San Francisco 49ers: 7 Potential Salary-Cap Casualties for 2015
The San Francisco 49ers will have decisions to make on their salary cap this offseason. The estimated salary cap for 2015 is somewhere in the neighborhood of $140 million, and the 49ers are already at around $151 million in contracts, according to Spotrac.
This isn’t a fully accurate number. Colin Kaepernick’s salary, for instance, will be $2 million less than Spotrac reports thanks to a de-escalator clause in his contact because he will not be named an All-Pro and did not reach the Super Bowl. Because of that, and other similar adjustments estimated by Jason Hurley of Niners Nation, the 49ers are probably somewhere around $2.2 million under the cap.
That’s not a lot, considering players like Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati and Frank Gore will be free agents after this season. There will also be a draft class to sign, so they probably will need to make a few moves to give themselves some maneuvering room under the salary cap.
Who could possibly be cut, traded or restructured? There are 15 players slated to count for more than $3 million against the cap next season, but that doesn’t mean they’d all be good targets to cut or re-structure, thanks to dead money. For example, Anquan Boldin will count about $6.9 million against the cap next season, but because of guarantees and his signing bonus, he’d only save the 49ers around $270,000 if they cut him. That’s not a very significant cap savings.
When you cross off players who would generate more dead money than cap savings you end up with seven names—potential cap casualties or restructuring targets. These are the players the 49ers can focus on in order to gain some salary-cap maneuverability over the long term. Here, I’ve ranked them from least likely to be cut or restructured to most likely to be cut or restructured.
We’re taking into account the savings the 49ers would get from tearing up their current contract, the dead money that would be left on the cap for years to come if they were to be cut, their age, their current level of production and who would potentially replace them in the lineup, as well as any potential intangibles.
7. G Alex Boone
Cap savings: $3,450,000
Dead money: $340,000
Age in 2015: 28
2014’s PFF grade: +6.2
2015 Replacement: Joe Looney? Marcus Martin? Brandon Thomas? A draft pick?
Alex Boone meets the bare requirement for this list—a somewhat sizeable contract without years of dead money on the cap. He also had a protracted contract holdout this offseason, resulting in a restructuring that gave him more money. That’s the sort of thing that maybe, if you’re looking on an intangible level, could be a reason for the 49ers to move on from him to avoid headaches in the future.
That’s pretty much the only thing suggesting he could be moved, however. If, somehow, the 49ers find themselves in a situation where the only need about $3.5 million, Boone’s restructured deal involves almost no dead money, so it would save room for future years.
However, that’s really not a lot of salary-cap space in total—and the actual costs to the team would be much worse. The 49ers are already going to struggle with the decision about whether or not to bring Mike Iupati back next season, and replacing both starting guards in one season would be a very tough challenge. Unlike the other six names on this list, there’s not a contender already on the team to step up and be the starter right away, especially if Iupati leaves too—you’d be struggling to slot in a below-average backup to replace an above-average player.
In addition, Boone will only be 28—still in the prime of his career, so there’s not much chance of a huge age-related regression next season. He’s only the 14th-biggest cap figure on the 49ers next season, so he’s not even eating up a huge chunk of salary-cap change himself.
Boone meets the requirements, and I’m sure at some point this offseason, people will go "Hey, what about Boone’s new deal?", but cutting, restructuring or extending Boone doesn’t seem like a reasonable option for long-term cap flexibility.
6. DE Justin Smith
Cap savings: $4,250,000
Dead money: $2,186,667
Age in 2015: 36
2014’s PFF grade: +18.1
2015 Replacement: Tank Carradine or Tony-Jerod Eddie
In football terms, Justin Smith is really old. He’ll be 36 next season, and the track record for defensive linemen that old isn’t great. There hasn’t been a significant contributor of that age on a defensive line since Pat Williams from 2008-2010 in Minnesota, and he was a big nose-tackle, as opposed to a 3-4 end.
I keep stressing this because that is the only reason why the 49ers would consider moving on from Smith in 2015. He’s still performing as one of the top defensive ends in all of football. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has him as the ninth-best 3-4 defensive end, and that’s in a down year for the 49ers defense as a whole. He’s also a leader on the field and in the locker room, anchoring the front seven this season as injuries ravaged their way across the line.
Add in the fact that the 49ers will already have to replace Ray McDonald on the other side of the line, and the organization has to be hoping Smith comes back for one more year. Yes, cutting him would save the 49ers $4.3 million under the cap, but I’d rather have the player than the room.
The only way I see Smith not being on the team in 2015 is if he retires. In 2013, he said he wouldn’t stick around if he was just going to be a role player with 10 or 20 snaps a game. That’s not the case yet, so we’ll see if the Cowboy saddles up for one more run in 2015.
