With free agents able to negotiate with new teams starting Tuesday, the San Francisco 49ers face the possibility of losing two key players on defense after re-signing Anquan Boldin to a two-year extension last week.
Safety Donte Whitner and corner Tarell Brown are poised to hit the market and will likely command more than San Francisco is willing to pay. The 49ers have roughly $10 million in cap space to work with after it was announced the salary cap would be elevated to $133 million this season, up $10 million from last year. And bringing back Brown and Whitner would take up more of that cap space than the team would like.
Bringing back Boldin was the team's stated No. 1 goal once the season ended. But there is still plenty of work to be done. We'll go through each unrestricted free agent accordingly and take a look at needs going forward that could be addressed either by free agency or the draft.
UPDATE: 49ERS TO RELEASE CARLOS ROGERS
Donte Whitner, Strong Safety
After struggling mightily in coverage in 2012, Whitner improved his cover skills drastically in his contract year. Last year was the former eighth-overall pick's best season to date, allowing just a 61.8 passer rating when targeted and remaining a physical run defender in the box. But he still found himself on the wrong side of seven personal fouls, five of which were unnecessary roughness calls stemming from illegal hits. However, Whitner wasn't fined by the league for any of those plays. The former Buckeye turns 29 in July and will likely garner significantly more than the $3.9 million he earned in 2013, which is likely as high as the 49ers are willing to go to retain him. The Browns, Bears and Jets have reportedly shown interest.
Jairus Byrd, regarded as the top safety in this free agent class, is reportedly asking for $9 million per year.
The 49ers lost former All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson last spring when he signed with Tampa Bay for five years and $41.25 million. The team elected to replace him in the draft with Eric Reid who had a standout rookie season earning his way to the Pro Bowl. The 49ers could try the same strategy this year with Whitner, although the safety class in the draft isn't considered as deep as last season's.
Tarell Brown, Cornerback
Since becoming the starter in 2011, Brown has been a reliable piece in one of the league's stronger secondaries. But the 29-year-old took a step back last season, allowing a 100.7 passer rating and four touchdowns when targeted according to Pro Football Focus. Brown unknowingly missed out on a $2 million workout bonus last spring but was given a $300,000 bonus in early January as a sign of good faith.
With the Packers re-signing Sam Shields to a four-year $39 million deal over the weekend, the market bodes well for Brown, who has been the 49ers' No. 1 corner during their run to three-straight title games. Brown will likely garner a contract in the range of $4-6 million per season after the more expensive, top-tier free agents Aqib Talib, Vontae Davis and Alterraun Verner sign their new deals. Brown will cash in as one of the better players in the second-tier of free-agent corners. Shield's contract doesn't bode well for the 49ers' chances at bringing Brown back for an eighth season.
Jonathan Goodwin, Center
The durable and agreeable Goodwin started every game since joining the team as a free agent in 2011. But at 35, the wear was beginning to show at the end of the season while the 49ers signed 26-year-old Daniel Kilgore to a three-year extension earlier this offseason. Goodwin hasn't retired yet, but the market will be thin for a center of his age. It's unlikely Goodwin will get a call this spring, but he would be wise to stay in shape in case another team suffers an injury at the position during training camp.
Mario Manningham, Wide Receiver
Manningham was never able to get going during his two years in San Francisco, which were hampered by his knee injury suffered in December of 2012 in Seattle. He returned in Week 10 this year, appearing in six games and making nine catches before being put back on injured reserve when he suffered a setback with his knee. Re-signing Boldin meant the end for Manningham in red and gold, but the writing appeared to be on the wall regardless. Manningham will have this offseason to get healthy and hope he can latch on to a team and return to his early form.
Phil Dawson, Kicker
Dawson, 39, had an outstanding first season in San Francisco, setting a new franchise mark for consecutive kicks made with 27 spanning from Weeks 4-17. The 49ers would love to have Dawson back but won't be willing to overspend on the 15-year veteran. He made $2.35 million against the cap last year, which is likely as high as the 49ers are willing to go to bring him back. As heavily as the team relies on the kicking game, bringing back the trusted vet seems prudent, although drafting a kicker could save almost $2 million in cap space.
Kassim Osgood, Wide Receiver
The 49ers entered last offseason wanting to improve their special teams coverage and they did so by bringing in Osgood, a wide receiver in title and a special teams ace in reality. Opposite one of the league's best gunners in CJ Spillman, Osgood anchored the other side quickly becoming a key piece of the special teams units. His season was highlighted by a blocked punt in the crucial Week 14 win over the Seahawks and his touchdown against the Tennessee Titans in October after Darryl Morris forced a fumble from returner Darius Reynaud. Osgood was inactive in Week 10's loss to the Panthers, whose game-winning field goal came after a 25-year punt return from Ted Ginn in 49ers' territory. Osgood made $940,000 last season.
