by Brian Umbaugh, @NFLRosters
As the 2014 preseason began, the 49ers were expected to be a wild card team on the strength of Jim Harbaugh, a good running game, and a stifling defensive front seven. As the season progressed, however, injuries and a suspension took their toll. The 49ers returned 9 of 11 defensive starters from 2013, but those 9 players missed a total of 56 games. The underperforming offense couldn’t make up that ground, a few losses started to pile up and the coaching staff couldn’t right the ship. Once the disappointing 8-8 season was completed, there were huge changes made in the coaching staff. Led by the replacement of Jim Harbaugh with Jim Tomsula, many of the staff was either turned over or moved to different positions.
Considering the 2015 roster, there are more shakeups in the works. The starting corners are UFA’s, as are Frank Gore and Mike Iupati. Injured players return on defense, but can the struggling offense turn it around? With no cap space, GM Trent Baalke will be hard pressed to come up with an easy solution.
Colin Kaepernick, Blaine Gabbert (UFA), Josh Johnson (UFA)
Since his breakout season in 2012, Kaepernick has not shown much as a QB. He can still run, but the questions about his passing ability are only getting louder. If a defense can get pressure on him without blitzing, he has trouble finding targets and takes off. His inability to throw a good deep ball constricts the defense, so a team with good linebackers that can cut off his running lanes and cover the TE will give him fits. He can still light you up if you don’t get that pass rush, but is that worth the $114 million extension he signed last offseason? It’s not such a slam dunk now, but he’s still the guy for 2015. If the team comes through on its promise to run more read option, he might have a better year.
The backups are both UFA’s. Gabbert’s strengths and weaknesses are well-documented in the annals of draft bust lore. He was not ready as a rookie in 2011 and had one of the worst QB years of recent history. He is trying to become an acceptable backup, but is probably not worth the re-sign. 29 year old Josh Johnson is not going to win any awards, but he’s got great speed and can cause a problem or two as a backup. The team should bring him back and draft a developmental QB in case Kaepernick keeps fizzling.
Frank Gore (UFA), Carlos Hyde, Kendall Hunter, Alfonso Smith, FB Bruce Miller
If the team were to lean more on the read option, Gore is not the guy. The read option was really Carlos Hyde’s thing coming out of college. Do you translate that into an assumption that Gore is in the wind? He’s been in San Fran for 10 years. His running ability is still there, but it has been diminishing a little over the years and the athleticism to run an option may not be there. Based on their cap trouble and the possible lack of fit in Tomsula’s offense, I can see Gore joining another team.
Hyde is quick, powerful, and can make his own holes, so if he’s becoming the starter, he may be a good fantasy player next season. Kendall Hunter would be a good change-of-pace for Hyde, and fullback Miller is a good blocker and pass catcher. UFA Alfonso Smith is fast and athletic, but hasn’t translated into any success in the NFL. At 28, he is what he is and is not worth the re-sign. I like Tanner’s prospects a little more, but he doesn’t break tackles or hit the hole very often. He seems to be an athlete without great instincts at the position, and would not find much of a job on this squad.
WR: Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree (UFA), Steve Johnson, Brandon Lloyd (UFA), Quinton Patton, Bruce Ellington, Kassim Osgood (UFA)
TE: Vernon Davis, Vance McDonald, Derek Carrier, Garrett Celek (RFA)
Crabtree has been in the league six years, and no one has any clue if he’s any good. He finished as the #4 WR in the NFL in 2012. He would have finished #65 in 2013 during an injury shortened season; last year, he finished #95. Has he earned any significant money? The 49ers are already on the hook for $6.9 mil with Anquan Boldin and $6 mil with Steve Johnson. I can only assume Crabtree is somewhere else next year.
Boldin’s not a burner, but he is a good blocker and breaks a lot of tackles. He would be better served as a #2 WR, but they already have one of those in Steve Johnson. Based on the pay and production for these two, one should probably be cut. The best idea would be to cut Johnson; the team could use that $6 mil cap room. Lloyd was a good #3-4 WR, but he will be 34 years old and has suggested retirement. He is not worth the trouble or wage. The other receivers are just depth guys. This position has a glaring need for a #1 wideout.
$7 million for 26 receptions, 245 yards and crummy run blocking? As Yakov Smirnoff would say, “What a country!” Vernon Davis has gone from the 6th best TE in the league to the 6th worst. What happened? Some of it was due to ankle and back issues. Another reason could be that he’s just running out of gas at age 31. Although there are a few cases where receivers have gone downhill at age 30 only to revive their careers, it is much more common that receivers are done, or have at most one good season left. With cap issues, Davis might be in jeopardy of ending up a cap casualty. The one thing other than Davis’ upside he has in his favor is the fact that the backups have little ability in the passing game.
L to R: Joe Staley, Mike Iupati (UFA), Daniel Kilgore, Alex Boone, Anthony Davis
Top Backups: C/G Marcus Martin, G Joe Looney, T Jonathan Martin
San Francisco has the privilege of trotting out the #2 LT in the NFC every Sunday. His ability to protect against the rush and generate push on the run is impressive. His contract is one of the few that invites no scrutiny. Next to Staley is Mike Iupati, who is quite the road grader at guard. He is arguably the best run blocker in the NFC. However, he is not as agile as one would like, which hurts his pass blocking and presents problems when pulling. If the 49ers move to the read option, the left guard is the pull guard; Iupati would not be perfect for that. Moving him would be pointless, because Alex Boone is already suited for the RG spot. Unfortunately, this change in philosophy and the fact that the team can’t afford him anyway may result in Iupati changing teams.
