San Francisco 49ers: 2015 Roster Cuts After Colin Kaepernick's New Contract

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San Francisco 49ers: 2015 Roster Cuts After Colin Kaepernick's New Contract
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Colin Kaepernick’s record-setting new contract is actually fairly team-friendly.  While nearly $61 million of the contract is guaranteed money, the future salaries aren’t actually guaranteed until April 1 of each year.  That is, Kaepernick is scheduled to have a base salary of $12.4 million in 2015, but that money doesn’t really go onto the books until next April 1.

It gives the San Francisco 49ers a lot of flexibility—if Kaepernick regresses, the team could move on from him as early as 2016 while suffering reasonable salary cap hits.  The contract has de-escalators as well, so if Kaepernick never takes another step forward in his development, he’ll “only” be making Tony Romo money instead of Aaron Rodgers money.  It’s a great deal for the team, all things considered.

Of course, it’s still a rather large sticker shock.  Kaepernick’s cap number is going from the $1.4 million range to the $18 million range, and that’s going to significantly alter how the 49ers can spend their money.  Add in impending free agents like Michael Crabtree and Mike Iupati, and the 49ers will have some decisions to make in the near future.

John Froschauer/Associated Press
Trent Baalke might have to make some tough choices on a post-Kaepernick roster.

Who could the 49ers cut, extend, trade or renegotiate with to earn some more wriggle room under the salary cap?  Some moves might need to be made in order to field the best possible team in 2015.

Looking through the 2015 cap hits, there is some room to work with.  First, remove anyone who would save less than $1 million towards the cap in 2015; while some of those players won’t be around, it would be hard to call that a massive cap savings.

I also removed Kaepernick, Anquan Boldin and Antoine Bethea from consideration.  While cutting those players would save the 49ers cap room, they also would bring significant amounts of dead money onto the cap, compared to how much they would be saving.

Cutting Boldin, for example, would give the 49ers $3.3 million of cap room but brings with it $3.6 million of dead money.  Some dead money is inevitable when cutting players, but that’s an excessive amount for a relatively small gain.

That leaves a list of 14 players whom the 49ers could realistically work with to get their cap number under control.  Let’s rank them, from least to most likely to play the 2015 season with their expected cap number.

 

Group 1: The Pro Bowlers

The Pro Bowlers
Rank Player Pos Cap Number Dead Money Savings
14. Justin Smith DE $6,436,658 $2,186,658 $4,250,000
13. Joe Staley OT $5,200,000 $0 $5,200,000
12. Patrick Wills ILB $8,736,750 $843,500 $7,893,250
11. Vernon Davis TE $7,017,920 $2,067,920 $4,950,000

Over the Cap

These aren’t the players you cut so you can get under the cap; these are the players you try to find extra money for.  While it’s true getting rid of any of them would give the 49ers significant amounts of cap room, it would be cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
Players like Patrick Willis aren't going anywhere.

What they can do, however, is extend or restructure some of these players to lower their immediate salary cap hit.  The 49ers already restructured NaVorro Bowman’s contract, turning some of his base salary into a signing bonus.  That allows them to spread the actual impact of that money over the entire length of the contract.

If you kick too much salary down the road, it creates problems down the line, but if done in moderation, it can be useful to gain cap space.

For example, if the 49ers extend Davis next offseason, they could convert some of his $4.4 million of base salary into a signing bonus, giving the team millions of dollars of extra cap space in the short-term.

The hardest player to do that for is Justin Smith, as he’s turning 35 in September.  You don’t want to extend a player past the point where they are unable to contribute for the team.  Thus, he’s the least likely of the four to see his contract number adjusted.

