Positions of Need
Justin Smith and Ray McDonald were a strong duo at 3-4 defensive end for the 49ers last season on a defense that still played very well in an overall disappointing 8-8 season. They were Pro Football Focus’ 11th and 12th ranked 3-4 defensive ends last season. However, Smith is expected to retire, going into his age 36 season, while McDonald was cut late in the season after allegations of violence against women surfaced for the 2nd time that season. The 49ers have decent depth at the position, specifically 2013 2nd round pick Tank Carradine, who could start in 2015, and Quinton Dial, a talented reserve who graded out above average on 329 snaps last season. However, Tony Jerod-Eddie was their top reserve at the position last season in terms of snaps played. He started in McDonald’s absence down the stretch and he was terrible overall, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 43rd ranked 3-4 defensive end out of 47 eligible on just 426 snaps. Smith and McDonald are going to be tough to replace and help is definitely needed at the position.
Michael Crabtree is coming off of one of the worst seasons of his career and now he’s a free agent. Crabtree caught 68 passes for 698 yards and 4 touchdowns on 102 targets (66.7%) and 474 routes run (1.47 yards per route run). He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 95th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible. Brandon Lloyd is a free agent as well and he doesn’t have any long-term value to them, considering he was retired in 2013 and now is going into his age 34 season. Steve Johnson is proven, still young, and played well in limited action in 2014, but he’s owed a non-guaranteed 6.025 million in 2015 so he could be cost-prohibitive for the cap strapped 49ers. Meanwhile, recent 4th round picks Bruce Ellington (2014) and Quinton Patton (2013) are completely unproven, while #1 receiver Anquan Boldin is going into his age 35 season. The 49ers will look hard at both DeVante Parker and Kevin White if either is still available with the 15th overall pick.
Vernon Davis had easily the worst season of his career in 2014. Not only was his 26/245/2 slash line his worst production since his rookie year in 2006, but he also struggled as a run blocker, an area he’s generally been very good in. Davis had that minimal production despite 47 targets (55.3% catch rate) and 417 routes run (0.59 yards per route run) and was Pro Football Focus’ 62nd ranked tight end out of 67 eligible. Davis isn’t over the hill completely yet, but he is going into his age 31 season and the 49ers don’t have the cap flexibility to give him another shot at his scheduled 4.9 million dollar salary. Vance McDonald is their #2 tight end, but the 2013 2nd round pick hasn’t really done much in 2 years in the league, playing a combined 712 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, including just 218 last season.
Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver led 49er cornerbacks in snaps played last season and both graded out above average, but both are free agents this off-season. Jimmie Ward was their 2014 1st round pick and he’ll have a bigger role in his 2nd year in the league after struggling on 270 snaps as a rookie, but his long-term future might be at safety. Fellow rookie Dontae Johnson, a 2014 4th round pick, also struggled as a rookie, grading out below average on 502 snaps. Tramaine Brock will be back in 2015 after an injury plagued 2014 season, but this is still a position where they need to add this off-season.
Mike Iupati is a free agent this off-season, while Alex Boone is going into his contract year and held out until right before the season started last year because he was unhappy with his contract. Joe Looney was their primary reserve at the position last year, but he was horrible. They need to add depth at the position this off-season, especially if their cap situation prevents them from re-signing Iupati.
Frank Gore’s 10-year tenure with the 49ers could be coming to an end. Gore is a free agent this off-season and going into his age 32 season with 2442 career carries. Gore is 20th all-time in rushing yardage at 11,073 and could be bound for Canton, but of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade and a half, the average one has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 carrier carries. He might not have looked it last year, but he’s close to the end. I don’t expect the 49ers to bring him back, opting instead to make 2014 2nd round pick Carlos Hyde the starter. They need depth behind him though as he’s completely unproven, rushing for 333 yards and 4 touchdowns on 83 carries as a rookie (4.01 yards per carry).
Colin Kaepernick had the worst year of his career in 2014, completing 60.5% of his passes for an average of 7.05 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible. He’ll be the starter once again in 2015 and he could bounce back, but they need a solid backup they can turn to if he struggles again. Neither Blaine Gabbert nor Josh Johnson, both of whom are free agents this off-season, was that last season.
Key Free Agents
G Mike Iupati
The 49ers drafted Mike Iupati 17th overall in 2010 and many saw him as one of the top guard prospects of the decade. He hasn’t quite lived up those expectations, but he’s still been a very good guard, grading out in the top-14 at his position on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the 5 seasons he’s been in the league, with the exception coming in an injury plagued 2013, when he still graded out above average. Despite that injury plagued 2013 season, he’s missed just 4 games in 5 seasons, all coming in 2013. One concern is that, while he’s annually one of the top run blocking guards in the NFL, he has graded out below average as a pass protector in 3 of 5 seasons so, as talented as he is, he’s not that well-rounded and he does have a glaring weakness. Still, he should top the 5-year, 30 million dollar deal Zane Beadles got last off-season and deservedly so.
