Estimated 2015 Cap Space: $1.0M ($140M cap limit)
Players Under Contract: 63
Pro Bowlers: 2
Unrestricted Free Agents: 15(5 with 50%+ playtime)
Draft Selection: 15
Salary Cap Breakdown
Free Agents to Re-sign
With the development of Colin Kaepernick so important I think the 49ers are almost in a position where they must find a way to keep Frank Gore to keep their running game more or less intact. Gore is certain up there in age, but he has been able to keep things together through the age of 31. They should only need to lock in on two years with him and use a structure similar to that of Fred Jackson in Buffalo, but with a $3.5M or so price…Chris Culliver is a decent option in the defensive backfield and probably flies a bit under the radar which should make it reasonable to keep him long term. I would imagine he would slot in between $4 and $4.75M per year…Perrish Cox filled in nicely in the system last year and should not be expensive to retain on a two to three year contract.
Free Agents to Let Walk
Guard Mike Iupati will be in high demand and I think that will likely be a barrier towards retaining him. With the team in the process of turning over I don’t think San Francisco can commit the kind of money that would be required to keep Iupati and get good value on their investment. With free agency right around the corner I also don’t believe they can get their style of contract done with him and you simply don’t blow up your system for a guard…Michael Crabtree was given every opportunity to break out and instead he struggled through a poor season. This is one of those “change of scenery” situations that may work best for both sides unless he is willing to do an extremely low cost one year contract….
Contracts to Modify
After being upset that he failed to receive a contract extension in 2014, Vernon Davis fell off the map and landed on the back of the milk carton, having the worst season of his career with just 245 yards. You can make a strong case for giving up on him, but I consider it better for San Francisco to first try to bring his dollar figure down as older tight ends are often productive. Cutting his salary by half might be more than he would earn anywhere else…Steve Johnson will earn slightly more than $6 million this season, which is far too high for a player who hasn’t gained 600 yards in either of his last two seasons. Johnson has positive attributes and should see his numbers increase if Crabtree is gone, but his production is in the $3 million year range…It may be time to decide if the 49ers expect Patrick Willis to finish his career in San Francisco or elsewhere. If it is in San Francisco this is probably the right time to consider an extension that can make his cap figure more manageable this season and bring their spending down at the position…Aldon Smith will count for $9.75 million against the cap and it’s probably a good time to consider his long term extension or to trade him away. Smith is highly talented but has struggled with problems off the field that has impacted his available games. It makes for a tricky negotiation but carrying him for one year at this number to just turn around and franchise him or lose him is a waste of space in 2015.
Players to Consider Releasing
Both Johnson and Davis, mentioned above, are clearly in danger of being released if they refuse pay cuts…I don’t think there is any question that Ahmad Brooks will be released this season. If the team switches to a 4-3 he clearly has no role, but even if they don’t his role is limited. His cap charge next year is just over $7M and the team can create about $1.5M by releasing him…Releasing Craig Dahl saves the team $1.7Min cap space, a move that seems inevitable since he only plays limited snaps and special teams on a team with a tight cap situation…Jonathan Martin was likely brought in as a favor to the head coach who is no longer on the team. Martin can’t play and his $1 million salary can be spent better elsewhere… Ian Williams has suited up for 11 games since signing a contract extension in 2013. It was a move based on youth, but it hasn’t worked out. Another $1.2M in space will come with his release.
While I believe that the window likely closed for this group last season, I think given some of the talent on the team and their salary cap makeup that can’t just throw in the towel on this group and begin cutting players left and right for minimal savings. Their next phase of development really hinges on Kaepernick and the team will never be certain on him if they give him a shell of a team to work with. If he plays well they can contend for another season with this group. We have seen it countless times with teams who have had a good history, fall off, and then seem to piece it together one more time before age really catches up with them.
For San Francisco this should indicate a holding pattern where you are keeping a majority of your veterans and filling your roster with affordable players that won’t hamstring the organization two and three years down the line if they do not pan out. I would not expect the team to be active in free agency at all and instead just focus on getting players back healthy and having them buy in to a new voice in the locker room.
The best course for success is to use the draft to get some players who can learn for one year behind a very good veteran group and be ready to take the field running in 2016. That is the way to avoid the crash and burn that could be staring at the team in 2016. I don’t know if the team can continue to take some questionable health picks in the draft anymore where going in they seem to acknowledge it’s a year of rehab and film session. I think they just need bodies that can play and potentially stand out.
Clearly the team needs offensive playmakers that can play wide receiver and/or tight end. Anquan Boldin will be 35 years old and will eventually need to be replaced and they really don’t have a clear number 2, let alone a potential 1. Given the need for the QB to improve finding these type of players should be of prime importance. If Iupati walks guard becomes a mid-round need, especially if there are no long term plans in place to keep Alex Boone.
Defensively the team needs to begin rebuilding their defensive front. Justin Smith could retire and even if he does not the 49ers know that day is coming soon. They will need at least one defensive end in this offseason and clearly need more talent for the interior of their line. If there is one area that they need to hit on in the draft it’s their defensive line. If they fail to nail this down for the future their whole defense will suffer and the 49ers will lose their identity if that happens.
A lot of people are saying that the 49ers have wrecked their salary cap because of the limited space, but the reality is they are more or less around the averages in almost every category, they just have a deeper roster than most teams. One of the concessions that you often have to make when you have a successful veteran unit is the possibility that you may get old and be forced to move into a holding pattern until their pay warrants their release. While that may have made a few shortsighted moves using voidable years, the team is where they are now in regards to the cap because certain players just got older, but few are at a point where you want to release them. It also would have helped if the QB played to his salary level. The trick now is to rebuild the team with draft while working with this group that can still possibly contend for the playoffs. It’s easier said than done, but if they play their cards right they can jump back into the mix pretty quickly.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.