At the start of the 49ers' training camp in 2014, Alex Boone and Vernon Davis had been absent from all team activities in an attempt to secure new contracts with the organization. Both had two years left on their current deals, but both felt underpaid. The organization chose instead to give an extension to Joe Staley, who already had four years left on his deal. Neither Alex Boone nor Vernon Davis are 49ers anymore. Staley was an elite left tackle with Pro Bowl credentials, he had served as a leader in the locker room and on the field, and he was present and competing at training camp.
The message seemed clear: If you want a contract extension with this team, you must be with the team to earn it. In 2014, the 49ers were up against the cap, and they had to make difficult choices about which of their talented players should be kept as cornerstones for the future. Staley's involvement with the team and his example to his peers were as important as his ability to win individual matchups on the field.
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Fast forward to 2016, and the 49ers are in a much different financial position. They are well below the salary cap, and they have far less established talent. They are in the process of evaluating young, unproven talent on the roster to ensure that they select the right players to retain, in order to rebuild a winning team. The extension for Bowman was another clear message. Bowman didn't need an extension. He had three years remaining on his previous contract, and he had struggled admirably through knee issues as part of his recovery last year.
Cynics have already questioned the move, stating that the 49ers were in position to let him prove he was all the way back to his previous status as the NFL's elite inside linebacker before they chose to pay him. To players within the organization, the message must be clear: We have money to spend; be like Navorro Bowman, and you will get yours.
For the 49ers to have any chance to compete this year, they will need significant contributions and career years from several young, talented players who have not established their names within the league, nor their places on the team. Carlos Hyde needs to stay healthy, Jimmie Ward needs to excel in a starting position, Aaron Lynch needs a season with ten or more sacks, Ian Williams needs to be a vocal and supportive teammate while recovering completely from his most recent injury, and Eric Reid needs to intercept passes and consistently take optimal angles to the football. There are many more players who can tap into the 49ers deep wallets this year, such as Bruce Ellington, Quinton Patton, Blaine Gabbert, Vance McDonald, Andrew Tiller, Tank Carradine, and Dontae Johnson, but those players have even further to go, as they haven't yet secured guaranteed playing time on a weekly basis. All of these players have talent. Some of them have shown flashes. Some of them are active in the community. Some of them lend responsible voices to the locker room. Some set consistent and motivating examples of effort and accountability during workouts. Some have risen up in clutch moments and made a play when the team desperately needed one. Navorro Bowman has done all of those things, he continues to do them consistently, and he just got paid for it. The 49ers didn't need to pay him right now; they chose to. Message sent.