SANTA CLARA, Calif. - It appears the San Francisco 49ers are unlikely to use the franchise tag this spring, making 2015 the third consecutive year the team has refrained from using the designation.
With 19 free agents hitting the open market March 10, the 49ers have the option to slap the expensive tag on pending free agents Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati, Chris Culliver or Frank Gore, among others, paying them the average of the five-highest paid players at their respective positions last season.
According to a report from CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora, next year's salary cap will be no lower than $141 million and will not eclipse $144 million. Last year's salary cap was a reported $133 million after a $10 million jump from 2013.
The marked increase in the salary cap will be accompanied by larger franchise designations. Teams can begin putting the tags on players Feb. 16, just before the start of the scouting combine the next day. The franchise tag is a non-negotiable one-year deal that allows teams to prevent free agents from hitting the open market. The last time the 49ers used it was for safety Dashon Goldson in 2012, who left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency the next season.
Here are the expected (although not finalized) franchise tag numbers, according to the report:
Quarterback: $18.38 million
Offensive line: $12.83M
Wide receiver: $12.71M
Running back: $10.85M
Tight end: $8.27M
Defensive end: $14.68M
Defensive tackle: $11.09M
The 49ers have six players who had significant roles last season hitting free agency: Crabtree, Iupati, Gore, Culliver, Perrish Cox and Dan Skuta. None of them appear likely to get the franchise tag given what it would cost versus their relative values.
A couple notes about the franchise tag relating to the 49ers:
--When they picked up Aldon Smith's fifth-year option last May, the 49ers locked him into a $9.75 million salary for 2015. That's a $3.3 million savings over the expected franchise number for linebackers the coming season. It was a controversial decision given Smith's off-the-field issues at the time, but given the 49ers believed Smith to be one of the league's best pass rushers, they likely looked at the salary as a relative bargain. Hindsight, of course, is 20-20.
Smith managed just two sacks in his seven games after returning from his nine-game suspension. He will have to rebound significantly in 2015, and stay out of trouble, to justify his dramatic hike in pay.
In theory, Smith's leverage might be in a low point in terms of a long-term contract extension. San Francisco could look to sign him to a multi-year deal that gives gives him more money up front, but lowers 2015's cap number.
But that would require a leap of faith, and the 49ers would be taking a significant risk given Smith missed 14 games over the last two years for reasons having nothing to do with football. They could come up with incentive clauses that provide the team an easy out, or reduce his pay if he has any more issues.
The point is, it wouldn't be a complete surprise if developments about an extension for Smith surfaced this offseason to help lower his cap figure and give the team flexibility going forward.
--It's unlikely the 49ers would go this route, but Culliver, 26, might be the team's free agent most worthy of the franchise tag. He had as many interceptions as touchdowns allowed in 2014, putting himself in a select group of NFL corners. And according to Pro Football Focus, Culliver had the league's 10th-ranked passer rating when targeted of 66.5.
Culliver wasn't a perfect player, but he was a positive development considering it was his first season removed from his ACL tear. He has a rare combination of size and speed, and isn't afraid to play physically. To channel Jim Harbaugh, Culliver is an ascending player. Fellow free agent and cornerback Perrish Cox also had a solid season, but his production tailed off toward the end of the year while Culliver's picked up.
Like Smith, however, Culliver's off-the-field issues remain a concern. He was arrested last spring for a hit-and-run while brandishing brass knuckles.
--Vernon Davis, entering the final year of his contract, is the closest 49ers' player to his respective franchise designation. He is slated to count for $6.967 million against the cap, which is $1.3 million below the number for tight ends.
NaVorro Bowman's $7.654 salary is $5.426 million below the designation for linebackers. Patrick Willis' salary is $4.812 million below. Left tackle Joe Staley will count for $6.4 million against the cap in 2015 - which is less than half the franchise number for offensive lineman. Staley was Pro Football Focus' fourth-ranked left tackle last season.
Of course, Staley's cap numbers increase to $8.3, $11.15, $7.7 and $7.7 million, respectively, over the other four years of his extension he signed last summer.
When it comes to the franchise tag, it's always better to sign players to long-term deals at cheaper rates as early as possible. Bowman, Willis and Staley and a few examples why.
--An oddity with the franchise numbers that affects the 49ers: there are designations for defensive ends and defensive tackles, but all five offensive line positions garner the same franchise value. At $12.83 million, the number is far more in line with tackles than guards. The top-five left guards averaged $7.852 million in salary last season.
If there were a franchise number for left guards, that figure would be far more palatable for the 49ers when it came to thinking about bringing back Iupati. The near $5 million discrepancy makes franchising him nearly impossible.
--According to Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News, Colin Kaepernick's salary de-escalated by $2 million for failing to earn All-Pro nominations and lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl. His 2015 salary is down to $10.4 million, nearly $8 million below the franchise number.