COMMENTARY | As the San Francisco 49ers prepare for what promises to be a busy offseason after another heartbreaking playoff exit, there are a ton of questions that they need to answer from a player personnel standpoint.
With a ton of young players to lock up on long-term contracts and not a whole lot of cap room to work with, Trent Baalke will have to use his magic to get some important impending free agents locked up once the new league year begins.
Here are five players that San Francisco has to bring back. You will see Pro Bowl-caliber performers and special teams players on this list. One of the primary ways to build a consistent contenders, something the 49ers have done, is to do a great job building a roster that is strong 1-53. So here goes...
Phil Dawson, Kicker
Dawson has been among the best kickers in the entire league for the last decade. He didn't get a lot of play from the national media in the past because of the position and city in which he played, but the stellar kicker was an important part of the 49ers success this season.
Dawson finished the regular season with the ninth-most field goals and sixth-most points among kickers in the league. He also made 14-of-17 outside of 40 yards, including 10-of-11 from 40-49 yards.
The issue with retaining Dawson is that he accounted for the ninth-highest cap hit among kickers this season and should be set for a raise heading into free agency. San Francisco has a plethora of picks in the upcoming draft and could conceivably find a much cheaper and younger alternative. However, as a top contender for the conference championship each year, having an upper-echelon veteran kicker makes the most sense.
Anquan Boldin, Wide Receiver
It's not entirely impossible to look at Boldin as San Francisco's MVP from the regular season. I am not too sure that the 49ers would have as much as made the playoffs without the services of this former Pro Bowl wide receiver. What he did to keep their passing game afloat when Crabtree was sidelined for the first half of the season was absolutely astonishing. Starting from San Francisco's Week 1 win over the Green Bay Packers to its divisional round victory against the Carolina Panthers two weeks ago, Boldin has been straight balling on the field.
Boldin made $6 million this after after being acquired from the Baltimore Ravens in March. If he expects to stay at that base salary, it might be hard for the 49ers to retain him. With young players such as Colin Kaepernick, Michael Crabtree, Aldon Smith and Mike Iupati set for extensions, San Francisco needs to be smart about the money it doles out to aging veterans. Something to the tune of $4 million per over three years, all guaranteed, might make the most sense here.
As it is, the 49ers would be really smart to retain Boldin. Imagine him lining up with Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and a more experienced Quinton Patton for a full 16-game slate next year. That immediately becomes one of the best pass-catching foursomes in the NFC.
Update: Boldin sounded every bit like a guy who is prepared to return to San Francisco following it's late-game loss in the NFC Championship per, per Twitter.
Donte Whitner, Safety
Even if San Francisco adds a strong safety in the draft this upcoming May, which is a real possibility, it will be better off next season having Whitner's veteran presence in the starting lineup next to Eric Reid. According to Pro Football Focus, Whitner graded out as the fifth-best cover safety in the entire NFL during the regular year. Having that type of back end consistency opposite Reid is one of the primary reasons San Francisco headed to a third straight NFC Championship game this year.
Looking at it logistically for a second, it might be hard to retain the former Buffalo Bills first-round pick. It goes without saying that Whitner will want upper-echelon safety money in free agency. The five highest-paid safeties in the NFL this year averaged about $9.4 million per season. Considering that San Francisco was willing to let Goldson walk on a contract that averaged $8.2 million per, there is no reason to believe that it would retain Whitner under these figures.
Whitner, however, plays a position, strong safety, that is perceived to be the less important of the two starting safety positions. If Whitner demands a pay day that is in line with what Troy Polamalu received from the Pittsburgh Steelers (three-year, $29.6 million), he won't be back with the 49ers next season. If he understands that playing for a consistent Super Bowl contender that needs to extend a ton of young players is more important than cold hard cash, Whitner will likely be starting when the 49ers open up their new digs in Santa Clara next season.
Kassim Osgood, Wide Receiver
For the most part, above-average special teams has been a constant part of the Jim Harbaugh regime in San Francisco. While it has struggled in the kicking game at times (see David Akers last year), its kick coverage unit has been among the best in the NFL. Osgood might not provide a whole lot on offense, but he is a standout guy in the coverage unit.
This was magnified by San Francisco's decision to leave him off the active roster Week 10 against the Carolina Panthers. Ted Ginn made multiple plays in the return game without Osgood on the field. Harbaugh and Co. then decided to activate him against the Panthers in the playoffs...the results were outstanding.
Michael Wilhoite, Linebacker
Depth at linebacker and another stellar special teams player. Two things that the 49ers would have to search for in the offseason if they decide to let Wilhoite walk. Nick Moody, a sixth-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft, could conceivably come in and replace Wilhoite on both special teams and as a reserve linebacker. With that said, San Francisco does tend to place a ton of importance on special teams play. The only possible way that Wilhoite doesn't return in 2014 is if another team offers him more of a role on the defensive side of the ball, which is a real possibility. Remember, he started two games in lieu of Patrick Willis during the regular year and played extremely well. San Francisco cannot compete with a team that might offer him a chance to start. It's really that simple.
The devastating injury that NaVorro Bowman suffered in the NFC Championship game may force the 49ers hand here. If Bowman is unable to return by Week 1 of the 2014 season, Wilhoite would likely start in his stead.
Vincent Frank has been covering the National Football League for three years. He started out writing for Bleacher Report and is currently the head editor at eDraft and a columnist at Pro Football Focus. Vincent co-hosts a weekly radio show called "Football Debate Central" with former NFL player Ryan Riddle and has seen his work featured on CNN, BR and Los Angeles Times, among many other outlets.
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football
- San Francisco
- Anquan Boldin
- Donte Whitner
- Michael Crabtree