million under the projected 2015 salary cap.  They could save nearly an additional $3 million by cutting players like Craig Dahl or Ian Williams, but the fact remains that it would be difficult to squeeze all five free agents under the cap.

Let’s take a look at each of the five projected starters whose contracts expire this season.  We’ll take a look at contracts recently signed by similar players and try to predict what the 49ers will do about them.

 

QB Colin Kaepernick

Similar QB Contracts
Player Team Years Amount Signing Bonus Average Salary
Matt Ryan Atlanta 5 $103.8 million $28 million $20.8 million
Joe Flacco Baltimore 6 $120.6 million $29 million $20.1 million
Jay Cutler Chicago 7 $126.7 million $0 $18.1 million
Tony Romo Dallas 6 $108 million $25 million $18 million
Matthew Stafford Detroit 3 $53 million $27.5 million $17.7 million
Average NFL 5 $102.4 million $21.9 million $18.9 million

Spotrac.com

The going rate for a solid NFL quarterback has shot through the roof in the past few seasons, as players like Joe Flacco and Jay Cutler have signed long-term extensions with their clubs.

49ers fans would be happier if Kaepernick had put up a Pro Bowl season to this point in his career, but waiting for him to take that next step forward could cost San Francisco big time.  It’s imperative the 49ers sign Kaepernick to a long-term extension before the Cam Newtons, Andrew Lucks and Russell Wilsons of the world redefine value once more.

The rumor mill has Kaepernick looking for a contract in the neighborhood of $18 million a year, via NFL.com.  While that’s a staggering number compared to his current contract, it seems clear that that’s just about the going rate for young star quarterbacks.  Would San Francisco fans rather be paying Flacco $20 million, or Cutler $18 million on the wrong side of 30?

Kaepernick is a must-sign.  The 49ers could, in theory, franchise tag him after the 2014 season is over, but if they believe Kaepernick is the quarterback of the next six or seven years, it makes more financial sense to lock him up as quickly as possible, before the 2014 season begins.

 

RB Frank Gore

Mike Roemer/Associated Press
Similar RB Contracts
Player Team Years Amount Signing Bonus Average Salary
Reggie Bush Detroit 4 $16 million $4 million $4 million

Spotrac.com

Frank Gore is a 49ers legend, but he’s pushing the wrong side of 30.  He’ll be 32 by the time the 2015 season rolls around.  Only five backs age 32 or older carried the ball last season; Fred Jackson managed 890 yards and was the only solid contributor of the bunch.

It’s not a fluke—Gore’s ability to continue to carry the rock even into his 30s is an unusual talent, and the wheels could come off at any time.  San Francisco has prepared for this possibility, bringing in Marcus Lattimore and Carlos Hyde in the last two drafts to be the running backs of the future.

Gore might not finish 2014 as the starting running back, much less be up for a free-agent deal the year after.  It’s hard to see a scenario that brings Gore back to the 49ers in 2015.

 

WR Michael Crabtree

Tony Avelar/Associated Press
Similar WR Contracts
Player Team Years Amount Signing Bonus Average Salary
Mike Wallace Miami 5 $60 million $11 million $12 million
Dwayne Bowe Kansas City 5 $56 million $15 million $11.2 million
DeSean Jackson Washington 4 $32 million $5 million $8 million
Eric Decker NY Jets 5 $36.3 million $7.5 million $7.3 million
Julian Edelman New England 4 $17 million $5 million $4.3 million
Average NFL 5 $40.3 million $8.7 million $8.5 million

Spotrac.com

The 49ers offense tanked when Crabtree missed time with his Achilles injury in 2013, but the team has taken steps to improve the corps with or without Crabtree’s help in the future.  They traded for Stevie Johnson and have added Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington to the roster in the past few drafts.

Still, when he’s healthy and part of the lineup, Crabtree has shown himself to be a wonderful possession receiver and key target for Kaepernick.   The team has spoken to Crabtree’s agent about a new contract, and while it seems unlikely Crabtree will pull down Mike Wallace or Dwayne Bowe money on the open market, it seems equally likely that Julian Edelman is too low of a comparison.

What might play into San Francisco’s favor is the glut of free-agent receivers currently slated to be available in 2015.  Crabtree will find himself on the market with Jeremy Maclin, Eddie Royal, Hakeem Nicks, Jordy Nelson, Wes Welker and Nate Washington, to name just a few.  That excess of supply might drive his price down, or at least give the 49ers a Plan B in case they can’t come to a deal with Crabtree.

