Yesterday, we looked at the biggest free agents the San Francisco 49ers are facing in 2015. While we discussed Colin Kaepernick, Michael Crabtree and Mike Iupati, that does leave a bit of an elephant in the room.
The 49ers opted to pick up Aldon Smith’s 2015 option, giving them the rights to the troubled linebacker going forward. Had they chosen to let the option slide, Smith would have joined the free-agent class of 2015.
Now, just because the 49ers picked up his option doesn’t mean that Smith is guaranteed to be a 49er in 2015. While Smith’s currently on the books for just under $9.8 million in 2015, none of that money is guaranteed yet.
What that means is the 49ers could cut Smith any time before the start of the 2015 league year, which is in the middle of next March, without suffering any cap hit whatsoever. There is no obligation on San Francisco’s part, one way or another.
If Smith gets in more trouble with the league, the 49ers can cut him loose and move on. If there’s any sign that Smith will be suspended at all in 2015, that’s likely precisely what the team will do—wash their hands of Smith and rebuild their pass-rush corps with the likes of Corey Lemonier, Dan Skuta and an early draft pick next year. Kyler Fackrell out of Utah State is a name to watch in that sense.
If Smith does keep his nose clean, however, the 49ers have two options.
First, they could let Smith play out the fifth-year option. That would make Smith the seventh-largest cap hit of any outside linebacker in the NFL, per Spotrac. As it stands right now, the 49ers' four largest cap hits in 2015 are the entirety of the starting linebacker corps, also per Spotrac.
As Smith is an elite player, it’s hard to argue that he’s not worth an elite salary. You do have to wonder, however, if the team at some point goes cheaper at the linebacker position. The 49ers' cap hit at the position in 2015 is scheduled to be $35.24 million, which would be nearly a quarter of 2015’s salary cap. That’s a lot to spend at one position.
Another option, then, would be to try to sign Smith to an extension, to spread that contract hit over multiple seasons.
Clay Matthews' contract is the one to look at, as that’s the closest comparison to an outside linebacker as talented as Smith extending his contract. You can see the Green Bay Packers gave Matthews a large signing bonus—$20.5 million—which allowed them to shrink Matthews’ initial cap hit down to just $6.7 million. They had to bite larger cap hits down the line, of course.
Let’s revisit last article’s thesis for a moment. The idea was that the 49ers would be able to keep two of Kaepernick, Crabtree and Iupati. What if you throw Smith into that mix—will that significantly alter San Francisco’s strategy this offseason?
Over the Cap has a great tool to mess around with here—it’s a salary-cap calculator. You can try giving players extensions and cutting players to see what you can fit in under the salary cap.
As it stands at this moment, the 49ers are about $11.6 million under the projected 2015 salary cap, but that’s before any cuts happen prior to this season. Making some reasonable cuts for this season moves the salary number up to $18.7 million.
The 49ers can stretch that money in a couple of ways. There are a couple of players whose 2015 salary hits could be removed—cutting Craig Dahl, for example, would save the 49ers $1.7 million in 2015. Ray McDonald is another player who might be movable, if Tank Carradine lives up to his second-round billing and takes over as the starting defensive end.
Take Dahl and McDonald’s numbers off the books, add in the $9.8 million Aldon Smith is scheduled to make and you have somewhere in the area of $36.3 million to re-sign a combination of Kaepernick, Smith, Crabtree and Iupati, as well as assemble the rest of a starting lineup for the future.
We know that Kaepernick is looking for something in the neighborhood of $18 million a year. By passing around some of that salary with bonuses and back-loading the deal, maybe the 49ers can lower that hit down to $15 million for 2015 proper.
A figure of $20 million or so isn’t going to be enough to keep Smith, Iupati and Crabtree together. So, is there any chance the 49ers would choose to keep Iupati and Crabtree and let Smith go?
First of all, remember that Smith’s the best player of the three. He’s already an elite starter; a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive force. He’s the equivalent of a Calvin Johnson at receiver or an Evan Mathis at guard—who's among the best to play his position. Just in terms of talent, the team would keep Smith over Crabtree or Iupati.
Secondly, a rush linebacker in a 3-4 system is slightly more valuable than a top receiver and significantly more valuable than an interior offensive lineman. Losing an equivalent player at outside linebacker would hurt more than any position other than quarterback and maybe left tackle or starting cornerback. Just in terms of positional value alone, you’d want to keep Smith over Crabtree or Iupati.
Finally, there’s the question of how prepared the team would be for the departure of each player in the long run. It is true that, in Smith’s absence last season, Lemonier and Skuta stepped up and played well.
However, the 49ers are more prepared to move on at guard or receiver than they are at rush linebacker. In the last few years, the 49ers have added Stevie Johnson, Bruce Ellington and Quinton Patton to the receiving corps. They’ve added Marcus Martin, Brandon Thomas and Joe Looney to the offensive line.
While it’s not as clear-cut as talent or value, I think the 49ers' backup situation is more solid at receiver and interior line than it is at rush linebacker, giving another reason to keep Smith.
I think, based on on-field attributes, there is an argument to be made between Iupati and Crabtree. I don’t think there’s a reasonable argument for keeping both of them at the expense of Smith. He’s a game-changer at a more important position.
The elephant in the room, of course, is Smith’s off-field actions. He’s treading on thin ice as it is, and it’s not hard to imagine a scenario that ends with him being suspended for a significant amount of time. If there’s another off-field incident between now and March 2015, that obviously changes the equation significantly.
However, you can say that about a lot of things. Maybe Iupati suffers an injury that ends his career, making the discussion academic. Maybe Crabtree sets the single-season receiving yards record, making him crucial to keep. Maybe Blaine Gabbert takes over in Week 2 and leads the 49ers to their sixth Super Bowl.
There’s a lot of unknowns when projecting this far in advance. Based on the information the team has now, however, there doesn’t seem to be a chance that Smith is dumped in favor of Iupati and Crabtree. The 2015 offseason, as it stands right now, will still come down to deciding between the talented guard and receiver, as it seems very difficult for the 49ers to squeeze both in under the salary cap.
Bryan Knowles is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.