Fast Forward: Tracking The 2015 49ers
In the weeks and months since the 49ers lost to the Seahawks in the NFC championship game, everyone was talking about the rift between Jim Harbaugh and the front office. While the media stoked the flames of that fire, with Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke quelling the murmurs for now, it was a harsh reminder that the NFL is a year-to-year league.
Nothing is certain, even for a team that has gone to three straight NFC championship games. With names such as Colin Kaepernick, Michael Crabtree and Mike Iupati set to hit free agency in 2015, the Niners facing a decision on picking up Aldon Smith’s fifth-year option and defensive stalwart Justin Smith creeping towards the end of his football career, 2015 will certainly ring in some new changes for the team.
Will they have a new coach? Will Colin Kaepernick be slapped with the franchise tag? Will they need an entirely new starting tandem at receiver?
With that in mind, let’s head into the time machine and see what the San Francisco 49ers might look like in about one year.
The NFL is a results-based league, and the outcome of this exercise will likely be weighted on how the 49ers fare in 2014. Although the Niners have to deal with the suddenly monstrous NFC West, as well as play the AFC West in intra-conference play in 2014, San Francisco gets a break by enjoying a second-place schedule in the NFC and draw the uninspriing NFC East in inter-conference play. It’s reasonable to expect the 49ers to get back to the playoffs, at the very least.
However, ever since Eddie DeBartolo took over the team in 1977, and the Niners took home five Super Bowls in 15 years, just getting to the playoffs doesn’t get it done. Harbaugh and Baalke know that, but the former has said he won’t break his contract before it expires in 2015. While coaches have lied before and will lie again, I think Harbaugh is a man of his word. That could all change if the 49ers suffer some bad luck through injuries in a loaded conference
In the NFC, an absolute bear to navigate in the regular season, calling any team a lock for the playoffs may be going a bit overboard. Behind Seattle, Denver and New England, the 49ers are probably the next best lock for the playoffs. Without Crabtree for much of the regular season, as well as Aldon Smith for an extended period of time, the Niners handled their schedule confidently en route to a 12-4 record.
So, that was boring, right? Harbaugh isn’t going anywhere, at least not within the next two seasons. Even if the Niners suffer a rash of key injuries, and stumble to a .500 or worse season, the coach couldn’t be terminated on those grounds. Especially after the unmatched start to his career as an NFL head coach. However, the fiery coach and Colin Kaepernick’s futures may be more linked than we know.
San Francisco’s front office and coaching staff have stressed the need to sign Colin Kaepernick to a long-term extension. The front office will usually craft team-friendly deals, with most players receiving decent per-year money, and then look to get an out on the contract after a season or two. But paying a franchise quarterback is an investment that takes more risk. If you pay someone who isn’t absolutely the answer, the team can pay for it for years.
If the 49ers end up paying Kaepernick this offseason, the guaranteed money will likely be somewhere in the ballpark of Matt Ryan, Jay Cutler and Tony Romo. Upwards of about $50 million in guarantees, the Niners will be betting on more growth from Kap to make up for the losses they’ll take in free agency after he signs.
The scenarios that could play out over the next year leave my imagination open to plenty of options though. If Harbaugh and Kap finally lead the team to a sixth world championship, both should and probably will get very lucrative extensions. Harbaugh would become a top 3 paid head coach, and his signal-caller would break into the Joe Flacco and Aaron Rodgers' echelon of money. That is obvious, so it’s the scenarios that could play out if he doesn’t sign this offseason that are intriguing.
If the fourth-year quarterback takes a step or two back in his progression in 2014, then things could get interesting. With the Niners reportedly looking to use more "11 Personnel" in the upcoming season, and Frank Gore continuing to go where few running backs have gone over the age of 30, there will be more asked of Kaepernick. With Harbaugh still in town through the 2015 season, Kap isn’t going anywhere. If he struggles playing out his rookie contract in 2014, the Niners could decide to slap him with the franchise tag and force Harbaugh and Kaepernick to play out one-year deals with the team for their jobs.
Harbaugh made the lanky athlete from Nevada his hand-picked quarterback in the 2011 draft. In the eyes of the front office, their fates could be tied together if 2014 doesn’t go as planned. I see this as highly doubtful. The Niners could come to an agreement with both Kap and Harbaugh before training camp starts this season and make this all moot. However, if owner Jed York and GM Trent Baalke don’t put their eggs in the Kaepernick basket, and the team falls short of their high expectations again, then the rumors will start flying about what they’ll do with their quarterback. I’d prefer to look at it logically and say Kaepernick will be in San Francisco for a long time, but the NFL is a shrewd and tough business.
More likely than Harbaugh and Kaepernick being ticketed for an exit, there will be plenty of roster turnover in 2015. For now, let’s assume Kap is rewarded for the promising start to his career at some point before 2014 training camp or 2015 free agency. Due to their extensive talent, the Niners are already pretty strapped with cash this season, but with Kaepernick, Aldon Smith, Michael Crabtree and Mike Iupati all unsigned for 2015, the penny pinching and cap casualties will be fairly important.
Kaepernick and Smith are in the must-sign category for me. The 49ers have a fifth-year option on Smith, but they’d obviously love to ink the dominant pass-rusher to a long-term deal. As of now, according to overthecap.com, the Niners have about $30 million in cap space for 2015. Much of that will evaporate if and when Kap and Aldon are brought back.
At the very least, Crabtree and Iupati look destined to hit the open market. Similar to Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner over the past few seasons, the Niners will not overpay to keep their own free agents. If you remember, Crabtree held out during his rookie training camp for more money. He will not take a hometown discount, but the Niners will gladly accept a compensation pick in 2016. Iupati has earned praise as one of the most physical offensive guards in the league. He deserves to get a lucrative deal, but the 49ers aren’t in the position to give him one.
Additionally, guys like Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Vernon Davis should be candidates to restructure their deals to give the team a little more cap space. Unfortunately, for some players who may be on the wrong side of 30 by the time next year rolls around, their career with the 49ers might be over. Just in the defensive front seven alone: Justin Smith could retire, Ray McDonald has a $6 million cap hit and Ahmad Brooks has an $8-plus million cap charge. As we’ve seen time and again, once you start paying your quarterback like a franchise player, you have to cut corners elsewhere on your club.
That’s why the debate will rage until draft day about which way the 49ers go. Do they stockpile their boatload of picks and re-stock in advance of next year’s changes? Or do they package picks, move up and down, fill holes and make adjustments in 2015?
I envision plenty of new faces, especially on defense in 2015, but guys like Corey Lemonier and Tank Carradine should be ready for a larger role. While much of San Francisco’s future relies on the performance of Jim Harbaugh and Colin Kaepernick, the club seems destined for a critical year in 2015. The current brain-trust has handled their business well since taking over in 2010-11, but how they handle the next year or two will determine if the Niners can sit atop the NFL hierarchy for the near future.