Eric Wright, Cornerback
Wright was brought in late last offseason for depth purposes and to see if he could become a viable option going forward. But he was forced to start the season on the non-football injury list while recovering from an undisclosed injury and didn't make his debut until Nov. 17 in New Orleans. He saw extensive time in sub packages when Brown was forced to miss time with a rib injury suffered in the same game. But Wright was passed by Perrish Cox on the depth chart in the postseason after Carlos Rogers went out with his hamstring strain in Week 17. Coordinator Vic Fangio said he made the decision because Cox had a better week of practice while Wright showed up on the injury report with a hamstring injury of his own, although he was able to play special teams in the win over Green Bay. It appears Wright is liked more by the front office than the coaching staff. Wright could be a cheap option to return.
Colt McCoy, Quarterback
The 49ers brought in Seneca Wallace, John Skelton and eventually decided on McLeod Bethel-Thompson as their third quarterback in 2013. The series of moves behind McCoy didn't bode well for his standing as the team's long-term backup, especially considering he was forced to take a pay cut or walk during training camp. The 49ers are likely to address quarterback in the coming draft, meaning it's unlikely McCoy will be brought back. Jim Harbaugh spent some serious one-on-one time with Eastern Illinois' Jimmy Garoppolo at his pro day, which could be an indicator of the direction the team is hoping to go in finding Colin Kaepernick's new backup.
Anthony Dixon, Runningback
Dixon, a former sixth-round pick in 2010, has done well to become a key contributor on special teams. He's a versatile player who can play both running back positions, although he doesn't excel at either. For a big back, he wasn't reliable enough in short-yardage situations, nor does his skill set translate very well to fullback. But as a special teams contributor Dixon found his niche. With a healthy Marcus Lattimore joining the stable of running backs this season, retaining Dixon seems unlikely.
Perrish Cox, Cornerback
Cox made the team, was released midway through the year, and was then brought back on late in the season to become a key player in the playoffs. He played all but one snap against the Packers and 20 of 57 the next week in Carolina as the nickel back. Cox entered the offseason as a restricted free agent but was not tendered, putting him on the open market come Tuesday. His best bet might be to return to the 49ers where he could compete for playing time in a familiar system on a short-term deal to up his value later. San Francisco could part ways with Rogers and his $6.6 million he's due this upcoming season, meaning there could be an opening for Cox to step up into the nickel role.
After looking at free agents, a few things become clear. The 49ers need help in the secondary both at safety and corner. With Whitner, Brown and Rogers' future with the team in limbo, San Francisco will need to find inexpensive ways to retool the secondary. The cheapest way is always through the draft, like Trent Baalke did last season when he traded up 13 spots in the first round to take Reid. With six picks in the first three rounds, it's clear the 49ers will likely address safety and corner early.
But that doesn't rule out the addition of free agents. C.J. Spillman and Craig Dahl are already on the roster, but the 49ers will consider adding another veteran (possibly a starter) via free agency, but don't expect them to land a big name. Another possibility to keep in mind is moving Reid to strong safety in 2014 allowing the team to add a free safety. Fangio has let it be known he likes his safeties to be interchangeable. However, Reid was the only safety on the roster last year that took reps exclusively at free safety in training camp. The next stage of his development could be learning the other side.
Shield's pricey new deal has to be music to Brown's ears. With the market now set for free agent corners, Brown is likely to be priced out of San Francisco's range. The 49ers appear set with Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver going forward, but there's also the issue of Rogers' hefty contract. Rogers could look at Shield's deal and decide that he's worth his lofty $6.6 million this season, but the 49ers would likely disagree, meaning they would be looking for a replacement should Rogers decline a pay cut to stick around. If that were the case, the team would be wise in bringing Cox back cheaply knowing he can handle the nickel role after how well he played in the playoffs.
Offensively, the 49ers appear relatively set. Kilgore will be the front runner for the starting center job, meaning the team could be in the market for another interior offensive lineman. Adam Snyder can play all five positions, but at 32 with a $1.3 million cap hit, nothing is assured. With Boldin back, the team still lacks a true deep threat at the position and could use another outside of Vernon Davis. A player with a skill set like JaCoby Jones (a free agent who can also contribute on special teams) would be a good option.
*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*
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