In today’s NFL it is very difficult for teams to retain all their prized free-agents simply due to the salary cap. A cap that is considered a “hard cap” which does not allow much flexibility in re-signing their own players unlike the NBA’s “soft cap,” the San Francisco 49ers will have some decisions to make as three cornerstones are set to become unrestricted free-agents in the near future. Three players that have played a vital role in San Francisco making three consecutive trips to the NFC Championship Game, someone is bound to be left out.
So who are those three studs? They are none other than OLB Aldon Smith, G Mike Iupati and WR Michael Crabtree. Iupati is playing in a contract year and all but assured to test the free-agent waters if no long-term agreement can be reached. A likely scenario the 49ers have accounted for due to the depth at guard with the drafting of G Brandon Thomas and acquiring T/G Jonathan Martin, but what about Smith and Crabtree? Two players that have had rocky tenures with the team off the field, while producing Pro Bowl worthy numbers on it, the question remains which player will be a higher priority for San Francisco? And despite what you may think, I believe the answer is Smith.
I’m a firm believer in defense wins championships and with pass-rushers coming at a premium, Smith is the logical choice. Not to mention, the NFL is transcending into a pass happy league, Smith’s skill-set becomes more valuable as he can go down as one of the NFL’s all-time best pass-rushers. However, he does come with red flags, as he took a leave of absence in order to better himself in his fight against alcoholism.
A true testament to Smith’s character, as he not only came back stronger but took huge strides as a modeled citizen, Smith’s maturation process took a huge step forward in 2013. And while he will likely command top dollar on the open-market, it will be interesting to see how much the 49ers will spend. Should they slap the exclusive or non-exclusive franchise tag, the annual salary would be around $11 million. Well worth the investment as they can continue to negotiate a long-term deal while protecting themselves in the short-term should another team try and re-sign him, as they would be compensated with two first-round draft picks (non-exclusive) in 2016.
In 43 regular-season games, Smith has racked up 110 tackles, 42.0 sacks, five forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. Not to mention, Smith elevates his game to another level in the playoffs, as he amassed 20 tackles, 5.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries, you can see why he should be a higher priority. And what about Crabtree? He’s another player that has proven his worth.
In 63 regular-season games, Crabtree has registered 279 catches for 3,629 yards and 22 touchdowns. A stat line that was ramped up in the playoffs as King Crab recorded 40 catches for 516 yards and four touchdowns you can see why Crabtree is vital to the Niners offense. In addition to the stats, he continues to be a young primary target for Kaepernick making his value much more appealing. However, he does come with red flags himself as he started off on the wrong foot with his rookie holdout. And with Crabtree likely to command around $10 million per year, is he worth the investment? My answer would be a firm, yes. But if you ask me if he’s worth saving at the expense of Smith leaving, I would say, no.
In the NFL, wide receivers are historically in abundance year in and year out as opposed to pass-rushers. Just think back to the last time the 49ers had a double digit sack artist before Smith, and you would have to go back to the dusty archives in 2002 to dig up DE Andre Carter’s 12.5 sack season. Compare that to the last time the 49ers had a 1,000 yard-receiver which was last year’s WR Anquan Boldin as he had 85 catches for 1,179 yards and seven touchdowns, you can see where the limited supply, high demand is at.
I’m not saying Crabtree is not important, he most certainly is, but if the 49ers want to keep their core players, one player will likely be the odd man out. Crabtree was a Mike Singletary holdover whereas Smith was hand-selected by Baalke, could that factor into the 49ers future plans? Time will tell.
In a perfect world, the 49ers would love to have both players. But this isn’t a perfect world. And with other players such as TE Vernon Davis and G Alex Boone unhappy with their current deals there just isn’t enough money to go around to keep everyone happy, leaving Crabtree off the team in 2015, as newly acquired WR Stevie Johnson fulfills that No. 1 role.