SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Every year as teams head into free agency, there are veteran players with large salaries that force front offices to make difficult decisions. Bring those players back, or find cheaper replacements to save salary cap dollars?
For the 49ers, one of their obvious cut candidates heading into the new league year was outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks. After all, Brooks will likely be surpassed on the depth chart by second-year player Aaron Lynch. And his $7.055 cap hit for 2015 makes him San Francisco's third-most expensive player.
But Brooks will play for the 49ers this year, general manager Trent Baalke said Wednesday, despite what's been speculated about the 30-year-old's future.
"There has never been an indication from me otherwise. Right?" Baalke said. "While all that was being written I just sat back and looked at it because it was speculation based on our cap number and the cash flow had leading into free agency. A lot of assumptions were made, but wrongly."
What Baalke didn't intimate was what price the team was willing to pay for Brooks. If not released, Brooks is an obvious candidate for a restructure of his contract. Otherwise, the 49ers would be paying top dollar for a player that was benched at two different times last season, entered training camp out of shape, and had his least productive season since becoming a starter.
Brooks' six sacks were his fewest since 2010, when he had five playing as a reserve.
Patrick Willis' retirement cleared $7.42 million in cap space for the 49ers. And if Justin Smith follows the same path, it would save an additional $4.25 million, so there might be more room for Brooks' salary than anticipated when the season ended.
Brooks is signed through 2017 with $25.4025 remaining on his deal.
Receiver Stevie Johnson entered the offseason in a similar position as Brooks - and he was released Wednesday, saving the team his entire $6.025 million salary.