Ahmad Brooks: Keep or Cut?

The 49ers are up against the salary cap, meaning they face significant decisions in terms of shedding payroll. We look at Ahmad Brooks' standing with the team this offseason with three years remaining on his contract.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The San Francisco 49ers’ standing with the salary cap will be a significant factor in free agency starting next month.

The team will lose its exclusive rights to negotiate with their own free agents, but gain the availability to talk to other free agents when the new league year starts March 10. On that day, their 19 free agents will be on the open market.

Currently, the 49ers have the league’s fourth-smallest amount of cap space at just $3.787 million accounting for their top 51 contracts, according to Overthecap.com. That assumes the salary cap for 2015 will be at the projected $143 million, which has been widely reported. And the 49ers will have to create more than $5 million in cap space to account for the incoming rookie class in May.

That means the 49ers are going to have to trim payroll, which will come either by current players restructuring their contracts or by making cuts.

San Francisco no longer has the luxury of a quarterback playing under a cheap rookie contract. Colin Kaepernick’s six-year extension signed last summer makes his cap hit a projected $15.3 million after counting for $3.8 million in 2014. And Aldon Smith’s fifth-year option pays him $9.75 million guaranteed for injury, after having a $3.3 million cap number last year.

Earlier in the offseason, we looked at whether or not cutting Vernon Davis, and saving $4.9 million in cap space, was something to consider after his lackluster season.

49ers general manager Trent Baalke refuted the idea that Davis’ standing could be in jeopardy at last week’s scouting combine.

“It was an off year,” Baalke told CSN Bay Area. “He realizes (that). The great thing about Vernon, he understands. He’s been in this business long enough and he’s worked hard enough, he understands where his level of play is and he still believes that he can have some great years ahead of him – as do we. And we look forward to having him a part of those.”

Another player with a lucrative contract coming off a lackluster season is outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks, who was sidelined for disciplinary reasons Week 11 against the Giants and Week 14 against the Raiders.

Brooks signed a reported six-year, $44.5 million deal following the 2011 when he became a mainstay in the starting lineup. He earned second-team All-Pro nods over the next two seasons before registering six sacks in 13 games in 2014 - his fewest since becoming a starter.

Brooks restructured his contract last July, reportedly reducing his base salary by $3.395 million and converting that money into a prorated signing bonus. The move created over $2 million in cap space. He has three years and $25 million remaining on his deal and would be the team’s fifth-highest paid player in 2015.

Pro Football Focus ranked Brooks 41st of 47 outside linebackers that play in a 3-4 in pass rush productivity last season. Rookie Aaron Lynch, the candidate to replace Brooks in the starting lineup, ranked 16th.

If Brooks is released with a post-June 1 designation, the 49ers could save $4.706 million in cap space.

Argument for keeping Brooks

Considering those salary cap numbers, it’s all but impossible to keep Brooks under his current deal, particularly given Lynch’s emergence as a rookie last season. It doesn’t make sense to have a rotational player with the fifth-highest cap hit on the roster.

But a restructure (see: massive) might not be completely off the table, either. Brooks would have prove he wants to stay at a drastically lower price under new head coach Jim Tomsula, whom he shared words with in New York leading to his benching against the Giants in November.

If Brooks has a good offseason and enters training camp in shape - which he did not last year - then he could remain a productive player going forward. But he turns 31 March 14 and it’s hard to find scenarios in which his return makes sense.

Argument for cutting Brooks

The 49ers are going to have to make significant cuts to their payroll entering the spring, and the easiest way to do it is to take big contracts off the books. Brooks is the most clear candidate given his age and his drop in production in 2014. His verbal altercation with Tomsula and missing a meeting prior to the loss in Oakland certainly did’t help his chances at coming back for a seventh season with the 49ers.

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