SANTA CLARA, Calif. - In what's turning into one of the most memorable days in recent 49ers history, left guard Mike Iupati could become the next key figure to leave.
Iupati is planning on signing with the NFC West rival Arizona Cardinals as a free agent Tuesday, as first reported by ESPN. The news comes hours after reports of Patrick Willis and Justin Smith retiring, a day after it was revealed the team's all-time leading rusher Frank Gore would depart in free agency.
Since coming into the league as a first-round pick in 2010, Iupati quickly became one of the most physical guards in the NFL and a fixture in the 49ers' down-hill running game. But injuries to his lower legs, particularly his broken ankle sustained in the NFC title game in January 2014, slowed him down. He declined in pass protection.
Regardless, the three-time Pro-Bowler figured to have a robust market in free agency, likely pricing himself out of the 49ers' range, who enter free agency with minimal room under the salary cap.
Last season, Iupati finished with Pro Football Focus' second-highest run blocking grade among guards. He was ranked 40th in pass protection.
Last spring, the 49ers used two third-round picks on interior offensive lineman, taking Marcus Martin at pick 70 and Brandon Thomas at pick 100. Thomas missed the entire season after sustaining a pre-draft ACL tear, causing his draft stock to drop. But he is expected to compete for a prominent role along the line this summer.
Martin spelled injured center Daniel Kilgore in eight games last season, and will likely compete for the starting center job again. The USC alum will also be considered for the starting left guard spot.