Within the past 48 hours, a flurry of reports have surfaced in what amounted to one of the worst offseason periods in recent 49ers history, as numerous marquee players appear to be on their way out in one fashion or another. Frank Gore is destined to get one final opportunity to be a feature back… in either Philadelphia or Indianapolis; Patrick Willis shocked the NFL world by announcing that he is ready for life after football, reported to have experienced a "religious awakening of sorts"; Justin Smith is still deliberating, but could be joining Willis in calling it a career. If that weren’t enough, Mike Iupati will reportedly sign with a division rival, Stevie Johnson might be looking for a new home after just one season, and Bruce Miller was arrested on spousal abuse charges. Oh yeah, and the team’s supposed franchise quarterback is popping up in trade rumors.
There are still details aplenty to be sorted out in the coming days, and many of the aforementioned moves have yet to be made official. But with the imminent departures of foundational players such as Gore, Willis, and Smith — the faces of the franchise for seven-plus seasons and at times the only players worth tuning in to see — the 49ers have reached the end of an era.
The actions of San Francisco’s organizational leadership over the course of the past 15-plus months have received the brunt of the attention in the aftermath of all this — rightfully so in many ways. But the whirlwind of yesterday’s news leaves the 49ers with a number of important questions even beyond how they are being managed. Let’s do our best to sort through some of the major ones and attempt to find out just where in the hell the 49ers stand with the new league year kicking off.
Should the 49ers have made a greater effort to retain Gore?
The losses of Willis and Smith will certainly be felt, but their decisions to retire are their own. Many will try and connect those departures to the turmoil currently surrounding the organization, but I have a difficult time pinning retirement decisions on Trent Baalke & Co. Frank Gore, on the other hand, is exceedingly clear in his desire to play football in 2015, and a number of people believe the 49ers’ brass should have done everything in their power to retain San Francisco’s all-time leading rusher.
The Indianapolis Colts reportedly offered Gore a 3-year, $12 million deal with $7.5 million in guaranteed money. He had a deal in place with the Philadelphia Eagles, but changed his mind and appears set to head to the Colts. Either way, it gives us an idea of what teams are willing to pay the 32-year-old running back. With the 49ers own offer coming in at $4 million for one year, it’s easy to see why Gore looked at other options.
As I wrote late last week, the 49ers shouldn’t try and match compensation with a team that still views Gore as a lead back. Paying a player for what you expect him to do rather than rewarding for what’s already been accomplished is Contracts 101, and the likelihood of Gore performing up to aforementioned figures he is garnering on the open market are slim. Sure, that cost isn’t crippling by any stretch and the 49ers could easily accommodate that type of contract. But with holes continuing to open up on this roster, and a talented, young replacement ready to go in Carlos Hyde, the opportunity cost for paying a premium on one of the oldest running backs in football is simply too high, even for an iconic player such as Gore.
Wait… wasn’t this supposed to be a reload?
"This isn’t a rebuild situation. This is a reload situation."
Trent Baalke’s words following the announcement of Jim Harbaugh’s
firing parting of the ways are ringing more and more hollow with each passing day, and the retirement of Willis is only accelerating the process.
Depending on how far you want to go back, the 49ers are poised to turnover at least half of their most significant contributors in 2015.
(Bold = different from Super Bowl team; Italics = different from 2014; * = incumbent at position is still on roster)
Of the core building blocks most instrumental in the 49ers revival over the past four seasons, only five remain — Colin Kaepernick, Vernon Davis, Joe Staley, NaVorro Bowman, and Aldon Smith. Staley is the only one of those five who is both still playing at a high level and has some semblance of long-term security. Kaepernick is already being mentioned in trade rumors (don’t worry, we’ll get there), and the defining characteristic of his contract is how easily the 49ers can get out of it. Davis is coming off his worst season as a pro and entering the final year in his deal. Bowman is locked up long-term, but is coming off a gruesome knee injury that forced him to miss the entire 2014 season. And the 49ers are no longer committed to Aldon Smith for more than a month at a time after the restructuring of the final year of his rookie contract.