CB Chris Culliver
Chris Culliver was just a 3rd round pick of the 49ers in 2011, but he’s quietly one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL. He had a significant role from the word go in 2011, playing 425 snaps and then 691 in 2012, grading out above average in both seasons, including 29th at his position in 2012. He’s graded out above average in all 3 seasons he’s been healthy, missing all of 2013 with a torn ACL. However, he bounced back in a big way from that torn ACL in 2014 in his first full season as a starter, making 14 starts and grading out 14th at his position. On top of that, that 2013 ACL tear is really the only issue he’s had with injuries, missing a combined 2 games in his other 3 seasons as a pro. The 49ers have cap problems so they’ll have to hope that the rest of the league doesn’t realize he how good he is so that they can re-sign him cheaply.
WR Michael Crabtree
Crabtree was seen as a steal when the 49ers drafted him 10th overall in 2009, but he never really lived up to expectations. He looked like he was on his way towards living up to those expectations in 2012, when he caught 85 passes for 1105 yards and 9 touchdowns on 118 targets (72.0%) and 433 routes run (an average of 2.55 yards per route run), grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked wide receiver. He was even better down the stretch that season, catching 61 passes for 880 yards and 8 touchdowns in his final 10 games, including playoffs. That’s 98 catches for 1408 yards and 13 touchdowns over 16 games. However, he tore his Achilles the following off-season and was never the same. He caught just 19 passes for 284 yards and a touchdown in 5 games in 2013 (34 catches for 487 yards and a touchdown if you count playoffs) and then was even worse on a per game basis in 2014. He played all 16 games, but caught just 68 passes for 698 yards and 4 touchdowns on 102 targets (66.7%) and 474 routes run (1.47 yards per route run). His per game yardage numbers in 2014 were the worst of his career and he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 95th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible. 2012 remains his only 1000+ yard season and he’s graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in 3 of 6 seasons, including each of the last 2 seasons and his contract year was arguably the worst year of his career. There’s bounce back potential in a different offense, but if Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, Jeremy Maclin, and Randall Cobb all get franchise tagged, Crabtree leaps to the top of the wide receiver class and becomes a strong candidate to get overpaid.
RB Frank Gore
Frank Gore has had a fantastic 10-year run with the 49ers, rushing for 11,073 yards and 64 touchdowns on 2442 carries, playing all but 12 games at one of the most physical positions in the NFL. He added 342 catches for 2883 yards and another 11 scores through the air, while being one of the best pass protecting running backs and one of the best teammates in the NFL. He was everything the 49ers could have asked out of the 2005 3rd round pick, talented, complete, durable, and a great teammate. His rushing yards rank 20th all-time and he could be bound for Canton. He’s definitely bound for the 49ers’ Ring of Honor. However, all good things must come to an end. Gore is going into his age 32 season with 2442 carries. Of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade and a half, the average one has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 carrier carries. He might not have looked it last year, but he’s close to the end. I don’t expect the cap strapped 49ers to bring him back, instead going with 2014 2nd round pick Carlos Hyde as the starter in 2015. Whoever signs Gore could be very disappointed with his play on the field because of where he is in his career. Retirement is also an option.
CB Perrish Cox
Perrish Cox was a 5th round pick by the Broncos in 2010 and graded out above average on 787 snaps as a rookie, but was let go after one year after being arrested on multiple sexual assault charges. Cox was out of the league entirely in 2011 thanks to those charges coupled with a history of off-the-field issues from his collegiate days at Oklahoma State. However, early in 2012, he was found not guilty and the 49ers gave him another chance. He didn’t play much in either 2012 or 2013, playing 168 snaps in 2012 and 81 snaps in 2013 (11 of which were actually with the Seahawks), but injuries opened up a starting role for him back with the 49ers in 2014 and he didn’t look back. Cox led the 49ers with 965 snaps played, made 14 starts, and graded out above average. Cox clearly has talent, showing it in both of his stints as a starter, but the off-the-field stuff can’t be ignored. Still, he’ll come cheap for a starting cornerback this off-season so he definitely wouldn’t be a bad signing for any cornerback needy team and that includes the 49ers.
OLB Dan Skuta
The amount of different positions Skuta has played in the NFL is incredible. He’s played 4-3 defensive end, fullback, 4-3 outside linebacker, 4-3 middle linebacker, 3-4 outside linebacker, and 3-4 middle linebacker, while excelling on special teams. The 2009 undrafted free agent never played more than 163 offensive or defensive snaps in 4 years with the Bengals to start his career, but always made the roster because of his versatility. He’s carved out a bigger role with the 49ers over the past 2 seasons, primarily at 3-4 outside linebacker, playing 302 snaps in 2013 and 398 snaps in 2014, grading out above average in both seasons. He’d be a nice, cheap signing for any team who needs pass rushing depth because he’s talented and can do so many other things for you if you need him to.
