Free agency officially begins on March 10, and it won’t take very long after that for some longtime 49ers to hit the road. With a tight salary cap, as well as a new coaching staff, the 49ers won’t be able to re-sign all of their own free agents.
The 49ers have five priority free agents—Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati, Chris Culliver, Perrish Cox and Frank Gore. They probably can afford to re-sign, at most, one of the first three names there, as those players should each have at least moderate demands for their services. With a limited cap budget, who will the 49ers opt to go after, and who will they leave behind?
The easiest one to call is Mike Iupati, as it seems very unlikely that the 49ers would break the bank to get him back. Although he is among the best in the league in terms of run-blocking, his pass protection leaves much to be desired.
While the 49ers have shown signs that they want to be a run-first team, they also have shown signs that they won’t overpay for a one-dimensional player, even if it’s a fantastic dimension.
Iupati and the 49ers have been approaching this point for a few years now, and there’s been no significant movement on an extension. Both the team and player likely know that Iupati will find more money elsewhere, and so he’ll leave and be replaced by Brandon Thomas in the starting lineup.
I think Iupati ends up reuniting with offensive coordinator Greg Roman in Buffalo. The Bills are trying to replicate the great defense, strong running game and average quarterback style that the 49ers succeeded with when Alex Smith was behind center, meaning they would be willing to pay the premium for a bruising power guard. Iupati’s already familiar with Roman’s run system, so he would be a logical cog in the offense up there.
As for Michael Crabtree, recent reports from Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area indicate that the 49ers are interested in re-signing him. That’s a rather bold strategy, considering he’s had poor seasons each of the last two years. The only way I could see a reunion happening is if Crabtree went out to the open market and was entirely rebuffed, opting to sign a one-year prove-it deal with the 49ers to try to get big money in 2016.
There are too many teams that are receiver-needy for me to believe that will happen. It’s very difficult to predict where Crabtree will end up, as he’ll probably have to wait in line after the likes of Randall Cobb, Jeremy Maclin, Torrey Smith and possibly even Cecil Shorts, but I’ll go out on a limb and connect him with the Cleveland Browns.
The Browns are looking to replace Josh Gordon and have likely ruled out Cecil Shorts, according to ESPN Cleveland’s Tony Grossi. Crabtree, plus a potential late-first-round receiver, would give them a solid corps to build off of.
That leaves Culliver, who should have a “significant” market, according to ProFootballTalk. That’s a bad sign for the 49ers, who would have liked to have him back on a limited deal. However, with Tramaine Brock, Jimmie Ward and Dontae Johnson already on the roster, they probably won’t allow themselves to get into a huge bidding war, instead letting Culliver go and going with a cheaper option at the position.
I think Culliver ends up in Philadelphia when all is said and done. At 6'0" tall, he fits into head coach Chip Kelly and defensive coordinator Bill Davis’ scheme, which was desperate for anyone who could cover the deep ball last year.
In addition, Culliver was born in Philadelphia, making it a homecoming of sorts, though he went to high school in North Carolina. The need and fit are both there, and with Culliver coming at a cheaper price than, say, Byron Maxwell or Kareem Jackson, he’d be a logical grab for Philly.
I can’t see the 49ers letting all of their cornerbacks go, however, and so I think they’ll hammer out a deal for Perrish Cox.
Cox is not an ideal starter at the position, but he provides competent depth off of the bench. I don’t think he’s going to have teams knocking down his door for his services, as his strong 2014 campaign was a bit of an outlier for him. Unless Ed Donatell, the new secondary coach in Chicago and the ex-49ers secondary coach, has decided that Cox was an integral part of the secondary, the 49ers should easily be the frontrunners for his services.
It doesn’t remove the possibility of the 49ers signing another free-agent cornerback to go along with Brock at the position, but it’s a start to solidifying the secondary.
That leaves us with Frank Gore, who might be the most interesting case. A return to the 49ers for Gore would mean accepting a secondary role behind Carlos Hyde—a notable change from Gore’s career to this point.
Gore hasn’t had to play second banana to anyone since his rookie season, when he was behind Kevan Barlow on the depth chart. Since then, it’s been nearly all Gore, all the time—the most carries any other 49ers back has put up in a season since Gore took over in 2006 were the 112 Kendall Hunter put up in 2011; no other back has topped the 100-carry mark.
If there is a starting job out there, then Gore might want to leave.
The best option for him in free agency would be the Indianapolis Colts, who bombed out in their Trent Richardson experiment. Rob Chudzinski, the associate head coach in Indianapolis, was the offensive coordinator at the University of Miami while Gore was in college, so there may be some desire to re-join forces for one final run into the playoffs.
However, I’m not so sure that Indianapolis will be willing to pay the $4 million or so that Gore is looking for, according to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports.
If there isn’t a starting role out there, then Gore probably would feel his best option would be to come back to San Francisco and finish his career in the same place he started it. He’d certainly be welcomed back with open arms; general manager Trent Baalke has gone on record several times saying that he wants Gore back in a 49ers uniform in 2015.
I think, after a week or so in free agency, that will be precisely what happens—Gore comes back home to finish his run in the red and gold.
A veteran, experienced option behind Hyde is precisely what the 49ers need, and while an exciting, pass-catching running back might be high on my wish list, it would be very hard to say no to the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, who showed he still had some gas left in the tank at the end of 2014. In the end, Gore stays in San Francisco.