The San Francisco 49ers are entering an offseason of change, with several questions that don’t have easy or comfortable answers.
To name a few: Is tight end Vernon Davis relevant anymore? Should a cap-crunched team re-sign an aging Frank Gore (yes)? Will Justin Smith retire and leave a cavernous hole along the interior of the defensive line? Will they ever find quality wide receivers for quarterback Colin Kaepernick? And will Kaepernick continue his long fizzle under a new offensive coordinator?
That list is lengthy and growing, which is expected during a time of upheaval for a franchise emerging with some bruises after the exile of a highly successful head coach.
There’s another equally concerning question, and it highlights a welcome problem, though a problem nonetheless. Are the 49ers too good at middle linebacker?
Any discussion of Willis playing his football for a team that isn’t the 49ers feels blasphemous. But it's not impossible for a number of reasons, all of which come with shiny dollar signs.
I'll get to them in a minute. First, it’s important a reality is firmly established.
The 49ers defense is worse with Chris Borland watching from the sideline
The 49ers are expected stay with a 3-4 base defense. CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco recently reported the search for a new defensive coordinator (which ended with Eric Mangini being promoted) was done with that direction in mind. If we also assume Willis and fellow inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman are healthy for Week 1 of the 2015 season, the current depth would have Borland limited mostly to sub-package snaps.
After looking back on his rookie season, you’ll likely land on an appropriate word to describe the sight of a benched Borland: lunacy.
Borland’s season ended early in Week 15 due to an ankle injury, and in total he started only eight games. Yet as CSN Bay Area’s Mindi Bach noted, that minimal playing time mattered so very little:
Borland then finished the season as San Francisco’s leader in total tackles, solo tackles and assists even after sitting out the final two games and not seeing a single defensive snap until Week 6.
When looking back at his 2014 game logs, you’re greeted by the portrait of a linebacker who’s a mauling menace. Borland recorded five games with at least 13 tackles, topping out at 18 during a Week 9 win over the St. Louis Rams.
I know what you might be thinking, or at least what you should be thinking. As a gauge of defensive performance, the tackles stat can be a deceiving metric. This is where I insert the standard disclaimer that a tackle made 20 yards downfield is tallied the same as one made four yards behind the line of scrimmage.
That’s why we have the handy defensive stops stat in our toolbox. It's provided by Pro Football Focus to give tackles meaning (short definition for the uninitiated: On first down, a ball-carrier has been “stopped” if he gains less than 40 percent of the required yardage).
Borland registered a stop on 21.3 percent of his run snaps, per PFF. That easily led the league among inside linebackers who were on the field for at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps, with the Cowboys’ Rolando McClain finishing a distant second at 15.2.
But as PFF’s 49ers correspondent Jeff Deeney writes, Borland was more than merely effective. He made history and threatened to break the website’s defensive stop counter.
His high-level field sense and anticipation compensates for a lack of size. Borland is only 5’11”, and that height contributed to a tumble down the draft board. The 49ers gladly used one of their many stockpiled picks on the diminutive linebacker with keen instincts, selecting him at 77th overall in 2014.
Borland responded by placing himself among the NFL’s best middle linebackers where it matters most.
|2014 middle linebacker defensive stops leaders|
|Linebacker||Run snaps||Run stop %||Total stops|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
Really absorb those numbers for a moment, because it’s a table that defines Borland’s rookie season.
He saw 232 fewer run snaps than Atlanta Falcons middle linebacker Paul Worrilow, who led the position with 47 defensive stops. Yet despite that mammoth gap in playing time compared to Worrilow and others, Borland’s 43 stops still placed him among the top five.
A team that drafted and employs Borland isn’t optimizing its roster if he has a nice sideline view of plays he could be making. This particular team also wouldn’t be maximizing its salary-cap dollars.
The 49ers are capped
For the past two seasons, the 49ers haven’t had a quarterback on their roster who’s making real quarterback money. That luxury is about to end, leading to some tricky salary-cap management.
