Welcome to the San Francisco 49ers, new head coach Jim Tomsula. For your first assignment, you have to figure out how to shop in free agency with no money!
You might think “no money” is a bit of an exaggeration, but it really isn’t. According to Over The Cap’s salary-cap projections, the 49ers are already $3.7 million over the projected 2015 cap. Another estimate, by Niners Nation’s Jason Hurley, has them merely $680,000 over the cap. The 49ers have a lot of long-term contracts in place and look to be at the bottom of the available cap-room area for years to come, barring a complete clean-out of all the veterans on the roster.
That doesn’t mean the 49ers can’t do anything in free agency, just that any addition will have to be coupled with a corresponding departure from players already under contract. "Additions," in this case, include the 49ers' own free agents. This list includes players like Mike Iupati, Chris Culliver, Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Garrett Celek, Chris Cook, Perrish Cox and Dan Skuta.
Therefore, the 49ers have to be fairly frugal in free agency, building through the draft and getting maximum value out of the players who are already on the roster, rather than going out and grabbing high-profile veterans from elsewhere. While a Randall Cobb or Dan Connolly would be enticing to add to the team, the money simply isn’t there.
In fact, it is going to be exceptionally difficult to the 49ers to even keep their own players together, much less sign anyone new. This is one of the two main reasons why Michael Crabtree will be wearing someone else’s uniform in 2015.
The other reason, of course, is that he hasn’t been very productive since 2012. Combine that lack of production with the team's lack of money, and it’s clear it’s time for a rookie to come in and try to take over a starting receiving role.
Frank Gore might be another casualty. While Gore has said that he wants to be back with the 49ers, and general manager Trent Baalke has said that the 49ers want him back, the track record for 32-year-old running backs is not very good at all.
Only 12 backs of that age or older have rushed for 1,000 yards in a season, with Ricky Williams being the most recent name. Unless Gore’s willing to take a massive reduction in pay from his $6.45 million cap number in 2014, I can’t see him being brought back, either.
The other free agents, however, are worth trying to keep. To do that, the 49ers are going to need to go on a strict cost-cutting diet with the players already under contract. All contract values provided here are courtesy of Spotrac.
With the rumors, first reported by Niners Nation's David Fucillo, that the 49ers are expected to shift to a 4-3 defense, Ahmad Brooks becomes instantly expendable. Cutting him will save the 49ers about $4.1 million against the salary cap in 2015. Similarly, Vernon Davis’ cap value is, at this point in his career, probably more valuable than his on-field production. Cutting Davis would save the 49ers nearly $5 million.
Aldon Smith is slated to count almost $9.8 million against the cap in 2015, thanks to his fifth-year option on his rookie deal. Giving him a long-term extension, preferably with plenty of outs for the team in case Smith gets in more off-field trouble, would be financially prudent.
For the sake of argument, let’s say Smith gets an extension identical to the one the New Orleans Saints gave to Junior Galette last year, plus a 5 percent increase to account for his greater production and the increased salary cap. That would be in the neighborhood of a $45 million extension and would move his cap number down to somewhere near $4.1 million. Even if the projection’s a bit off, the 49ers could easily find another $5 million or so there.
Another possible extension candidate is Patrick Willis. If the 49ers do shift to a 4-3 defense, the 49ers don’t need to worry about how to use Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Chris Borland—all three would be on the field at the same time in the base defense.
The 49ers could add three more years onto Willis’ contract, extending him through the 2019 season. That would allow the 49ers to convert most of Willis’ salary this season into a signing bonus, spreading the cap hit over the rest of Willis’ career. That could lower Willis’ cap hit of nearly $8.3 million significantly, down to as low as $3.7 million or so. That’s a huge savings again.
Add in the possible retirement of Justin Smith, and possible cap re-negotiations and extensions for Alex Boone and Stevie Johnson, and I could see the 49ers gaining somewhere around $20 million in cap room before signing their own free agents—a much more reasonable figure.
The question is, what should the 49ers do with that money?
The 49ers should immediately turn around and use that money to re-sign Mike Iupati. If the 49ers are going back to the power-running game that was so successful from 2011 through 2013, Iupati is a must-have part. No, he’s not a good pass-protector, and he never will be, but there are few run-blocking guards in football.
They shouldn’t break the bank for Iupati, however. If he wants to be paid like Jahri Evans or Logan Mankins, the two highest-paid guards in football, the 49ers should be prepared to walk away and go with the rookie Brandon Thomas. Iupati deserves a raise, but to the sort of money that Evan Mathis or Louis Vasquez is making. That pushes Iupati to somewhere around $4 to 6 million a year from the $3 million he was making on his current contract. If he wants much more than that, the 49ers should walk away.
Signing Iupati to a five-year, $25 million deal would seem to be a good goal for the 49ers. It would also leave them plenty of room to go after the multiple cornerbacks they could be losing.
Chris Culliver is likely to get the biggest contract of the bunch, having been very solid during Tramaine Brock’s absence. I wouldn’t want to give him a massive contract since he missed all of 2013 with an ACL injury, but a four-year mid-range deal for him would make a lot of sense.
Those are likely to be the only two large contracts the 49ers could absorb this season, and neither of them is humongous. It would leave them somewhere between $10 and $15 million under the cap—plenty of room to sign the rookie class and most of their solid backups, but not room to go after any huge names. Cook, Cox, Celek and Skuta could likely all fit under that cap number.
There is, however, one position where the 49ers might go outside of their own team to pick up a veteran free agent—quarterback. At the moment, Colin Kaepernick is the only quarterback under contract for 2015. The team will almost certainly add a rookie somewhere late in the draft, but a veteran option would be nice in case Kaepernick goes down at some point in 2015. There are some interesting names out there for backups.
The top three are, in some order, Jake Locker, Mark Sanchez and Brian Hoyer. If any of the three is your starting quarterback, you’re in trouble, but as an option off the bench, they might be just what a team ordered. All of them have NFL starting experience and could keep the season from flying off the rails if your starter misses a game or two. None of them, with the possible exception of Hoyer, will be looking at getting starting offers for 2015, so a backup role is good for them as well.
Which one should the 49ers' target? I can’t answer that question until I know who the 49ers’ offensive coordinator will be. The type of offense the 49ers choose to employ will determine which quarterback fits best as the reserve option.
Other than that, however, the 49ers won’t be major players in free agency. Their best strategy is to reshuffle the salary cap, re-sign their own free agents and hope to hit a home run in the draft.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.