SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The 49ers have 15 players in the last year of their contracts and will have some very difficult decisions to make in the offseason. Let's break down their chances at returning in 2015 and beyond given everything we know.
FRANK GORE, RUNNING BACK
When Gore plays well, so do the 49ers. He’s averaging 4.5 yards per carry in the team’s four wins and 3.3 in three losses. There are a number of factors at play, including his overall usage. To this point, Gore, 31, has been a good indicator of the team’s success through the season’s first seven games (he’s averaging 18.5 carries in wins, 9.3 in losses). When Gore gets the ball, he’s up to his usual tricks. He’s eighth in the league with 423 rushing yards and averaging over 4.0 yards per carry, again, which is something he’s done in all 10 years of his career.
Gore signed a three-year, $21 million extension before the start of 2011 that’s up at the end of the season. The 49ers drafted Carlos Hyde in the second round in May, who figures to be the long-term option at running back, which could mean this is the last season for Gore. He is on pace for 966 rushing yards, which would make 2014 just the third time he hasn’t reached 1,000 yards in his long career. Reports surfaced last week about Gore’s roster spot being in jeopardy in the offseason, which would seem like common sense considering his age and $6-million cap figure.
If Gore returns to the 49ers, it will likely have to be at a cheaper rate. The million dollar question, of course, is whether or not Gore will be willing to take a pay cut to play an 11th season with San Francisco, or if he could get more money on the open market. He will be 32 next year, which isn’t ideal for a free-agent running back looking to cash out.
MICHAEL CRABTREE, RECEIVER
Crabtree has been a notoriously difficult player for the 49ers to negotiate with dating back to his rookie year in 2009 when his holdout prevented him from playing until Week 6. The former No. 10-overall pick is reportedly looking to make franchise-type money, which means around $11 million per year. But given that he’s just a year and half removed from a career-altering Achilles tear, and has just one 1,000-yard season under his belt, is he worth that kind of investment?
Crabtree has not been great this season. He has already dropped five passes. Pace out his current numbers and he’s looking at a 73-catch, 736-yard, 7-touchdown season, which is worth far less than he and his representative Eugene Parker will be looking for. Of course, his down statistics are a product of San Francisco fielding four capable wideouts for the first time in his career. Still, the eye test says Crabtree isn’t completely recovered from his injury and his hands haven’t been as good this season as in the past.
With nine games left, there is plenty of time for Crabtree to turn things around and prove he’s worth top-flight money at the position. But right now, his play isn’t warranting that type of commitment from the 49ers. However, Crabtree is one of Colin Kaepernick's closest friends on the team, and it might behoove San Francisco to not toil with their newly-signed franchise QB.
Recent history indicates giving receivers big contracts is risky business. Aside from Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald, who both received deals exceeding $100 million, Percy Harvin (five years, $64.245 million), Mike Wallace (five years, $60 million), Dwayne Bowe (five years, $56 million), are the next highest paid-wideouts on the list. And given their production, the Seahawks (who traded Harvin last week), the Dolphins and Chiefs cannot be happy about inking those pricey contracts.
The X-factor in Crabtree's situation is Stevie Johnson, who has 25 catches compared to Crabtree's 32, despite playing 208 fewer snaps. Johnson is signed through 2016 with cap figures of $6.025 and $6.125 million over the next two seasons and is hoping to prove he could become a starter in 2015.
MIKE IUPATI, LEFT GUARD
Personnel people would argue there’s no easier position on the field to replace than a guard. That may be true, but Iupati has been a vital piece to the 49ers’ run-first identity since coming into the league in 2010. He has never been great in pass protection, and he’s off to a rough start in that area this year, but he usually one of the league’s best in the running game.
Pro Football Focus says Iupati has been the league’s second-best run-blocking guard despite missing last week’s game in Denver with a concussion. Typically, the 49ers love to get the 331-pounder running down hill as a pulling guard, clearing the way for Gore in the A and B gaps.
When healthy, Iupati is one of the most productive guards in football. But it doesn’t appear that he is fully recovered from last January’s fractured fibula. Top-rate guards make $7 and $8 million per year on the open market. It doesn't look like the 49ers are interested in shelling out that kind of money given the substantial raises they are looking at elsewhere on the roster, including at quarterback.
Would San Francisco be willing to give Iupati $4 or $5 million per season? That seems more likely. But it’s also likely he gets offered than that more on the open market.
BLAINE GABBERT, QUARTERBACK
Kaepernick has never missed a start since taking over for Alex Smith in 2012, so the 49ers’ aren’t likely to offer Gabbert any more than the league minimum in the offseason. He will make a fully-guaranteed $2 million this year before hitting free agency in the spring. There’s a chance Jim Harbaugh likes Gabbert enough, and wants some cohesion after a two-year carrousel at back up QB, to bring him back. But it would seem more likely the 49ers go the cheap route and draft a quarterback Harbaugh can mold without the baggage of past failures like Gabbert has from his days in Jacksonville.
DAN SKUTA, OUTSIDE LINEBACKER
One thing is clear, Harbaugh loves him some Skuta. As does the rest of the coaching staff. Rightfully so. It’s hard to imagine where the 49ers defense would be without Skuta’s contributions in place of Aldon Smith during his five-game absence in 2013 and suspension this year. Skuta’s also a key contributor on special teams, which is the reason he was added to the roster in the first place prior to last season. Skuta has a career-high two sacks this year after posting two in last year’s playoffs.