5. WR Stevie Johnson
Cap savings: $6,025,000
Dead money: $0
Age in 2015: 29
2014’s PFF grade: +6.0
2015 Replacement: Bruce Ellington
That’s right—zero dead money. The 49ers can walk away from Stevie Johnson scot-free, because his signing bonus was given by the Buffalo Bills. The 49ers, if they so choose, could simply let him walk this offseason and replace him with rookie Bruce Ellington, who has shown flashes of promise.
On the other hand, the 49ers are hurting for receivers as it is. The passing game needs more weapons, not fewer. They’re already probably going to lose Michael Crabtree in free agency, and it’s always possible Anquan Boldin could retire, as he’s getting up there in age as well. Stevie Johnson has experience being a starter in Buffalo, where he succeeded despite some of the worst quarterback play in the NFL. The 49ers would probably be all right with him being a starter in 2015.
The 49ers’ ideal receiving corps in 2015 probably is Boldin, Johnson, Ellington and a rookie taken in the first two rounds of the 2015 draft. Johnson would save up a ton of salary-cap room, but he’s more valuable on the team than off it.
What is possible with Johnson is some sort of contract extension or restructure. This would add more years to his deal, which currently expires in 2016, in return for lowering his salary-cap hit over the next two seasons. His salary is pretty high for a second receiver; that’s Marques Colston money. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some kind of work being done on his contract this offseason.
4. TE Vernon Davis
Cap savings: $4,949,998
Dead money: $2,067,920
Age in 2015: 31
2014’s PFF grade: -17.5
2015 Replacement: Vance McDonald
Davis has had a horrible season—the worst of his career. Right now, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has him as the fifth-worst tight end in all of football. He had his first good game of the entire season on Saturday against the San Diego Chargers, and even then he wasn’t a huge weapon in the passing game. He’s caught 25 passes for 236 yards, which would be his lowest numbers since his rookie season.
Davis is also getting up there in age, as he’ll be turning 31 in 2015. He’s already the 10th-oldest starting tight end in football, and for a player whose game has depended on speed for a long time, aging is going to hit him hard. Perhaps that’s what we saw this season.
In addition, Vance McDonald recovered from his terrible rookie season to have a fairly solid sophomore effort. He’s not as good as Davis has been historically, but he was much better than Davis, especially as a run-blocker. He’s not going to light the world on fire as a receiving option, but he might be worth giving more snaps in the future.
The reason Davis isn’t higher than fourth on this list is two-fold. First of all, the 49ers only really have one option with Davis—releasing him. No one’s going to trade for a 31-year-old tight end coming off of his worst NFL season, and the 49ers aren’t going to extend his contract. Some of the other players on this list have more options available to them.
Secondly, Davis was a Pro Bowler as recently as last year, which was arguably his best season as a pro. There is a chance that this year is a fluke of some description; that he’s been banged up and not fully healthy, and a full offseason could restore him to what he was in the past.
I see Davis as the second-most-likely player to be cut for salary reasons this offseason, but I can see the makings of an argument for giving him one more year to see if 2014 was a fluke or not.
3. OLB Aldon Smith
Cap savings: $9,754,000
Dead money: $0
Age in 2015: 26
2014’s PFF grade: +5.3
2015 Replacement: Aaron Lynch
Hello, long-term extension candidate!
Smith’s contract number for 2015 is enormous; he’s behind only Colin Kaepernick for the biggest hit for the 2015 49ers. This is because the 49ers picked up his fifth-year option in May; as a first-round rookie under the new collective bargaining policy, it guaranteed him a salary equivalent to the transition tag.
There was some doubt as to whether or not the 49ers would pick up the deal at all as a result of Smith’s off-field transgressions, but in the end, he’s too good of a player to let go free. It’s not just his own talent, but the effect he brings to the entire 49ers pass rush—in the first 10 weeks, that pass rush had a PFF grade of just plus-1.3; since his return, that grade has been plus-6.0. No, he’s not at the sack-a-game pace he had been up to this point in his career, but it’s clear his presence in the lineup has a significant effect on the pass-rushing prowess of the entire team.
Smith’s high cap value and soon-to-be-expiring contract gives the 49ers the perfect opportunity to sign him to a long-term extension. His off-field incidents are the fly in the ointment, but I think the 49ers can construct a contract so that if Smith gets suspended again or fails to meet certain off-field thresholds, they could protect themselves. Think de-escalator clauses like the 49ers filled Colin Kaepernick’s contract with—say, if he doesn’t start a certain number of games, his salary goes down. Something along those lines.