 

G Mike Iupati

Tom Gannam/Associated Press
Similar OG Contracts
Player Team Years Amount Signing Bonus Average Salary
Andy Levitre Tennessee 6 $46.8 million $10.5 million $7.8 million
Rodger Saffold St. Louis 5 $31.3 million $5 million $6.3 million
Louis Vasquez Denver 4 $23.5 million $5 million $5.9 million
Jon Asamoah Atlanta 5 $22.5 million $4 million $4.5 million
Average NFL 5 $31 million $6.1 million $6.1 million

Spotrac.com

Top guards like Mike Iupati don’t come on the free-agent market very often; they get latched up pretty quickly.  While Iupati had a slight off year in 2013, struggling with a few injuries, he’s still a high-quality starter on the verge of moving up to elite status.  With Iupati and Joe Staley on the left side of the line, there are few more dominant forces anywhere in the NFL.

The 49ers have made moves to provide a replacement should Iupati end up leaving town.  Whoever loses the battle for starting center between Daniel Kilgore and Marcus Martin would be one logical choice to slide in at right guard, and third-round selection Brandon Thomas is an option for the future, as well.

None of those players would be as good as Iupati is, at least not right off the bat, but they would provide a stop-gap solution as the team goes forward.

 

DT Glenn Dorsey

Dave Martin/Associated Press
Similar DT Contracts
Player Team Years Amount Signing Bonus Average Salary
Sen'Derrick Marks Jacksonville 4 $18 million $800,000 $4.5 million
Vance Walker Kansas City 3 $10 million $3 million $3.3 million
Steve McLendon Pittsburgh 3 $7.3 million $1.7 million $2.4 million
Dwan Edwards Carolina 2 $3.6 million $1.2 million $1.8 million
Aubrayo Franklin Indianapolis 1 $1.1 million $65,000 $1.1 million
Average NFL 3 $8 million $1.3 million $2.6 million

Spotrac.com

Glenn Dorsey wasn’t supposed to be the starter in 2013, but when Ian Williams went down in Week 2, Dorsey stepped in and played very well the rest of the way, ending up as the fifth-highest-ranked member of San Francisco’s defense, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required)

Williams is healthy now, though, and might win his job back from Dorsey outright.  If he does, there’s no real reason to pick up Dorsey’s contract; Williams is under contract with a cap hit of only $1.6 million next season.

Even if Dorsey is the clear favorite to start, he’s not going to cost more than an average NFL player would.  There’s no need to worry about squeezing the budget to fit in Dorsey.

 

Pick Two

The combined average salary for the comparable contracts for Kaepernick, Crabtree and Iupati is just under $33.6 million.  There doesn’t seem to be a way the 49ers could free up that much room in 2015, and even if they did, that would mean letting go of key players elsewhere.  It also wouldn’t leave much room to extend Boone or Davis.

So, the 49ers will likely have to decide between keeping two of those three big free agents in 2015.  But which one should they let go?

If they want to keep the best players, regardless of position, that probably means Crabtree will hit the street.  Kaepernick is poised to jump up to the ranks of the high-quality, Super Bowl-caliber starters, while Iupati is arguably already one of the elite at his position.  Crabtree’s a solid top receiver, but a clear rung or two down from the very best in the league.

If they want to keep players at the most valuable positions, then Iupati is the one to let go.  Watching the situation in Cleveland or Buffalo should convince people about the importance of finding a quarterback, while finding a playmaker top receiver is a difficult task as well.  Interior linemen come and go—while none might be as good as Iupati is, you can find starting-caliber players late in the draft.

The tiebreaker will probably be which player the 49ers could do without the most, and that won’t really be determined until we see how the younger players and new additions fare this season.  Are the 49ers prepared to go into the future with a receiving corps of Johnson, Patton and Ellington?  How quickly can Martin learn the offense, and how will Thomas heal up?

If I had to bet right now, I’d predict the following:

  • Kaepernick will get an extension around the beginning of training camp, locking him up for the foreseeable future.
  • Crabtree will sign a new contract with the team after the 2014 season but before free agency begins.
  • Iupati will leave the team, getting a sizeable contract elsewhere that the 49ers can’t afford to match.

If you had to let one player leave, which would it be?

Submit Vote vote to see results

Once a plan has been decided on, then the 49ers will know how much money they have to spread around to players like Davis and Boone.  The fate of the 2015 free agents will do more to determine their bonuses than a holdout in voluntary minicamps.

 

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

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