 

Group 2: The Keepers

The Keepers
Rank Player Pos Cap Number Dead Money Savings
10. Aldon Smith OLB $9,754,000 $0 $9,754,000
9. Stevie Johnson WR $6,025,000 $0 $6,025,000
8. Alex Boone OG $1,790,000 $340,000 $1,450,000

Over the Cap

Aldon Smith is the wild card when talking about the 49ers’ cap situation.  Before the Kaepernick extension, Smith had the largest 2015 cap hit, but none of it is guaranteed.  The 49ers could cut him with no penalty whatsoever.

Noah Berger/Associated Press
The 49ers can walk away from Smith with no penalty before the 2015 season.

More likely is some sort of contract renegotiation.  Kaepernick’s contract is filled with clauses allowing the 49ers to save money if the running quarterback gets hurt.  It would make sense for Smith’s eventual extension to include similar clauses in case he gets in trouble off the field.  He’s an elite player, so it’s hard to see him being released, but there’s room to work with that number.

It’s possible that Stevie Johnson and Michael Crabtree will be looking to lock down the same roster spot in 2015.  If the 49ers can keep Crabtree for somewhere around Johnson’s $6 million a year, they could release Johnson and use that money on Crabtree.  If Crabtree asks for something in the $10 million range, they could just stick with Johnson.

Boone would be higher on this list if Mike Iupati’s contract wasn’t expiring after 2014.  Iupati’s the better of the two, but Boone’s still a high quality guard.  The 49ers would prefer to not have to replace both starting guards in one season.

 

Group 3: The Specialists

The Specialists
Rank Player Pos Cap Number Dead Money Savings
7. Andy Lee P $2,550,000 $1,000,000 $1,550,000
6. Phil Dawson K $4,134,000 $1,000,000 $3,134,000

Over the Cap

David Seelig/Associated Press
Dawson and Lee are great, but expensive for their position.

It almost feels like sacrilege to even talk about the 49ers getting rid of Andy Lee.  He’s been around forever, and has been one of the top punters in the game each and every year.  Dawson’s also been a big improvement in the kicking game in his one year with the team.

At the end of the day, however, neither player is as important to the team as a starter on offense or defense.  If the 49ers are penny-pinching come 2015, they might look at Dawson’ $3.1 million in savings, note that an undrafted rookie kicker would cost them $435,000, and bite the bullet.

 

Group 4: The Replaced

The Replaced
Rank Player Pos Cap Number Dead Money Savings
5. Ray McDonald DE $5,946,985 $2,493,971 $3,453,014
4. Ahmad Brooks OLB $8,350,000 $3,000,000 $5,350,000

Over the Cap

The way to build a contender in the salary cap era is to draft well.  This allows for younger, cheaper players to move into starting roles as a team's older players become prohibitively expensive.  You extend elite players like Patrick Willis or NaVorro Bowman and be more frugal with players who are simply good starters.

Bill Haber/Associated Press
Ahmad Brooks would be the best linebacker on a number of teams in the NFL

Both McDonald and Brooks have young players behind them who could slip into a starting role in 2015.  Tank Carradine was drafted in the second-round last season.  If he plays up to his potential, he could take over McDonald’s starting spot at a much lower price.

Brooks, meanwhile, is probably the worst of the four great linebackers the 49ers trot out every week.  With Corey Lemonier looking promising replacing Aldon Smith last season, the 49ers could decide to save $5.4 million by letting Brooks go.

I don’t think either player would be released outright, as both are still solid starters.  They might be possible trade fodder, however.  They could result in mid-round picks, which could be used to draft more potential starters.  And so the circle of life in the NFL continues.

 

Group 5: The Cuts

The Cuts
Rank Player Pos. Cap Number Dead Money Savings
3. Ian Williams DT $1,583,334 $333,334 $1,250,000
2. Jonathan Martin OT $1,042,400 $0 $1,042,000
1. Craig Dahl S $1,933,334 $233,334 $1,700,000

Over the Cap

These three players aren’t locks to even make the 2014 roster, though I think they all will in the end.  If the 49ers are looking to make some more cap room in 2015, these three will likely be the first against the wall, considering none are expected to start.

 

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

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