With Smith getting his fifth-year option picked up for next season, he will see his salary hike from $3.3 to $9.75 million, which might make it difficult to bring Skuta back at a number the team would be willing to pay. Given his improvement, another team needing a starting outside linebacker at an affordable price will look long and hard at Skuta, knowing they won’t have to pay top dollar. And that amount will likely be more than the 49ers would be willing to pay, given they have Smith and Ahmad Brooks’ $9.65 million cap number next season.
If Brooks is brought back at that cap figure, along with Aaron Lynch likely to get more time next year, why would Skuta turn down a starting job elsewhere to come back to the 49ers as a backup?
DEMARCUS DOBBS, DEFENSIVE END
Dobbs hasn’t played more than 18 snaps in a game this year, and doesn’t appear to be a strong candidate to be brought back in 2015 given the 49ers have second-year players Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial waiting in the wings. Dobbs’ knowledge of the defense and ability to play special teams has given him the edge over those young players this year. But with another season under their belts, it would be in San Francisco’s best interest to allow Dobbs to hit free agency and let their cheaper young players get a better shot at the field.
On the year, Dobbs has six tackles, including one for a loss. He has yet to register a QB pressure or hit, according to PFF.
BRANDON LLOYD, WIDE RECEIVER
Lloyd is off to revelatory start with the 49ers, having made key receptions in wins over the Chiefs and Rams that have spring-boarded an offense that has struggled to make plays deep down the field. He is averaging 25.2 yards per catch, thanks to 31 percent of his receiving yards coming on his 80-yard touchdown grab at the end of the second half in St. Louis.
Lloyd is making just over $1 million this season. If he maintains this level of production throughout the entire year, and still has a desire to play next season, it would seem likely the 49ers would be willing to bring him back at a similar number. But if he’s looking for a significant raise, San Francisco might have a hard time accommodating him and could look for a deep threat in the draft or free agency.
There’s a pending free agency vacuum at cornerback for the 49ers. Of their five corners, only Tramaine Brock and Dontae Johnson are locked up beyond this season. Given their play to this point, it appears Cox is the most likely to get a new deal. The metrics suggest he has been one of the league’s best corners this year. Quarterbacks have a 53.4 passer rating when throwing in his direction, good for fourth-best in the league. And Cox is in a four-way tie for second among corners with three interceptions.
Culliver hasn’t made as many splashy plays as Cox, but he’s been solid on the other side of the field. He’s the team’s best corner at defending the run. His Achilles heal, however, is defending the deep ball. And it’s been a little surprising teams haven’t tested him more down the field coming off last year's ACL tear.
General manager Trent Baalke has gone on the record a few times discussing his fondness for Culliver. It’s understandable. Culliver came has ideal size (6’0”, 199 pounds) and ran a really quick 4.40 40-yard dash at the combine. But given his off-the-field transgressions, both on media day prior to the Super Bowl and his brass knuckles incident, Culliver is a volatile commodity. But, he has elite physical traits.
Cook was brought in this season on a one-year deal for the league minimum as a depth piece. He had a good camp and is a good fit in the defense. But with Johnson’s strong rookie season in limited time on the field, it doesn’t appear Cook would be in the team’s long-term plans. But that could change.
KENDALL HUNTER, RUNNING BACK
Following his ACL tear, his second season-ending injury in three seasons, Baalke said he wants Hunter to return to the 49ers in 2015. They have just two runnings backs on the roster, Gore and Hyde, and could use another with Hunter’s skill set, assuming he returns to full strength next season. Marcus Lattimore could complicate Hunter’s standing with the team, as could next year’s draft. There are a lot of variables in play for Hunter.
KYLE NELSON, LONG SNAPPER
Nelson has drawn praise not only for his snapping, but for his willingness to make tackles in coverage. Assuming those two things don’t change, expect Nelson to return next year.
MICHAEL WILHOITE, INSIDE LINEBACKER
Wilhoite has been a valuable replacement for the 49ers, filling in for Patrick Willis for two games in 2013 and NaVorro Bowman for all of this season. But he’s in the same position as Skuta. Why would he return to the 49ers as a backup when he could potentially be made a starter elsewhere? The better Wilhoite plays in Bowman’s place going forwad, the less likely it is he returns to San Francisco as a backup. Plus, San Francisco invested a third-round pick in Chris Borland in the spring, who they expect to progress drastically by 2015.
GARRETT CELEK, TIGHT END
Celek is on the reserve/NFI list with a back injury. He has remained a regular at the team’s facility rehabbing. But once he is healthy, it’s hard to envision the 49ers clearing a spot on the 53-man roster for his return. Derek Carrier has developed nicely, and Vance McDonald provides the blocking prowess the team needs in a reserve tight end. If the 49ers elect to let Celek go elsewhere next season, they could find a blocking tight end late in the draft.
TONY JEROD-EDDIE, DEFENSIVE END
Jerod-Eddie has been an important depth piece for the 49ers over the last two seasons, but has done little to stand out. His best asset might be his versatility. He can play all three positions along the 49ers defensive line. But, again, with Carradine and Dial expected to take on bigger roles going forward, it doesn’t appear the 49ers would have much interest in bringing Jerod-Eddie back for any more than the league minimum.
*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*
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