All of that turnover has transformed the 49ers from a team heavily reliant on veteran players to one expecting significant contributions from youngsters. San Francisco’s roster is obviously far from finalized with free agency having just begun and the draft on the horizon, but at his point nearly every one of the veteran players expected to depart will be replaced by a member of the 49ers’ previous two draft classes.
Baalke should be praised for the fact that there is a recent draftee waiting in the wings behind nearly every key departure, and indicates the 49ers have been planning for this day for some time now. However, inserting that many unproven commodities at once presents a myriad of unknowns. While some of those players excelled for extended stretches last season (Chris Borland and Aaron Lynch) and others showed flashes in more limited roles (Carlos Hyde and Dontae Johnson), not a single one of them played in more than 50 percent of the 49ers’ snaps in 2014. However talented you might think that crop of players are individually, there’s no guarantee any of them will be productive NFL players three seasons from now. And perhaps more importantly, we have no idea how they will mesh together in the absence of so many key veteran players.
Unless your team is quarterbacked by Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, it would be unreasonable for any franchise to expect all of those unknowns to translate into immediate success. Even in the most optimistic of scenarios, the 49ers are bound to run into some roadblocks in the coming season. The 2015 49ers bear little resemblance to the team that went to three consecutive championship games, and despite Jed York’s "Super Bowl or Bust" mentality, expectations should be adjusted accordingly.
Should the 49ers just blow it up?
One of the worst traps an organization can fall into is convincing themselves they are ready to contend when they should be rebuilding. It’s how you turn into the Romo-era Cowboys — toiling in mediocrity and rattling off .500 seasons year after year.
With the 49ers well beyond the point of simply reloading, it begs the question: should San Francisco just bottom out, focus on the development of their young talent, and turn their eye toward 2016 and beyond?
The release of Ahmad Brooks and Stevie Johnson appears all but certain at this point, and will free up $10.72 million in cap space (all cap data is courtesy of OverTheCap.com) if San Francisco designates Brooks as a post-June 1st cut. But Brooks and Johnson aren’t the only veterans currently under contract that the 49ers could realistically move on from this offseason.
Cutting Vernon Davis would open up $4.9 million in cap space for 2015. Anquan Boldin’s release would net $3.2 million. The extension given to Bruce Miller last offseason means the 49ers would receive little in the way of cap savings if they wind up cutting him in the aftermath of his recent spousal abuse incident, but with only $1.3 million in dead money there would also be little penalty. And though less likely than it was a week ago after turning the final year of his rookie deal into a series of non-guaranteed bonuses, the 49ers could clear an additional $4.8 million by releasing Aldon Smith.
In total, those moves would provide the 49ers with approximately $24.14 million in additional cap space for 2015 while allowing them to sever ties with many of the remaining pieces from the Harbaugh-era, three of which are over 30 and unlikely to be on the next 49ers championship team anyway (Brooks, Davis, Boldin) and two others with off-the-field problems that put a sizable dent in York’s "win with class" mantra (Smith, Miller).
Following through with those moves would send a clearer message than any Yoraalke press conference about the current state of the team, and would all but ensure San Francisco’s absence from the postseason for a second straight campaign, further enraging a fanbase that is already on the edge. I don’t know punting the 2015 season in March is the best path for the long-term trajectory of the franchise, but as unfathomable as something like this would’ve seemed 12 months ago, it’s a path that needs to be considered.
What does the cap situation look like now?
Fooch covered the salary cap implications of the retirements of Justin Smith and Patrick Willis yesterday, but it’s worth going over again briefly here.
With Smith and Willis off the books, the 49ers clear $11.67 million in cap space in 2015, giving them $21.53 million in cap space before any other transactions. Putting aside the doomsday scenario described in the previous section for a moment and assuming Baalke follows through on the rumored cuts of Ahmad Brooks and Stevie Johnson, that bumps available cap space up to $31.32 million. That’s a significant departure from the team’s cap situation only a week ago when the league announced official salary cap figures.
The important question then becomes…
What should the 49ers do with that extra cap space?
This largely depends on the 49ers’ feelings about their chances of contending in 2015, but there are a few routes they can go.
