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The San Francisco 49ers reportedly have just $1.577 million of space within the NFL's estimated salary cap. However, that number may be slightly higher depending on who you ask and may change based on the final salary cap figure announced by the NFL, which is estimated to be somewhere between $140-143 million. There are only four NFL teams that have less cap space than the 49ers and they are the Pittsburgh Steelers, St. Louis Rams, New England Patriots, and the New Orleans Saints. This is all according to fellow USA TODAY Sports partner Spotrac.com, which specializes in NFL salary cap information.
During the offseason, only the team's 51 largest salaries count against the cap. The 49ers will need to make sure they are at least $5.1 million under the cap to account for the projected draft pick compensation, which is the maximum amount of salary cap money that a team will need in order to sign all of their 2015 NFL Draft selections.
Yesterday, Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area said that the team can clear $7.35 million by releasing outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks after June 1, but that number is actually probably closer to something like $4.7 million. Regardless, that is well after the NFL Draft.
In addition to Brooks, Spotrac.com recently brought up that the team can begin to create some cap room by either restructuring the contract of wide receiver Stevie Johnson or releasing him. Johnson's base salary will be $5.5 million and according to Overthecap.com, his release would create just over $6 million in cap savings regardless of when it was done. Hopefully a restructure is possible because he adds value to the team. They also suggest that the team might restructure the majority of quarterback Colin Kaepernick's $10.4 million base salary into a signing bonus, saving further money against the cap.
The 49ers might have to get creative like this if they want to be active participants in free agency, which begins on March 10. Teams can begin contacting player agents on March 7.
Once again, the 49ers will likely take a wait-and-see approach in free agency, trying to find diamonds in the rough after the dust from the early frenzy settles. Don't expect them to go after any big names or be active early, because the money to do so isn't there.
Top 10 Base Salaries
QB Colin Kaepernick - $10,400,000
OLB Aldon Smith - $9,754,000
ILB Patrick Willis - $7,065,000
WR Anquan Boldin - $5,500,000
WR Stevie Johnson - $5,500,000
ILB NaVorro Bowman - $4,700,000
LT Joe Staley - $4,500,000
TE Vernon Davis - $4,350,000
OLB Ahmad Brooks - $3,500,000
G Alex Boone - $3,400,000
Top 10 Cap Hits
This number includes any bonuses the player is due.
QB Colin Kaepernick - $15,265,753
OLB Aldon Smith - $9,754,000
ILB Patrick Willis - $8,268,000
ILB NaVorro Bowman - $7,654,000
OLB Ahmad Brooks - $7,055,000
TE Vernon Davis - $6,967,920
WR Anquan Boldin - $6,909,000
DE Justin Smith - $6,436,667
LT Joe Staley - $6,400,000
WR Stevie Johnson - $6,025,000
Notable Free Agents
RB Frank Gore ($6.45 million cap hit in 2014)
The Indianapolis Colts are reportedly interested in the 49ers' 31-year old star running back should he hit March 10 (or even March 7) without a new contract. The 49ers have already been in contact with Gore's agent to begin negotiations. However, there is no way that Gore returns to the 49ers and makes the same amount of money that he has made in recent years. He'll need to sign for much less, which is a realistic scenario. Gore could be back in 2015.
WR Michael Crabtree ($4.77 million cap hit in 2014)
While the 49ers have already started talks with Crabtree's agent, it is likely that he will hit the open market on March 10. The top free agent wide receivers will be Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas. It is possible that Crabtree has to wait before he gets some attention. If that happens, the 49ers may be able to bring him back for less than what Crabtree and his agent feel he is worth. However, with salary cap constraints and other needs to address, it is unlikely that Crabtree returns to the team.
G Mike Iupati ($4.626 million cap hit in 2014)
Iupati will be the top guard to hit free agency and will likely have many teams courting him. He stands to make much more than he made with the 49ers and is very unlikely to return.
CB Chris Culliver ($1.581 million cap hit in 2014)
The 49ers' two top cornerbacks are both scheduled to be free agents. Even with a crowded list of available players at the position, they could garner some significant interest from other teams. One may return, but both remaining with the 49ers is unlikely. Culliver's stock may take a hit because of off-the-field issues, but someone will take a chance on him. A number of better cornerbacks are scheduled to hit free agency, but some of them may be re-signed by their previous teams prior to March 10.
