The big news of Friday saw the Tennessee Titans release running back Chris Johnson. The Titans signed him to a sizable extension back in 2011, but as he has worn down, the team has decided it is time to move on. The running back depth chart in Tennessee now consists of Shonn Greene, Jackie Battle and Leon Washington.
While that is not exactly an inspiring group of runners, the Titans likely will be able to wait for a running back to slip down in the draft next month. The running back position has taken a hit in recent years, with teams more willing to look at platoon situations. Teams realize they don't need to invest huge money in running backs anymore. You still have talented running backs like Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy and Matt Forte, among many others, but the position seems to be undergoing a bit of a transition.
One player representing a bit of that "old guard" is San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore. Chris Johnson's release was due to the fact that he was scheduled to make $8 million each of the year two years, and $7 million in the final year of his contract. His cap hits were going to be $10 million each of the next two seasons, and then $9 million the final season.
Frank Gore enters the 2014 season scheduled to earn $6.45 million in salary and bonuses. There is no prorated signing bonus to boost the cap figure, none of the money is guaranteed, and Gore is entering the final year of his contract.
There has been plenty of chatter about re-doing his deal. He is coming off a season in which he surpassed 1,100 yards, but it frequently was not pretty. I do think he still has something left in the tank, but it's probably a good thing this is the last year of his contract. There has been a vocal contingent of people looking to simply cut his pay under the idea that the team could cut him, so why not just offer him some portion of his contract.
The NFL is a business, and players come and go all the time. I don't think any of us are naive to that. At the same time, one way to attract talent to the team is to show that you will take care of them. NFL players know they don't have guaranteed contracts, and they know teams are going to cut bait quickly more often than not. However, I could see the 49ers potentially just letting Gore play out this final year of his contract in a sort of, "thanks for all you've done" type of deal. Basically, not re-doing his deal and just letting him earn his $6.45 million.
I realize that is not the best option for immediate salary cap purposes. That is conceivably several million dollars of cap space being left on the table. I could very well be proven wrong on this, but I see the 49ers operating in a sort of good faith manner with this. He's become a franchise legend over his nine-year career, and there is something fitting to not demanding a pay cut in what could be his final season as a 49er.
From a practical standpoint, the 49ers can also see how this season plays out with regard to Marcus Lattimore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James. Ideally that group emerges as a strong presence that can replace Gore's production. If not, and if Gore shows he still has something left at the end of the coming season, maybe they work out short term options with Gore. There's a lot of flexibility in that regard.