The San Francisco 49ers face major dilemmas on some of their core players as Colin Kaepernick, Aldon Smith, Michael Crabtree, and Mike Iupati are all due to hit free agency after the 2014 season. The decisions the team makes on these players and their contracts will shape the future of the franchise and determine what the team’s roster will look like moving forward.
As the team’s starting quarterback, the Kaepernick contract is the most important in terms of dollars and what it means to the team. Right now, Kaepernick is still on his rookie deal and is scheduled to make $1.6 million dollars in 2014. Because he counts so little against the salary cap, the 49ers have been able to stack their roster around him. A new contract will most likely send that yearly number into the $15-$16 million dollar range and force the team to make cuts elsewhere.
The 49ers have to ask themselves if they feel Kaepernick is the future or if another season is needed to see what he can do before committing long term. With an up-and-down performance in 2013, he did not always look like a franchise quarterback and needs to show improvement in year three. For his career, Kaepernick is 21-8 as a starter (including the playoffs) and has taken his team deep into the postseason two years in a row.
Prediction: Kaepernick signs an extension during the 2014 season for six years, $90 million dollars
The Crabtree situation is a tricky one for the 49ers. Even if the team re-signs Anquan Boldin, it will most likely be a short term deal, leaving the future of the wide receiver position in doubt. Because San Francisco has been unable to draft any wide outs who look capable of starting and performing at a high level (the jury is still out on Quinton Patton), they may be backed into a corner with Crabtree.
Given his history, one could assume that Crabtree will want top dollar. The issue is, he hasn’t earned it. Through five seasons in the NFL, Crabtree has played a full 16 game slate once and only broken 1,000 yards once. He has scored more than four touchdowns in a season just twice. Even if you take the injuries out of the picture and look as his averages over 16 games, he still comes below the bar of a dominant receiver. Through his career, Crabtree averages 70 receptions, 921 yards and five touchdowns over 16 games. Although you could argue that Crabtree is ready to break out, he still has a lot to prove in terms of durability and production.
Prediction: The 49ers put the franchise tag on Crabtree in 2015 because of lack of options, but he ultimately walks in free agency.
Because of a fifth-year option in his contract, the 49ers have the ability to keep Smith in the fold for 2015 at $9.25 million dollars. That price tag would be a bargain for a player who has 42.0 sacks in his first 43 games. It’s likely that the team will exercise this option before the May 3 deadline which will put off any long term decisions on Smith.
Despite his ability to change games, Smith’s off the field issues have given the 49ers doubts about committing long term to him. He missed five games in 2013 to enter rehab for substance abuse and still faces a March 13 court date for weapons charges. With two years left to make a judgement on him, the team can take the wait-and-see approach with Smith.
Prediction: With Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks and Ray McDonald all at or near the end of their contracts, the 49ers will keep Smith as a defensive cornerstone with a five year, $70 million dollar deal following 2015.
There is no doubt that Iupati is a dominant run blocker and a vital cog to the 49ers’ offensive line. The two-time Pro Bowler has earned himself a big pay day with his consistent performance over the past four seasons. The 49ers would love to have him back but there is only so much money to go around. San Francisco has shown more of an emphasis on keeping their tackles intact as Joe Staley and Anthony Davis have each received large contracts to keep them in red and gold.
Prediction: This is Iupati’s last season in San Francisco and he leaves the team via free agency after the 2014 season.
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