Smith’s only third on the list because of the possibility that the 49ers will opt to wait and see if Smith stays out of trouble for one more year before giving him a long-term commitment. The current news that Smith may or may not have been drinking, per ESPN.com's Paul Gutierrez, with Ray McDonald is troubling because of Smith’s previous history with alcohol, and that might slow things down. I think we see a long-term extension hammered out this year, though.
2. ILB Patrick Willis
Cap savings: $7,424,500
Dead money: $843,500
Age in 2015: 30
2014’s PFF grade: +2.5
2015 Replacement: Chris Borland
Heaven help me, I’m about to lay out an argument for cutting Patrick Willis.
First of all, Willis is scheduled to be the fifth-highest-paid player on the team in 2015. In fact, Nos. 2 through 5 are all linebackers. That’s not a very good salary structure for a team; some of that money could be spent elsewhere—like on the offensive line or receiving corps.
Secondly, unlike NaVorro Bowman, Willis’ deal is relatively salary-friendly. He has a little bit of dead money on his deal thanks to a 2013 restructuring, but there’s no signing bonus or other money sitting on his cap. Cutting Bowman, in theory, would give the 49ers $8 million in dead money. Willis is less than $1 million, making him a financially tempting target to move on from.
Thirdly, this is the second year in a row that Willis has missed time with an injured toe—it’s a problem that’s been bothering him for "several seasons," according to CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco. It’s not inconceivable that a chronic injury like this could mark the end of Willis’ career.
Fourthly, it would open up a spot for Chris Borland to be a full-time starter. It can be argued that Borland was the best player on the entire San Francisco roster this season—he has the second-highest Pro Football Focus grade on the team, despite not starting until halfway through the year. If there’s ever a time when you can move on from a future Hall of Famer, it’s because you have a rookie Pro Bowl-quality player lurking behind them. The future of the 49ers' inside linebacker position is NaVorro Bowman and Chris Borland.
All that being said, the 49ers absolutely should not cut or trade Patrick Willis this offseason. The numbers and statistics all point to him being an enticing prospect, but you don’t get rid of a future Hall of Famer because of a rookie with less than one full season under his belt. Yes, Willis’ injury might be a long-term problem, but his surgery may also fix it entirely—it’s probably more likely that Bowman’s ACL is a long-term issue, rather than Willis’ toe.
Perhaps the 49ers go to a three-linebacker rotation in 2014. They could use Willis and Borland in the base set, where Borland’s run-stopping ability would be most useful. They could swap Bowman in for Borland in the nickel, because Bowman’s a much better pass-coverage backer than Borland is. They would keep just Bowman in the dime, as they do now. That might be the best short-term solution for how to use too many good linebackers
Willis could be due an extension, as well. Tack on three more years, through the 2019 season, and you not only ensure that Willis would retire a 49er, but you’d be able to save possibly as much as $5 million against the cap in 2014. That’s what they did in 2013, and I see that happening again this year.
1. OLB Ahmad Brooks
Cap savings: $6,648,750
Dead money: $3,000,000
Age in 2015: 31
2014’s PFF grade: -7.2
2015 Replacement: Aaron Lynch
Ahmad Brooks is slated to be the third-highest-paid 49er next season, behind only Colin Kaepernick and Aldon Smith. He is not a very happy member of the team, either. He benched himself during the New York Giants game, unhappy with his playing time, according to Fox Sports' Mike Garafolo (h/t CBS Sports' Josh Katzowitz). He also was benched during the Oakland Raiders game for missing a team meeting, according to Fox's Chris Myers (h/t Niners Nation's David Fucillo).
He’s not a spring chicken—at age 31, he’s at the point where linebackers begin to decline physically. His PFF grades the last few years haven’t been great, either—he’s been graded out negatively for each of the past two seasons, with his role in the pass rush particularly being singled out as poor. It’s not a Vernon Davis situation, where he’s had one awful year—Brooks hasn’t been as bad as Davis, but he’s been down for multiple seasons now.
Like Aldon Smith, he could also be replaced by Aaron Lynch, who has come on well as a rookie and could be in line for more playing time in 2015. At only $559,500 against the cap in 2015, Lynch is a much more economical option for the future.
The only big problem with cutting Brooks is the fact that he is under contract for two more years. The $3 million in dead money is the most of any of the seven players listed in this article, and would actually be the ninth most on the team, including some players who are almost literally uncuttable, like Eric Reid and Jimmie Ward.
Some of that will get taken away thanks to de-escalator clauses based on his sack total, or lack thereof, but he’d still be on the 49ers’ books through 2017. For the overall cap savings, however, cutting Brooks is probably the best move the 49ers can make this offseason.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.