Kaepernick is still developing, and there are legitimate concerns about his regression in 2014. Regardless, a quarterback starting 43 games (including playoffs) while being paid the equivalent of a dollar store toilet plunger under his rookie contract made the 49ers’ wallet pretty heavy. In 2013, Kaepernick led San Francisco to its third straight NFC Championship Game appearance, and he did it while earning a base salary of only $740,844, per Spotrac.
In 2015, Kaepernick enters the first year of his contract extension, meaning the 49ers will join the rest of the NFL in trying to manage a roster with a modern quarterback cap anchor.
Kaepernick’s cleverly structured and team-friendly contract came with de-escalators each season if he didn’t reach difficult performance plateaus. As Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News observed, a poor 2014 season cost the 27-year-old $2 million.
That makes 49ers general manager Trent Baalke look like a salary-cap chessmaster. But a $15.4 million cap hit still represents a substantial increase for Kaepernick. And it leaves the 49ers in a cramped cap corner.
They’re about $3 million over the projected 2015 salary cap, according to Spotrac. Baalke needs some precious dollars to address other areas of need, like a wide receiver depth chart thirsty for any sort of vertical threat, or a defensive backfield set to potentially lose cornerbacks Chris Culliver, Perrish Cox and Chris Cook.
There are ways to free up space, with outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks the most obvious candidate to become previously enjoyed spare parts. Releasing Brooks would result in saving roughly $4 million, while keeping him means a daunting cap hit of $9.8 million.
Meanwhile, Davis will either be released or forced to take a pay cut, as a tight end fresh off a season filled with only 245 receiving yards can’t account for a $7 million cap hit.
But ultimately, the most cap savings could come from releasing a linebacker arguably made expendable by Borland.
The Chris Borland problem will become the Patrick Willis problem
Willis is one of the best all-around linebackers in football, excelling against both the run and pass. His career resume shows five 120-plus-tackle seasons to go with 53 passes defensed and eight interceptions. That versatility has earned him five first-team All-Pro selections.
At 30 years old, though, Willis isn’t a young man anymore, and he’s now coming off a season that was shortened to only six games because of a severe toe issue.
Initially, a future without Willis in San Francisco isn’t something the mind can even compute. He’s a premier middle linebacker—a worshiped franchise pillar who was the 11th overall pick in 2007 and has spent his entire career with one team.
But when money speaks it’s wise to listen.
|49ers middle linebacker cap hits for 2015|
|Linebacker||Base salary||Cap hit||Dead money|
|Patrick Willis||$7.1 million||$8.3 million||$843,500|
|NaVorro Bowman||$4.7 million||$8.4 million||$8 million|
Borland is entering the second year of his rookie contract, and Bowman is three years younger (he’ll turn 27 in May) than Willis.
Some risk still lies ahead for Bowman as he recovers from a devastating knee injury. But he's untouchable in 2015. His immense talent (three straight seasons with 140-plus tackles) and youth make that true, but so does his contract.
Nothing of significance would be saved by moving on from Bowman due to his $8 million in dead money. That contract and his shredded knee also combine to make Bowman a less than appealing trade candidate. But then there's Willis, whose release would give the 49ers $7.4 million in cap room, according to OverTheCap.com.
That wealth of critical space could be used to pursue other key assets, with only a moderate step down from Willis to Borland.
A move away from Willis would be excruciating for all involved. But in the modern salary-cap era when quarterbacks gobble up a significant chunk of space, all avenues have to be explored and given long, serious thought.
Life without Willis is one such avenue. The 49ers aren’t well equipped to handle a defensive scheme transition, especially if Justin Smith retires. Mangini has primarily worked with a 3-4 defense, and pass-rushers Aldon Smith and Aaron Lynch are more effective standing up.
Willis was reportedly the subject of trade and/or cap casualty talks at the Senior Bowl, according to Charlie Campbell of Walter Football. The stone turning has started, and there’s a wad of cold, hard cash sitting underneath a middle linebacker who’s held in high regard by the San Francisco fanbase and feared by opponents.