Trent Baalke Jed York 49ersFor fans the NFL may be a pastime — and these days it’s a year-round distraction — but for teams and their front offices it’s a complicated and high-stakes business. Just ask the Raiders how their recent failures had them on a shortlist of teams ready to make the move (back) to Los Angeles before that stadium deal turned up lame. Then ask Jed York how the 49ers’ success in 2011 fast-tracked the construction of their new stadium in Santa Clara. It’s coming along quickly, and when it’s ready it will print money.

When you strip it down, the NFL is much like any other business. Franchises must take inventory and decide what to keep and what to discard. The salary cap makes this particularly difficult. Whereas a normal business may utilize expensive equipment to produce an even better product, NFL teams have to monitor their costs regardless of revenue produced per player. It prevents monopolies, which explains why the NFL is so ripe for parity.

The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference shed light on some of the new ways front offices think, and 49ers and Rams chief operating officers Paraag Marathe and Kevin Demoff sat in on a panel to explain it. Mike Sando of highlighted a telling quote from Marathe on his plan for the 49ers going forward (also referenced in BASG’s recent post about Colin Kaepernick’s relatively inexpensive contract):

Paraag Marathe“We have the most expensive defense in the league on an average per-year basis, and that is not sustainable over time,” Marathe said. “Because of the cap, if every veteran on the team took a 15 percent discount on their market value, you couldn’t field that team still under the cap because the difference between wholesale [draft] and retail [free agency] is so wide.

“You have to figure out which players to keep and which players to let move on and churn out. Because you have to continue to replenish the system.”

The reference to wholesale and retail is interesting, and seems particularly appropriate while the 49ers deal with not only the impending free agency of Dashon Goldson, but the Darrelle Revis trade rumors as well.

I’ve explained my stance on both Goldson and Revis: while I’m certainly not devaluing either player — they’re both spectacular — I don’t believe the 49ers can afford them and doubt they’re in San Francisco’s plans. Marathe’s comments point to both moves being against the 49ers’ economic system.

Goldson is an above-average player, but his financial demands could mean having to let go of other more important pieces down the road due to cap restraints. The 49ers proved they’ll break the bank for truly special players by locking down Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman. Extending Bowman may be a very special exception to the rule, because as Sando points out, many teams have been moving to a 3-4 to avoid paying two high-priced inside linebackers. Goldson likely doesn’t fit in the same mold. If he did they would have extended him by now.

The Revis trade is basically the same situation, with a special caveat. His 2013 cap hit will handcuff the 49ers this year, and any contract extension will pillage them down the road. If trading for Revis means giving away high draft picks, it prevents the 49ers from continuing “to replenish the system,” making a trade even less likely.

With 15 picks in the upcoming draft, it’s easy to advocate the 49ers tossing a few selections the Jets’ way for one year of Revis. Unfortunately, New York probably won’t accept two third-rounders and a fifth for the best corner in the league. Revis will command one or both of the 49ers’ top-34 picks, and under the new CBA, San Francisco can set up the future (and possibly the present) of the team for a fraction of Revis’ per capita with those two draft choices.

The 49ers’ plan seems clear: build through the draft and carefully craft extensions for their most important players. In free agency, they look for bargains rather than big ticket items. That’s why instead of bidding for Nnamdi Asomugha, they signed Carlos Rogers to a more cap-friendly contract. People scratched their heads when the 49ers traded back several times in the 2012 draft, hoarding 2013 picks, but now it makes sense. They have endless options this April, and there’s a good chance they’ll trade back again for 2014.

The championship window for the 49ers may be open, but that doesn’t mean they should go for broke this offseason. The team has some very important decisions to make in the next couple years, and they’ll probably be pushed right up against the salary cap when those decisions get made. The rookie contracts of Kaepernick, Aldon Smith, Anthony Davis, Michael Crabtree and Mike Iupati are all up at the close of the 2014 season.

If you’re looking for a big splash in free agency, it probably won’t happen. Trading away high-value picks for recognizable veterans isn’t likely either. It may not be the most exciting brand of offseason football, but it’s practical and sustainable.