Center Kilgore was doing a respectable job as a run blocker before his injury, but his replacement Marcus Martin did not fare so well. If Iupati leaves, Martin may move to guard with Kilgore’s return. Neither he nor backup guard Joe Looney did that well in 2014, so there might be a competition. Martin was only a 20 year old rookie, but in Looney’s defense, he was only 24. Assuming proper development, someone should claim the left guard spot next to Kilgore. At RT, Anthony Davis has gone downhill after an excellent 2012, but the team hopes he returns to form.
DE: Tony Jerod-Eddie (ERFA), Justin Smith, Tank Carradine, Kaleb Ramsey, Lawrence Okoye
DT: Glenn Dorsey, Ian Williams, Quinton Dial, Mike Purcell
With the release of Ray McDonald last December for off-field issues, Tony Jerod-Eddie inherited the left end spot on the line. Jerod-Eddie has never defended the run well, and did not seem to get much push to the QB. Since McDonald was strong against both pass and run, his absence really hurt. Jerod-Eddie should be re-signed and may get another shot as the starter, but Tank Carradine figures to see a lot of snaps. On the other side, Justin Smith had another decent year. He hasn’t been the stud he was 4-5 years ago, but he’s still a player at 35. His age might be affecting his play, and in turn his attitude about retiring. If he was to retire, the 49ers will lack experience and production on the outside. A high upside draft pick might help here.
In the middle, Glenn Dorsey comes back from a biceps injury to compete with his replacement Ian Williams, who had a strong year at nose tackle. Third-string Quinton Dial was also above average, and he has the size to move to end, if necessary.
OLB: Ahmad Brooks, Aldon Smith, Dan Skuta (UFA), Aaron Lynch, Corey Lemonier
ILB: Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Michael Wilhoite (RFA), Chris Borland, Nick Moody, Chase Thomas, Shayne Skov, Desmond Bishop (UFA)
This linebacker unit is the 5th most expensive in football, so it’s unfortunate that the four starters missed 38 games. Inside backers Willis and Bowman have been an excellent tandem since 2011, but injuries forced the 49ers to find replacements. Veteran Michael Wilhoite stepped in for Bowman, and rookie 3rd round pick Chris Borland replaced Willis. Borland ended the season rated the NFL’s #4 ILB on the strength of his excellent run defense. Wilhoite was a little below average, but he was the most effective pass rusher from the inside. He should be offered a low RFA tender, but the team can’t match any offer sheets if a linebacker-weak team signs him. Based on the excellent depth here, Bishop is not a necessary re-sign.
On the outside, Aldon Smith served his suspension for off-field issues and missed nine games. In his stead, Dan Skuta covered most of those starts, but each of the backups got plenty of work. Skuta did fairly well, registering four sacks. Undrafted free agent Aaron Lynch was the real surprise, though. The 21 year old from South Florida was a top 20 pass rusher as an OLB. He recorded five sacks in a six game stretch and recorded as many hurries as Clay Matthews. The concern on the outside is incumbent starter Ahmad Brooks. After having a good 2012, he has had two below average seasons. With some talent behind him, could he be a candidate for a June 1st cut to save $4.7 mil? That would sign the whole draft class.
CB: Perrish Cox (UFA), Chris Culliver (UFA), Dontae Johnson, Tramaine Brock, Leon McFadden, Keith Reaser, Marcus Cromartie, Kenneth Acker, Cameron Fuller
S: Antoine Bethea, Eric Reid, Jimmie Ward, Chris Cook (UFA), Craig Dahl, L.J. McCray, Ray Ventrone (UFA)
Each of Chris Culliver’s seasons have resulted in good coverage and above average overall ratings. He’s in his prime, rating #51, #29, and #14 as a CB in his three years, and should be re-signed. It’s just going to take a contract commensurate with a low end #1 CB, maybe $4 mil to start. Perrish Cox, on the other hand, is just average and need not be re-signed. The 49ers have the depth to make up for Cox moving on. Brock and Johnson are paid enough to be #2 and #3, and their ratings aren’t much different.
At safety, Antoine Bethea eventually made the Pro Bowl in 2014 after significantly improving in pass coverage. His counterpart Eric Reid had a difficult sophomore season after his impressive rookie season. There’s no reason he shouldn’t bounce back. Backup UFA’s Cook and Ventrone are battling for the end of the roster, and Cook has earned the spot. In fact, it would be wise to sign Cook for something like $850K. In turn, they should cut Craig Dahl, as he is consistently below average for almost $2 mil. Ventrone is not necessary with all the depth.
The contracts of kicker Phil Dawson and punter Andy Lee are the stuff that should carry warning labels to protect those with heart conditions from having an episode. $4.1 mil for Dawson and $2.6 mil for Lee? Kickers and punters are important for different reasons, but situations like this spell out exactly why the 49ers are in cap trouble. Dawson was rated the 27th best K last year, mostly due to his sub-par kickoffs. Lee was rated the 8th best P, but the guy ahead of him, the Redskins’ Tress Way, made $465K. It seems they’re blowing a lot of money for these two.
Initial cap space: $1.3 million
Re-sign: J. Johnson ($800K), Jerod-Eddie ($585K), Skuta ($850K), Wilhoite ($1.3 mil tender), Culliver ($4 mil), Cook ($850K), Nelson ($750K)
Let walk: Gabbert, Gore, A. Smith, Tanner, Crabtree, Lloyd, Osgood, Celek, Iupati, Bishop, Cox, Ventrone
Best cap cuts to clear up room, if desired: S. Johnson ($6 mil), Dawson ($3.1 mil), Brooks (June 1st cut, $4.7 mil), Dahl ($1.7 mil)
With a net $2.5 million needed to sign draftees, these moves are projected to leave approximately $6.3 million in cap space for external free agents and extensions.
Biggest Team Needs: WR, 3-4 DE, G, QB
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Other team analysis reports and depth charts can be found in the archive.