Though the San Francisco 49ers’ playoff hopes were realistically dead by the end of September, the team was officially eliminated from the postseason following a cringeworthy defeat at the hands of Johnny Manziel and the Browns last week. But while the 49ers’ 2015 fate might already be decided, there are still a subset of individuals whose future could be impacted by how they perform over the final three games of the season.
Recency bias is strong and finishing on a high note will influence how many observers view members of this team as we prepare to enter the offseason and all of the personnel shuffling that goes along with it. So who has the most to gain (or lose) by closing out 2015 with an impressive (or not so impressive) stretch of play?
There’s no question that Jim Tomsula and his coaching staff have the most riding on the outcome of the 49ers’ remaining contests. Competitive play and perhaps another win or two likely solidifies a Year Two of the Tomsula era. Three losses, particularly if they look anything like Week 14’s effort in Cleveland, could be enough for the front office to send the man they fired Jim Harbaugh for packing after just one season. But chances are you knew that already.
If we then turn our attention to the players, you might be surprised to learn (at least I was) there aren’t many who could potentially see a drastic swing in their stock before the season concludes. We can safely ignore players locked into long-term deals, such as NaVorro Bowman, Joe Staley, and Torrey Smith, who aren’t going anywhere regardless of how things go down the stretch.
There are a number of players whose 2016 status with the 49ers is up in the air, but these next three games won’t be re-writing their football future because they’re either a well established vet who we already have the book on (Anquan Boldin, Ahmad Brooks), injured (Garrett Celek), or both (Alex Boone, Antoine Bethea, Glenn Dorsey, Reggie Bush).
With the 49ers expected to have north of $40 million in cap space next season, before even factoring in the additional space they will gain by trading or releasing Colin Kaepernick, and very few cost-prohibitive contracts on the books, there aren’t many players in danger of becoming cap casualties in the offseason. Brooks, Bethea, and Dorsey would be the most obvious candidates, but again, those decisions won’t be influenced by these final three games.
As far as I can tell, these are the three 49ers players with the most to play for as the 2015 season comes to a close…
Gabbert’s $2.25 million cap hit in 2016 is a pittance for a starting quarterback and that alone makes a strong case for him to enter next season as San Francisco’s QB1. So why does he show up here? For a couple of reasons.
Let’s start with the sheer fact that Gabbert plays football’s most important position, and as Colin Kaepernick found out, things can change in a hurry. The quarterback position is going to sit firmly in the spotlight throughout San Francisco’s offseason. It would take a drastic and unlikely departure from what we’ve seen out of this team over the first 13 weeks of the season for the 49ers to wind up outside the top 10 selections in the 2016 draft. Assuming that doesn’t happen and San Francisco stays on its current course, you can bank on months of speculation as to whether the 49ers will look to find their quarterback of the future with that pick.
The other reason is that Gabbert hasn’t built up a large enough sample of quality play to ensure he will rise above his current pay echelon. After three solid showings to begin his run as the 49ers starting quarterback, he’s struggled for the bulk of back-to-back contests against middling or worse defenses. If Gabbert continues that downward trend to close the season, it’s going to put more pressure on the 49ers’ brass to find a long-term solution this offseason.
However, if Gabbert can put together strong showings against three above-average defenses, not only will that give the organization more confidence he can be the guy for 2016 and possibly beyond, but it could be enough to propel the 49ers toward another couple of wins and perhaps push them out of range to select one of the top quarterbacks in the draft. This could potentially be similar to the situation we saw with Alex Smith for many years before he turned things around in 2011, where the 49ers are essentially stuck with a player because there are no better alternatives.
Because of the situation at quarterback and the influence he will have on the outcome of these final three games, no player on the 49ers roster controls their own destiny to the extent that Gabbert does.
There aren’t many pending unrestricted free agents on San Francisco’s roster who figure to garner a lot of attention on the open market. Alex Boone, with the flexibility to play guard and tackle on either side of the offensive line, will surely be the most coveted 49ers player, but he’s likely shelved for the remainder of the season with a slight MCL tear and I’m not sure he would have been able to grow his stock any more than it already is anyway. Boldin’s contract voids after this season, but if teams don’t believe the 35-year-old wideout can still play now, nothing he does down the stretch is going to change that.
That leaves Ian Williams as the free-agent-to-be in position to add some extra cash to his bank account with his performance over the next few weeks. Though he’s currently in his fifth NFL season, Williams doesn’t have a large body of work for teams to evaluate. The former undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame rarely saw the field early in his career, and due to a variety of factors had never seen more than 20 percent of San Francisco’s snaps prior to this season. Even this year, with Williams starting every game so far, his usage as a base-personnel-only defensive lineman early in the season — something that has changed in recent weeks — means that he’s only been on the field for 55.9 percent of defensive snaps.
Williams has made the most of his opportunity, and has arguably been San Francisco’s best and most consistent defensive lineman in 2015. As I mentioned yesterday in my 9 things I liked and didn’t like article, Williams is second on the team in stops this season (30), trailing only NaVorro Bowman. And as Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus brought up on Twitter, few interior defensive lineman have been playing as well as Williams has in recent weeks.
If Williams continues down this track to close the season, there’s a good chance he’ll earn a hefty pay raise this offseason and potentially price himself out of Trent Baalke’s budget in the process.
It’s been an ugly start to Carradine’s NFL career. After missing the entirety of his rookie season while recovering from a knee injury that ended his final year at Florida State, he’s been fighting, and mostly failing, to earn playing time ever since. Worse still, there hasn’t been a lot to like about his play when he has made it on the field.
At least part of the issue likely owes to an inability of two coaching staffs to put Carradine in situations where he could succeed. Tank played primarily outside in college, but was then asked to bulk up and play inside with the 49ers. Carradine never really displayed the strength and technique to excel in that role and the transition was unsuccessful. Despite the evidence that he wasn’t a good fit on the interior, the 49ers opted to give him another go in that role to begin 2015. And again, it didn’t go well, leading to the odd decision of asking Tank to cut weight in the middle of the season for a move back to the outside.
We’ve seen very little of Tank back on the edge — just 16 snaps in the past two weeks — but the early returns have been positive. Against the Browns, Carradine recorded two quarterback pressures and held up better against the run on the outside against tackles and tight ends.
Even though Carradine has one year remaining on his rookie contract, it’s easy to see why these final three games could prove important for his career trajectory after this season. Simply, he needs to get as much good play on tape as possible. A strong finish to his 2015 campaign will create some positive vibes entering the offseason and should help him ensure another opportunity with the 49ers next season. And if Baalke’s patience runs out or a new coaching staff decides to cut ties, it will make it easier for Tank to find a landing spot with one of the 31 other NFL franchises.