The Contract Headaches Facing The 49ers

Defensive backs take part of their traditional pregame huddle before taking the field for warmups.
Seahawks fans have become very familiar with the year 2015. They Mayans may have predicted the world would end in 2012, but the idea of losing Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Russell Wilson, Russell Okung and K.J. Wright in two years is much closer to Armageddon. John Schneider and Pete Carroll have consistently made moves to leave them the flexibility necessary so that they can retain core players when their contracts end. Seattle is not alone in having some key contracts ending in 2015. The 49ers arguably have a tougher road ahead.

There has been some confusion about the Seahawks situation, so let’s clear that up first:

2014 Unrestricted Free Agents
Kam Chancellor
Michael Robinson
Anthony McCoy
Golden Tate
Paul McQuistan
Breno Giacomini
Walter Thurmond III
Michael Bennett

2014 Restricted Free Agents
Doug Baldwin
Brandon Browner
Jeron Johnson

2015 Unrestricted Free Agents
James Carpenter
John Moffitt
Malcolm Smith
Chris Clemons
K.J. Wright
Richard Sherman
Earl Thomas
Cliff Avril
Byron Maxwell
Doug Baldwin*
Brandon Browner*
Jeron Johnson*

2016 Unrestricted Free Agents (Contracts can be renegotiated in 2015)
Russell Okung
Russell Wilson
Bobby Wagner
Bruce Irvin

*Assumes they are retained as RFAs in 2014

The new collective bargaining agreement precludes teams from negotiating new deals with rookies until three years has passed. There are people conflating the fact that Russell Wilson can have his deal renegotiated in 2015 with Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman actually being free agents that year. That is a significant difference. People also continue to mistakenly believe Browner is a free agent after this year. He is not. He is a restricted free agent, along with Baldwin, which makes it highly likely they will remain in Seattle for the 2014 season. Of course, they just adds them to list of 2015 UFAs, so it only buys the Seahawks one more season for each player.

Now, take a look at the 49ers situation:

2014 Unrestricted Free Agents
Anquan Boldin
Tramaine Brock
Tarell Brown
Perrish Cox
Anthony Dixon
Demarcus Dobbs
Jonathan Goodwin
Parys Haralson
Mario Manningham
Justin Smith
Will Tukuafu
Donte Whitner
Kyle Williams

2015 Unrestricted Free Agents
C.J. Spillman
Aldon Smith
Bruce Miller
Colin Kaepernick
Kendall Hunter
Frank Gore
Anthony Davis
Chris Culliver
Michael Crabtree
Mike Iupati

The Seahawks will certainly have some tough choices, but the path seems pretty clear. There will be some debate among fans regarding Chancellor, but he will be extended. As will Thomas, Sherman, Wilson and Okung. Everyone else will be a value-based decision based on their market value compared to their valuation for the Seahawks. Giacomini and Wright are the only two players in that category that do not have a legitimate alternative already on the roster.

The 49ers situation appears more precarious. It would appear they would need to extend Kaepernick by next off-season in order to avoid him hitting the open market after the 2014 season ends. That will most likely be an easy decision, if not a cheap one. Tougher will be players like Justin Smith, who will be 34 after this season and Whitner, who has become an integral part of that secondary. San Francisco would seemingly want to keep both, but that gets expensive when also needing to grab another receiver, and find a replacement for their talented, but aging center in Goodwin. He will also be a free agent after this season, and will be 35. Knowing that Davis and Iupati will be coming up for new contracts the following season makes retaining Goodwin unlikely.

The timing of Justin Smith’s free agency is about as bad as it gets for the 49ers. He will be young enough to still be effective and costly, but old enough that he could break down and decline almost immediately after inking the deal.

Frank Gore is possibly playing his final season with the team, and definitely will not be back if he stays around long enough to be a free agent in 2015. Hunter may be the future at running back, although it is not yet clear he can survive as a featured back at his size. San Francisco needs to find out soon because they will have to decide if it is worth extending him, or face losing him and Gore. And don’t forget Aldon Smith and Crabtree. Both players are due to hit the market in 2015.

The 49ers next two seasons make the Seahawks situation look like a cake walk. Schneider very well may address the biggest question by extending Thomas this off-season. Doing so would ensure Sherman would stick around as the team could apply the franchise tag. There is really no rush to do it this year, but the sooner they finalize the terms, the better they can plan their spend across their other upcoming free agents.

Both teams will benefit from the salary cap raising in 2015, but the idea is not race into a fully burdened cap simply because it rises. Three-fifths of the vaunted 49ers offensive line will be up for new contracts in the next two seasons. Both of the Smiths on the defensive side will be looking for new deals, as will All-Pro safety Whitner and cornerstone Kaepernick. Their only legitimate, young receiving threat in Crabtree and their best young running back in Hunter also hit the market. That does not even start getting into the challenges at cornerback.

San Francisco will either need to dramatically reduce the quality of their depth by signing a number of these key players to expensive contracts, or count on effective drafting to allow them to move on from players that look like linchpins to their current success. If this off-season is any indication, the front office looks to be comfortable letting young Pro Bowl talent walk out the door, and depend on short-term veteran contracts to fill the void or a few draft choices to quickly rise into starting roles. Meanwhile, the Seahawks have relatively few difficult decisions to make in the next year, and have proven they can find All-Pro caliber players in every draft.

None of this guarantees one team will outperform the other, but the contractual headwinds facing the 49ers could certainly swing the balance of power far faster toward Seattle than many realize. 

Founder, Editor & Lead Writer
  1. Either way you slice it, the Niners are going to be hurting when they have to pay Justin Smith or let him walk. I would argue Smith and Thomas are similar in that their skill set allows other players to cheat or take certain risks that would not be available otherwise. The difference of course is paying Thomas at 25 is much safer than paying a 34 year old Smith.

    Thomas shoulders the load of the entire secondary by being the single deep safety. This has paid off handsomely in allowing Sherman, Browner, and Cam to jump routes and play up in coverage. While it may not always show up in the stats or even on the film, Earl Thomas is as vital a piece to the Seahawks engine as just about anyone. In baseball a player like Albert Pujols makes guys who hit around him better, for the simple fact the opposing pitcher cannot afford to walk guys in from of him. The play of Thomas may not always show up on a Richard Sherman interception, but Sherman's faith in his safety to provide help deep allows him to gamble. Teams do not often go deep on the Hawks for fear of a blazing Thomas running down an interception. In the playoffs we saw this work like a charm when he intercepted both Matt Ryan and RGIII. We also saw Thomas fail to get back and offer help to Richard Sherman when Roddy White scored on a deep pass from Matt Ryan. Their are a select few safeties in the league who can afford their team the type of insurance offered by Thomas. The top end speed and closing ability allows teams like the Hawks to gamble with Sherman and Browner, as well as utilizing a guy like Chancellor as a hybrid safety-linebacker (safebacker?).

    Justin Smith's ability to cause havoc against the pass, stuff the run, and take on double teams as well as any defender in the league affords San Francisco the ability to utilize Aldon Smith and their linebackers in favorable matchups while rushing the passer or in coverage. We saw how the Niners fared without a healthy Justin Smith and their defense looked to be an almost entirely different unit.

    Seattle has to pay guys who are just entering their prime and still have upside left, San Francisco on the other hand has to lock up some key veterans who are on the decline or will be in short order. Not only do they have more players to lock up, but the Niners risk is greater due to the miles on many of their soon to be free agents.

    Go Hawks

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