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Minicamp for the San Francisco 49ers ended yesterday. Offseason practices have given general manager Trent Baalke an opportunity to observe key players and that will continue during the team's training camp in July, preseason, and even into the regular season. He's not just looking at the youngsters and new faces on the team. Baalke and his staff will also be keeping an eye on a number of veteran players who are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents in 2016.
Let's take a look at three of the key players who are heading into their contract year.
Tight End, 31 years old
2015 Cap Hit: $6,967,920
Davis' 2014 effort was disappointing. His numbers were some of the worst of his nine seasons in the league. Career lows included receiving yards (245) and average yards per reception (9.4). He tied his career low in touchdowns (2), which is especially disappointing considering that in 2013, he tied his career high (13) in that category. He also only had 26 total receptions for the season, which is his second lowest season total. His lowest came during his 2006 rookie season when he appeared in only 10 games.
Davis and quarterback Colin Kaepernick have been working during the offseason to reignite their chemistry. However, if that does not transfer over to the regular season, then the 49ers may be willing to part ways with Davis.
The team still has tight end Vance McDonald, whose contract does not expire until 2017 and will have a 2016 cap hit of only $1,145,193, and added tight ends Blake Bell and Rory Anderson in the draft. McDonald has not lived up to expectations so far, so look for the 49ers to throw some of the young guys into the mix because if Davis once again ends up with pedestrian numbers, it may be better to take a risk on one of their cheaper options.
Wide Receiver, 34 years old
2015 Cap Hit: $6,909,000
There is no doubt that Boldin, even at age 34, remains one of the best players on the team. He will be 35 when he is scheduled to become a free agent in 2016. Well, technically his contract runs through 2018, but the last two years are likely to be voided. He led the team in receiving during each of his two seasons with the 49ers. During each of those years, he had over 1,000 yards receiving, which is something that he had not done while with the Baltimore Ravens and had not done since 2009 with the Arizona Cardinals.
Boldin still has a strong passion to play and, despite the offseason changes, still strongly believes in the team. "If you're not playing to win the championship, you don't need to be in this locker room," said Boldin while speaking to the media during minicamp.
Boldin will likely contribute as usual during the 2015 season. The question the team will have to ask is whether or not they want to pay for potential future contributions from a 35 year old wide receiver beyond that point.
During the offseason, the 49ers brought in another former Raven in Torrey Smith, who looks to be the team's number one receiver once Boldin's career in San Francisco is complete — maybe even sooner. The team let receivers Michael Crabtree, Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd walk. However, they drafted DeAndre Smelter of Georgia Tech, who could be huge for the 49ers once he is fully recovered from his ACL injury, and have been impressed early by undrafted free agent DeAndrew White of Alabama.
The team will also take a good look at rookie Dres Anderson of Utah. Already on the roster were Quinton Patton, who has great potential but has yet to live up to it, and Bruce Ellington who has impressed during his limited playing time.
Outside Linebacker, 25 years old
2015 Cap Hit: $4,854,875
It may seem like a no brainer to bring back a pass rushing talent like Smith. However, this upcoming season will be a good opportunity for the team to see how Smith performs without the help of defensive line teammate Justin Smith, who recently retired.
Smith has been able to stay out of trouble since serving a nine game suspension in 2014. During his first three seasons, he averaged 14 sacks. This even includes 2013 when he appeared in only 11 games. In 2014, he had only two sacks in his seven game appearances.
Will Aldon Smith return to form with someone like Tank Carradine in front of him instead of Justin Smith? Have personal off-the-field struggles impacted his performance? Management will be keeping a close eye on Smith's efforts in 2015.
The 49ers drafted linebacker Eli Harold out of Virginia, brought in Philip Wheeler, and brought back Desmond Bishop. However, Wheeler and Bishop were signed to one-year contracts and will also be free agents in 2016. The team had been rumored to be shopping Ahmad Brooks, but those rumors died after the Patrick Willis and Chris Borland retirements — even though Brooks plays outside. The team is also comfortable with Aaron Lynch and Corey Lemonier, who replaced Smith while he sat out the majority of the team's recent minicamp with a minor foot injury.
Other Key Free Agents
Guard Alex Boone, kicker Phil Dawson, defensive tackle Ian Williams, and running back Kendall Hunter will also be unrestricted free agents in 2016. During the upcoming season, eyes will be on these players as well. It will be interesting to see how Hunter, a solid player prior to the ACL injury suffered before the 2014 season, performs when relieving scheduled starter Carlos Hyde. He has a career average of 4.6 yards per carry.
On Thursday, it was reported that the 49ers have $10,301,072 in cap space and two open roster spots. Linebacker Lance Briggs has been on the team's radar for some time. However, much of this money could be earmarked for potential contract extensions or free agent signings in 2016. The 49ers are typically good cap managers.
Unwilling to overpay, the 49ers let some key free agents walk in 2015 and are likely to do so again in 2016. Who those players are will depend on their performances and potential cost.
* Cap numbers from Spotrac.com