Per multiple news outlets it sounds as if both Patrick Willis and Justin Smith will retire from the NFL rather than returning to play to the 49ers in 2015. The deal will clear a great deal of cap space for the 49ers, but will also mark the end of the careers of two exceptional players who helped the 49ers to a period of great success that nearly culminated in a Super Bowl win.
Willis was the premier inside linebacker in the league for his generation. He was rewarded with a $10 million per year extension in 2010 that has stood as the gold standard for the position since then. The 49ers and Willis did a wonderful job in working together on his contract such that they dumped millions of charges into the uncapped 2010 season and expected down 2011 season to make his cap hits manageable in the future. Willis really had no “dead money” protection in his contract by agreeing to such a structure. Because of the way his contract worked Willis will only count for $843,500 against the 49ers salary cap if he retires. That will give the 49ers $7,424,500 in cap relief this season, which is a significant number.
Smith also found a home in San Francisco and became one of the best defensive ends in the NFL after signing with the team in 2008. He had signed a very reasonable contract extension with the team in 2013 despite possibly being able to earn more by playing his contract out and hitting the open market. The 49ers will carry $2.187 million in dead charges for Smith, but it opens up $4.25 million in space for the team.
If both players do retire this will likely mark the end of an era for the 49ers. I had speculated that their window had shut last season when they struggled to remain in playoff contention. Now it looks as if long term stars in Willis, Smith and Frank Gore will be gone. Mike Iupati will likely not be back and Ahmad Brooks should soon be out the door as well. It is hard to say that this is a rebuilding effort, but the team will clearly be looking at many new faces for the first time in years.