We know some of that cash will be offloaded into Torrey Smith’s bank account soon. Smith’s addition has been confirmed by former teammate Anquan Boldin, and will likely be made official sometime later today. As of this writing, terms of Smith’s contract haven’t been made available, but something in the neighborhood of Golden Tate’s contract — $6.2 million per with roughly one-third of the total value guaranteed — from a year ago (with much of the guaranteed money coming in the first couple of years of the deal) seems about right. Whatever the final figures, it will undoubtedly the richest contract Baalke has handed out to a free agent wide receiver.
It would be a significant departure from Baalke’s previous free agent approach, but the 49ers have the flexibility to splurge on a couple of additional pieces in free agency to help fill in the gaps if they so desire. Someone like C.J. Spiller, who the rumor mill has already connected to the team, or Shane Vereen (now rumored to be connected to the New York Giants) could add a more explosive, pass catching element to the backfield to compliment Hyde. Cornerback and outside linebacker are other positions that could warrant spending above the bargain bin on.
Speaking of cornerback, Baalke could opt to use the additional space to bring back Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox, avoiding a revamp of the position for a third time in five seasons. Cox will likely be the easier of the two to retain considering the amount of interest Culliver is reportedly drawing, and the early market has been favorable for cornerbacks looking to cash in. Brandon Flowers re-signed with San Diego for $9 million per and Byron Maxwell received over $10 million per with a guarantee that will make him among the highest paid at the position.
If Culliver is able to command similar numbers, it would likely push him outside of the 49ers’ reach and would be considerably richer than any deal Baalke has handed out at the position. But a deal similar to the one Pittsburgh gave to Cortez Allen last year — $6.15 million per over four years with $6.75 million guaranteed — might be more palatable, and could wind up being enough to keep Culliver in red and gold.
The final alternative would be to stick to their free agent status quo — poach undervalued veterans once other franchises have spent the bulk of their money at the top of the market and roll over much of that extra cap space to next season, which could be used for possible extensions coming down the pipeline.
One thing is certain: we will learn a lot about what the upcoming couple of seasons will look like from how the 49ers choose to use this extra cap space.
Could the 49ers actually move on from Kaepernick?
Outside of the Patrick Willis retirement, the most shocking news of the day was Jayson Braddock’s report that the 49ers have placed Colin Kaepernick on the trading block.
Baalke was quick to deny the report, telling Matt Maiocco:
Colin is our quarterback and we are excited to have him. He is not going anywhere. The media reports suggesting otherwise are without merit and, quite frankly, ridiculous.
There’s zero reason for Baalke to say otherwise, and it does seem dubious that the 49ers would choose to move on from Kaepernick prior to the 2015 season. But for a moment, let’s entertain the idea that the 49ers are actively trying to move on from Kaepernick and they want to do so as soon as possible. What would the quarterback situation look like if that happened?
We can probably rule out the 49ers choosing to enter 2015 with a quarterback currently on the street. The free agent quarterback class is an absolute disaster, and trotting out someone like Jake Locker or Ryan Mallett in the season opener might cause 49ers’ fans to set Levi’s Stadium on fire.
Instead, the 49ers would either need to receive another quarterback in return (say Nick Foles, if the Philly interest is to be believed) or enough in the way of draft pick compensation to move up to the top of the draft and select either Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariotta. The only way either option makes sense is in the doomsday scenario described above, with the 49ers emphatically pulling the plug on competing in 2015.
As improbable as any of this seems right now, many had similar feelings (perhaps even stronger) following the Harbaugh-Browns trade rumors around this time last year, myself included. And that is really the primary concern here. With their handling of the Harbaugh fiasco, the 49ers’ credibilty in these matters has completely evaporated. Even if Kaepernick sticks around for the upcoming season, it’s impossible not to feel like we are in for another year of whispers regarding his status with the team. Can you think of a single instance in which a quarterback was mentioned in trade rumors and things remained kosher between said team and quarterback? I can’t.
I would love to say a Kaepernick trade would shocking, but at this point how is anything this franchise does surprising? They’ve entered full-fledged Tyson Zone status, and even if all this blows over, it’s probably time we stopped allowing ourselves to be taken by surprise.