Former 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver agreed to a four-year, $32 million contract with Washington Friday morning. The deal includes $16 million in guaranteed money — an awfully large number for a guy with a history of both injuries and poor decisions off the field.
This signing is only the latest in a long list of players that used the 49ers as a springboard to gigantic contracts with other teams. Every offseason it seems the 49ers lose a fan favorite in free agency, and while people groan over it, the team keeps its healthy relationship with the salary cap intact.
So let’s take a look at one of Trent Baalke’s strongest assets — his ability to say goodbye to talent:
Dan Skuta — I didn’t want to judge this offseason, and I’m leaving Frank Gore off of the list for obvious reasons, but this contract is too absurd to ignore. Skuta got five-year, $20.5 million deal (starter money) from the Jaguars after spending his time with the 49ers as a rotational outside linebacker. He’s Pro Football Focus’s 16th-ranked 3-4 outside linebacker, which might explain why the Jags value him so highly. But the 49ers have PFF’s fifth-ranked entity in Aldon Smith, an up-and-comer in Aaron Lynch, and it appears they’re hanging onto Ahmad Brooks.
Dashon Goldson — Goldson is the poster boy for using the 49ers to get paid. One half of the hardest-hitting safety duo in modern football, Goldson made fans wail after signing a five-year, $41.25 million contract with Tampa Bay in 2013. The contract includes $18M in guaranteed money, which the Buccaneers will have to pay if they end up cutting him, as has been reported recently. The 49ers dodged a fatal bullet when they decided to draft Eric Reid and let Goldson walk: Reid was PFF 17th ranked safety in 2014; Goldson was ranked 81st.
Donte Whitner — The other half of The Lumber Co. got a big pay day from Cleveland after the 2013 season. Whitner landed a four-year, $28 million contract ($15.5 million guaranteed) from the Browns while the 49ers picked up Antoine Bethea on a four-year, $21 milion deal with only $6.25 million in guarantees to replace him. While Whitner certainly earned his contract (seventh overall according to PFF), Bethea was an invaluable asset to the 49ers at a much more tolerable price tag.
Josh Morgan — Morgan was one of those wide receivers valued by fans for his potential. He looked to be peaking in 2011 before breaking his leg, and once it healed, Baalke let him walk. Morgan signed a five-year deal, worth $12 million in the first two years, with Washington that offseason, and he was released after the 2013 season. In the three years since leaving the 49ers, Morgan caught 78 passes for 794 yards and three touchdowns.
Delanie Walker — This one is debatable. Walker was a valuable piece on the 49ers and has proven to be a force since signing with the Titans. Still, Walker epitomizes the springboard metaphor. Everybody’s favorite Swiss Army knife signed a four-year, $17.5 million contract ($8.6 million guaranteed) with Tennessee almost immediately after free agency opened in 2013. The contract was just too much for the 49ers to contend with, and they filled the void by drafting Vance McDonald, who has yet to live up to his second-round draft choice.
Ricky Jean-Francois — Jean-Francois walked a path similar to Skuta’s. He enjoyed plenty of interest in free agency after stepping in to replace Justin Smith late in the 2012 season. That interest eventually earned him a hefty pay day: a four-year, $22 million contract with the Indianapolis Colts. Indianapolis recently released Jean-Francois, who was set to earn $5.5 million in 2015. He was PFF’s 23rd ranked 3-4 DE in 2014 (one behind Ray McDonald and several spots further behind No. 16, Justin Smith).
Isaac Sopoaga — Sopoaga was another one of the defenders pillaged from the 49ers after their 2012 Super Bowl defeat. Baalke clearly saw the writing on the wall for the aging nose tackle, but the Eagles didn’t, so they decided to sign him to a three-year, $12 million contract that they only ended up seeing about a month of. Philadelphia traded him to the Patriots in October 2012, and he was gone from New England not long after. He later signed with the Cardinals, who released him in August 2014.
Carlos Rogers — Although Rogers was once a shining example of the 49ers’ ability to succeed with reclamation projects, it was clear by the close of the 2013 season that his best days were behind him. With Tramaine Brock and Culliver seemingly ready to step into starting roles, Baalke let Rogers cross the Bay Bridge to the Raiders, who signed Rogers to a one-year, $2.5 million contract with $1 million in guarantees. Rogers suffered a knee injury midseason that eventually sent him to the injured reserve list for the remainder.
The list seems to come full circle from Rogers to Culliver, and although it looks as if the latter should have plenty of good years ahead of him, the trend for the 49ers is the same. Baalke has no problem cutting ties with players that he sees as replaceable, and in Culliver’s case, the 49ers will either look to their litany of young cornerbacks or some other cheap reclamation projects (Chris Cook, perhaps) to fill his void.
Regardless of their abilities, all of these players have one thing in common: high interest from other teams. Baalke’s ability to avoid bidding wars is one of the reasons the 49ers are able to stay competitive in a salary capped league year after year. The compensatory draft picks the 49ers get when they let their own guys walk is a nice bonus, too.