WR Brandon Lloyd
Lloyd started his career in San Francisco in 2003, after they drafted him in the 4th round that year, but it was a weird road that led him to come full circle and end up with the 49ers again in 2014. Lloyd bounced around 4 different teams from 2003-2009, ending up in Denver, where, in 2010, he went from never having a 1000 yard year to leading the league in receiving at age 29 season, catching 77 passes for 1448 yards and 11 touchdowns, despite a combination of Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow at quarterback. He was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked wide receiver that year as well. However, Lloyd lasted just 4 games into the 2011 season with the Broncos before he was traded to the Rams for a mere 5th round pick. His composite numbers in 2011 weren’t bad, as he caught 70 passes for 966 yards and 5 touchdowns, nor were his numbers bad in 2012 with the Patriots, as he caught 74 passes for 911 yards and 4 touchdowns, but the same reports that had followed him his whole career continued to surface, that his personality was a weird fit and his teammates didn’t really like him. Lloyd sat out all of 2013 before returning in a reserve role to the 49ers in 2014. Lloyd played just 347 snaps, caught just 14 passes for 294 yards and a touchdown, and graded out below average. Now going into his age 34 season, he’ll be greeted by a very cold market and could be at the end of the line.
QB Blaine Gabbert
Blaine Gabbert was about as big of a bust as you can be as the 10th overall pick in 2011. The Jaguars traded their 1st and 2nd round pick to move up to get him and he was horrendous in 3 seasons for them, completing 53.3% of his passes for an average of 5.61 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions. He made 27 starts and won just 5 of them. That’s not completely his fault, but obviously he had a lot to do with that. The Jaguars traded him to the 49ers for a 6th round pick last off-season, but even Jim Harbaugh couldn’t get the talent out of him. He struggled mightily in the pre-season and attempted just 7 passes as the backup to a struggling Colin Kaepernick. This off-season, he won’t be guaranteed to get a #2 job or even make someone’s final roster in September. Only going into his age 26 season, Gabbert could be out of the league in 2015.
Cap Casualty Candidates
TE Vernon Davis
Vernon Davis held out for a while last off-season because he was unhappy about his contract and ended up turning in one of the worst seasons of his career. Not only was his 26/245/2 slash line his worst production since his rookie year in 2006, but he also struggled as a run blocker, an area he’s generally been very good in. Davis had that minimal production despite 47 targets (55.3% catch rate) and 417 routes run (0.59 yards per route run) and was Pro Football Focus’ 62nd ranked tight end out of 67 eligible. Now the man who wanted an extension last off-season has a very good chance to get cut outright this off-season. He has a chance to bounce back in 2015, but he’s going into his age 31 season and the 49ers don’t have the cap space to really give him a 2nd chance. The 49ers can save 4.9 million in cash and immediately on the cap by letting him go this off-season.
OLB Ahmad Brooks
Brooks was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker as recently as 2012, but he graded out below average in both 2013 and 2014. Now he’s going into his age 31 season and the cap strapped 49ers could easily cut him and go forward with Aldon Smith, Aaron Lynch, Corey Lemonier, and potentially free agent Dan Skuta at the 3-4 outside linebacker position, which is arguably the 49ers’ deepest position. The 49ers would only save 1.509 million on the cap by letting him go this off-season, but it would save them 7.3 million in cash and get him off their cap completely for 2016.
S Craig Dahl
Dahl was signed to a 3-year, 5.25 million dollar contract by the 49ers two off-seasons ago to potentially be a starter, but when they drafted Eric Reid a month later in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft, Dahl became a reserve, playing 89 snaps in 2013 and 184 snaps in 2014. He also wasn’t very good as a starter in St. Louis in 2012, grading out 77th at his position out of 88 eligible. There’s no reason the cap strapped 49ers need to be paying him 1.7 million in 2015 and they can save all that money immediately on the cap by cutting him this off-season.
WR Steve Johnson
Steve Johnson is an interesting case. Ordinarily, a cap strapped team like the 49ers would cut someone like Johnson easily. He’s owed a non-guaranteed 6.025 million, all of which can come off their cap immediately if they were to cut him, and he played just 305 snaps last season. However, the 49ers could easily lose both Michael Crabtree and Brandon Lloyd this off-season and they really need a starter opposite Anquan Boldin. Johnson has proven in the past that he’s more than capable of being a starter, putting up 1000+ yard seasons in 2010, 2011, and 2012. Even though he’s going to be 3 years removed from his last 1000+ yard season in 2015 and even though he combined for less than 1000 yards in 2013 and 2014, Johnson is still relatively young (going into his age 29 season) and he was very efficient in limited action for the 49ers in 2014. Despite the limited playing time, Johnson graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked wide receiver, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher. He caught 35 passes for 435 yards on 49 attempts (71.4%) and 204 routes run (2.13 yards per route run). A restructure could make the most sense for both sides.