In today’s salary cap-driven NFL, championship windows for franchises can only stay open for so long. Injuries and roster turnover make it almost impossible for a team to have a run of dominance these days, and the dynasties of years past appear to be nearly extinct.
No team escapes this, and year in and year out front offices need to make sacrifices in order to adhere to the rules of the cap. While the San Francisco 49ers have been fortunate enough to be able to build a deep roster despite of it, they will begin to have hard decisions to make following the 2014 season.
With turnover on the horizon, it’s fair to ask the question, is the 49ers’ championship window closing?
A large reason why the 49ers may have to pick and choose who they keep is because they finally had to pay their quarterback big money.
While Colin Kaepernick‘s new deal is team-friendly and allows them to move on from him at any point, they still need to pay him if he’s on the roster, which is likely to be the case for the foreseeable future unless he takes a major step back.
With Kaepernick’s salary taken into account, the team will no longer be able to afford to keep all of their own players, and will have to make choices on veterans.
At 31-years-old and playing out the last year of his contract, Frank Gore is all but gone after this season regardless of his performance. Michael Crabtree and Mike Iupati will also be free agents, and unless they take hometown discounts it’s unlikely the 49ers’ will a have the cap space to sign them both back.
San Francisco has taken the steps to replace these players, as Carlos Hyde and Marcus Lattimore were brought in to eventually take Gore’s spot, and the team acquired Stevie Johnson as Crabtree insurance should he walk at year’s end.
As far as Iuapti. the 49ers have youngsters like Joe Looney, Marcus Martin and Brandon Thomas who could all project to play guard, but none are proven commodities at the NFL level.
So while there are replacements ready to go, there’s no guarantee they are or will become championship-level performers.
As far as their defense, age will continue to creep up on defensive line stalwarts Justin Smith and Ray McDonald. Both players have been a huge part of what the Niners do, and each of them will be north of 30-years-old when the season begins. Like the offensive players mentioned above, they also have younger replacements who are being groomed to step in, but again, there is no pedigree there yet.
One way to avoid seeing your championship window close is to develop (or acquire) a dominant quarterback who makes players around them better, and guarantees a playoff-caliber squad by just stepping on the field.
For example, the AFC representative in the Super Bowl has had Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger or Peyton Manning behind center in 11 of the last 13 years. Aaron Rodgers is 52-19 as a starter since 2009 and the main reason the Green Bay Packers are contenders every season.
With new faces primed to take over in critical positions, the 49ers need Kaepernick to continue to develop as a passer and become an elite quarterback. If he doesn’t, San Francisco could turn into a very ordinary team within the next couple of seasons.
All of this adds up to a make-or-break year by the Bay. If the 49ers can’t seal the deal and bring home a title now, there’s no telling whether or not they can maintain their recent high level of play with the possibility of so many new faces in the lineup.
Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images
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