Many have said that the 49ers’ only saving grace in the upcoming season is their talented roster. This argument makes sense if you ignore the talent and corresponding roster on the 2010 squad, but insert a picture of Kermit sipping tea here.
The 49ers are right up against the salary cap this season ($1.348M in cap space according to OverTheCap.com), and with a slew of free agents — as well as players ripe to be cut — they have some tough decisions to make in the upcoming league New Year.
Here’s what they’re looking at in terms of players entering free agency:
Garrett Celek, TE (Restricted Free Agent): A backup tight end who the 49ers will probably need in the upcoming season. They can probably get him back at a relatively tolerable price.
Chris Cook, CB: Another one of Trent Baalke’s reclamation projects at the cornerback position. He rotated with Dontae Johnson as the fourth cornerback and only played in a handful of games before making his way to the injured reserve list. You can never have too many cornerbacks, but the 49ers don’t have a lot of money to spread around.
Perrish Cox, CB: Cox had a breakout season for the 49ers with 53 tackles and five interceptions. It would be nice to hold on to Cox if the 49ers can afford it.
Michael Crabtree, WR: This is the big one, the one 49ers fans have been debating seemingly since the moment the team drafted him. Crabtree will hit the free agent market with No. 1 wideout money on his mind, even though he’s probably a No. 2 at best. As badly as the 49ers need help at the position, Crabtree isn’t the type of wide receiver the team wants, especially with Anquan Boldin and Stevie Johnson still under contract. I think the 49ers can comfortably let Crabtree walk considering the financial bind they’re in. That top-15 draft pick should help them bring in a bigger-bodied red zone threat.
Chris Culliver, CB: He was supposed to be the 49ers shutdown corner of the future, but injuries on the field and horrible decision making off of it seem to have derailed that. Baalke may have been preparing for that with all of the corners he drafted in 2014, but the injury history could devalue this contract. However, Baalke absolutely loves Culliver and he supplanted Cox as the team’s best cover corner during the second half of the 2014 season. This one could go either way.
Blaine Gabbert, QB: You tell me. Picking up Gabbert had Jim Harbaugh written all over it, but the 49ers need someone more suited to give this team a fighting chance if Colin Kaepernick gets injured. I can get even more bleak here and suggest this team may even be looking beyond Kaepernick, so backup/perhaps quarterback of the future might be something they address in the draft. Either way, I doubt Gabbert comes back.
Frank Gore, RB: This is almost too delicate a situation for me to speculate. Baalke will have to seriously gauge whether Gore still has something to contribute in the twilight of his career. As much as we all want to see Gore retire in a 49ers uniform, the team simply doesn’t have enough cap room to be throwing money at players out of loyalty and love. Baalke injected himself into Jim Tomsula’s introductory press conference to proclaim that the 49ers will be running the ball under the new coaching regime; if this is true, either Carlos Hyde will need to be ready to play the role of Gore (which includes handling the ball 18-25 times a game, along with some excellent pass protection), or Gore will need to be back and still fully capable of being the Gore that we know and love. There will be plenty of free agents to watch this offseason, and none will be watched more closely than Gore.
Mike Iupati, OG: Draw a line from this section back up to Crabtree’s, because every time someone brings up his contract, the logical response is, “Iupati will be a free agent too. You can’t keep them both!” Now it seems the 49ers won’t be able to keep either of them, and based on the 2014 draft class, they prepared for that possibility. Iupati has always been a mauler in run blocking and lately has been a subpar entity in pass protection — an area topped only by injuries in terms of costliness during Harbaugh’s final season. Of course, injuries are the reason that we didn’t see more of Daniel Kilgore, or any of Brandon Thomas, this past year. Iupati is expendable if the offensive line of the future is Joe Staley, Marcus Martin, Kilgore, Alex Boone/Thomas and Anthony Davis.
Tony Jerod-Eddie, DE: One of Tomsula’s success stories a la Ricky Jean-Francois, Jerod-Eddie made $495K last season and is now an exclusive rights free agent. The team can hold onto him if they feel it’s necessary.
Brandon Lloyd, WR: Hey Brandon, have you met Braylon? How about Randy? Lloyd fits the mold of the has-been wideouts that Baalke signs, seemingly every year. They come in, they do little, and they leave with even less fanfare. Lloyd is probably gone.
Kassim Osgood, WR: But he doesn’t catch passes. Osgood’s value is in special teams, which can be supplemented via the draft and smart moves in free agency. Osgood can’t be high on the 49ers’ list of priorities, especially after they released and re-signed him 100 times over the last season.
Dan Skuta, LB: There’s a lot of value here if the 49ers can get him at the right price. Skuta has performed admirably filling in at outside linebacker and on special teams.
Michael Wilhoite, LB (Restricted Free Agent): Wilhoite made only $570K in 2014, and did a good enough job as a replacement for NaVorro Bowman. What they do with the linebacker position will be interesting. Re-signing Wilhoite on the cheap might indicate good news on Bowman and Willis’s continued recovery; however, using a relatively high draft pick on a MLB might indicate they’re preparing for life without one of the two staples of this team’s defense.
Other free agents: LB Desmond Bishop, QB Josh Johnson, LS/TE Kyle Nelson, RB Alfonso Smith, RB Phillip Tanner, DB Bubba Ventrone
With the impending free agents out of the way, there are a few cut candidates that the 49ers can consider in order to save cap space:
Alex Boone, RG: Boone is a great player and shows no signs of decline by any means, but his holdout and subsequent performance certainly gives you reason to wonder if he’ll be in a 49ers uniform for much longer. Cutting Boone would save the 49ers $3.4M in cap space, so if Baalke feels Thomas is ready, Boone could be a cap casualty.
Ahmad Brooks, OLB: Brooks is almost certainly gone. His contract runs through 2017 and if he stays, he carries a cap hit of over $7M. Aaron Lynch made him expendable, and the benchings and quarrels during the season made his departure even more obvious. San Francisco would save $1.5M towards their cap by cutting him before June 1st.
Vernon Davis, TE: I know, I know. This one is a little far-fetched, but Davis’ relationship with the team appears tenuous at this point and his performance this season was horrifyingly bad. Cutting Davis would mean making magic happen at the tight end position in either the draft or free agency (the latter would seem circuitous), because Vance McDonald is looking anything like a No. 1 tight end. Nevertheless, the 49ers could do a lot with the $4.9M they would save by cutting ties with No. 85.
Craig Dahl, S: Dahl was perfectly fine as a member of the 49ers as long as he’s not seeing defensive snaps, but he did in 2014 and — given Eric Reid’s susceptibility to injury — he may again in 2015 … if the 49ers keep him. Releasing Dahl would free up $1.7M in cap space, which is insanely high for an awful backup safety. I’m sure they can find a suitable replacement for Dahl that can back up at the position and play special teams for a smaller price tag.
Jonathan Martin, OT: This is a no-brainer. Martin was perhaps the worst starting tackle in the league in 2014 (thanks to Anthony Davis’ long list of ailments) and cutting him before June 1st would save them all of the $1.042M in his contract. He is signed through the 2015 season and shouldn’t see that last year of his deal.
Justin Smith, DE: Smith isn’t a cut candidate by any means, but rumors surfaced during the 49ers’ final game of the season that he may retire. We’ll wait to see what happens there, but if the Cowboy indeed hangs up his
boots cleats, the 49ers would save $4.25M.