CB Perrish Cox ($695,000 cap hit in 2014)
Cox had a base salary of just $645,000 in 2014. That is an absolute bargain for a starting cornerback. If the 49ers can only retain one of their free agent corners, it may be him because of the cost. If not, the team still has Tramaine Brock for the next three seasons.
The other team free agents are QB Blaine Gabbert, QB Josh Johnson, RB Alfonso Smith, RB Phillip Tanner, WR Brandon Lloyd, WR Kassim Osgood, TE Garrett Celek, DE Tony Jerod-Eddie, OLB Dan Skuta, OLB Desmond Bishop, ILB Michael Wilhoite, CB Chris Cook, S Raymond Ventrone, and LS Kyle Nelson.
So now that we have a somewhat good idea of what the numbers look like and who may be lost, let's take a look at the areas on the team that need to be addressed in either free agency or the NFL Draft.
With Michael Crabtree likely on his way out and Stevie Johnson's cap number higher than what the 49ers might be comfortable with, wide receiver has become a glaring need for the team. Anquan Boldin still leads the group, but at age 34, the team may want to get younger and faster at the position. Look for a speedy wide receiver to be a target in the NFL Draft. Will the 49ers be willing to move up from the 15 spot to grab a Kevin White or Amari Cooper or will they stay put or even select a receiver during day two? Remember, the 49ers were not willing to trade up last year for Odell Beckham because they felt that the price was too high.
While there is a possibility that at least one returns, the team could lose both 2014 starting cornerbacks in free agency. As mentioned, they still have Brock and the team is high on some of their youngsters at the position, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they are comfortable with them starting. If the 49ers don't go wide receiver early, they may take a cornerback if they feel that player can contribute immediately.
In December, the 49ers released defensive tackle Ray McDonald due to repeated off-the-field issues. Defensive end Justin Smith is contemplating retirement. The team is high on the youngster Tank Carradine and Glenn Dorsey will be returning from injury and has two more seasons left on his contract. Head coach Jim Tomsula knows the defensive line better than anyone and hopes to keep the unit strong. The team has scheduled a visit with Ricky Jean-Francois, who started his career with the 49ers before leaving for the Indianapolis Colts. The 49ers could address the defensive line both through free agency and the NFL Draft.
Guard Mike Iupati will be too expensive to retain and the injury bug hit elsewhere in 2014. Tackle Anthony Davis missed significant time which impacted the 49ers' running game. The team lost center Daniel Kilgore for the season and was never really able to solidify the position. Due to the costs, the offensive line will likely be addressed in the NFL Draft rather than free agency.
General manager Trent Baalke has stated that Vernon Davis will remain with the team in 2015 — as if there was ever any doubt. He struggled this past season putting up career low receiving yards (245) and tied a career low in touchdowns (2). He also had the fewest receptions since his rookie season with the 49ers in 2006. Vance McDonald is coming off of a season-ending back injury. Before that, his numbers were disappointing. The first player that the team met with at the NFL Scouting Combine was Miami tight end Clive Walford. If that is any indication, the 49ers will look to improve the position via the NFL Draft.
While it is likely that Frank Gore could return to the team, there is no guarantee until the pen hits the contract. Running back Kendall Hunter is coming off of an ACL tear that occurred in late July. Marcus Lattimore was never able to fully recover from a knee injury that he suffered at South Carolina and retired. Carlos Hyde has shown promise, but the team may want to add some more depth and power at the position. The 49ers could find someone in the later rounds of the NFL Draft.
While the departure of backup Blaine Gabbert won't be seen as a big loss, the team will still need to add one or two quarterbacks to the roster. Fan favorite Josh Johnson is also a free agent, but could return to compete for a job at a low cost. His 2014 cap hit was only around $335,000, which is much less than the $2.01 million that Gabbert took up. Colin Kaepernick underperformed last season and there was never any threat when he looked over his shoulder. The 49ers may want to address that in free agency with an inexpensive veteran or make a real statement and use a draft pick on a quarterback.
But … Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid! But also Craig Dahl and L.J. McCray. Besides, Eric Reid has suffered multiple concussions during his short time in the league. While some of that may be addressed via coaching and adjusting how he tackles, you have to at least look at the safety position in free agency or the NFL Draft — just in case.
Estimated figures from Spotrac.com and Overthecap.com