The Feasibility of the San Francisco 49ers Retaining Mike Iupati Long Term

Courtesy of the San Francisco 49ers: Iupati may be next up for extension.

Courtesy of the San Francisco 49ers: Iupati may be next up for extension.

San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke has done a great job of retaining young players on long-term contracts over the past few seasons. What separates San Francisco’s success in terms of contracts from bottom feeders around the National Football League is that it has been able to find a happy medium between satisfying the players and remaining viable when it comes to salary cap flexibility.

This past offseason, San Francisco signed up-and-coming starting right tackle Anthony Davis to a cap-friendly five-year, $37.3 million contract. His averaged salary of $5.7 million is about middle of the row when it comes to all tackles in the NFL (fourth among right tackles), but his production at that position represents No. 1 overall capability moving forward. In fact, Pro Football Focus graded Davis out as the third-best right tackle in the NFL last season.

Less than a calendar year after signing a five-year, $42 million extension, NaVorro Bowman is now considered one of the most underpaid inside linebackers in the NFL. Despite earning All-Pro honors in just his second season as a starter and arguably playing better overall football than running mate Patrick Willis, Bowman’s average salary of $6.6 million seems like a steal. The 25-year-old linebacker ranks below the likes of A.J. Hawk and and Dannell Ellerbe in terms of average annual contracts among inside linebackers.

It doesn’t take an expert to come to the conclusion that Bowman is in a world of his own compared to those two “pedestrian” performers.

Even before Baalke took over the GM duties in San Francisco, the prior regime signed a few youngsters to decent team-friendly deals. No one in their right mind could have predicted that Joe Staley would become one of the best left tackles in the NFL when the 49ers signed him to a below-market five-year, $28.1 million contract in 2009. After counting $13.8 million against the cap that initial season, Staley’s average salary has been just over $3.2 million since.

This could be a philosophy that San Francisco will follow with some of its up-and-coming youngsters. The idea is to front load contracts in order to remain flexible when it comes to the salary cap down the road. Just imagine if the contract details in Staley’s extension were reversed. The 49ers would be looking at a plethora of their cap being spent on just one player.

These few examples might lead many to believe that San Francisco is going to be in a great salary cap position in the coming years. Add the fact that it is currently $7.5 million under the cap heading into the 2013 season, and it stands to reason one of their youngsters will get locked up on a long-term deal soon, per Overthecap.com.

But which one?

Courtesy of ESPN: Kaepernick will be another $100 million quarterback.

Courtesy of ESPN: Kaepernick will be another $100 million quarterback.

Third-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick isn’t allowed to sign an extension until after the 2013 season, at which point we are probably looking at a deal in excess of $100 million over the course of six or seven seasons. San Francisco could easily allow this money to roll over until next offseason and use it to front load Kaepernick’s extension. Continued progression from the young phenom will make it a necessity for San Francisco to lock him into a long-term deal.

That’s likely to come at some point within the next calendar year.

Michael Crabtree, who is set to become a free agent after next season, was a prime candidate for a long-term deal. His Achilles injury has put those talks on the back burner, as he attempts to get back before the end of the regular season. While San Francisco will still be looking to lock him up, we have absolutely no idea how Crabtree will recover from the serious injury and what type of market he might see.

The only core players on San Francisco’s roster set to become free agents after this season are: Tarell Brown, Anquan Boldin and Donte Whitner.

While all three are valuable members and could play roles for the 49ers long term, Trent Baalke and Co. can wait until the 2014 offseason to address contracts because the market should play out under the guise of San Francisco possessing a reasonable ability to retain two or three of them.

That leaves Aldon Smith and Mike Iupati as the two current players under contract who could be extended at some point in the not-so-distant future.

At his current pace, Aldon will be highest-paid 3-4 OLB in NFL.

At his current pace, Aldon will be highest-paid 3-4 OLB in NFL.

Smith seems like the likeliest candidate to get locked up on a long-term deal. He possesses the NFL record for the most sacks for a player in his first two NFL seasons and will likely contend for the single-season sack record in 2013. The 49ers have to look logistically into the idea of having to place the franchise tag on one of these players should they not come to a long-term agreement with one.

According to the National Football League, the franchise tag number for offensive linemen this season is $9.8 million (guards, tackles and centers). Meanwhile, the number for linebackers stands at $9.6 million. It’s less realistic to believe that San Francisco would be willing to dole out nearly $10 million to a guard when the five-highest paid players at that position average $8.3 million. That average is what the NFL uses to dictate the franchise tag number. For what it is worth the top-five highest-paid 3-4 outside linebackers average salaries this upcoming season is $10.8 million.

As a team that is as in tune with its salary cap situation as any in the NFL, San Francisco understands full well that placing the franchise tag on a guard just isn’t sustainable and acts as nothing more than a band-aid for future issues as it relates to said player.

In essence, franchising Iupati would cost the 49ers franchise left tackle money for at least one season, if not two.

Based on the new collective bargaining agreement, NFL’s salary cap is projected to be $122 million in 2014, $125 million in 2015 and $130 million in 2016. Much like what we saw this season, you can expect a yearly increase from those numbers of a couple million, totals that are based on indicators I will not cover here.

According to Spotrac.com, this is what San Francisco’s salary cap projects to look like over the next couple seasons…

Year Cap Figure $ Under Cap
2014 $111.574M $11M (+$3-4M)
2015 $88.851M $36M (+$3-4M)
2016 $58.363M $72M (+3-4M)

 

Accurately projecting salary cap space per team more than one season down the road must be left up to expects of that field. It’s also foolhardy to believe that San Francisco will go into the 2015 offseason more than $35 million under the cap.

Sure. The likes of Frank Gore, Carlos Rogers and Justin Smith are going to be off the books by then, but their contracts are assuredly going to be replaced by either in-house youngsters or exterior free agents, especially if San Francisco is to remain one of the elite franchises in the league.

By the time 2015 rolls around, Kaepernick will be making top-five quarterback money, Vernon Davis will be looking for an extension, Michael Crabtree (health depending) will be paid like a true No. 1 receiver, Patrick Willis will only have a couple years remaining on his deal and a plethora of youngsters will be looking to cash in long term.

Courtesy of ESPN

Courtesy of ESPN

That’s going to be a whole lot of money thrown in the direction of a handful of players.

Can San Francisco realistically expect to be able to pay all these players? If not, which positions are more important?

History suggests that guards are less valued than other positions. This is magnified in the NFL draft, where only three guards have gone in the top 10 since 1997. Interestingly enough, two of them went in that range this past April.

A trend towards respecting interior linemen more than in the past and San Francisco’s power-running scheme may magnify Iupati’s importance to the team. But is that enough to value him at over $9 million per season? That’s the huge question here.

The good news for San Francisco is that starting tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis are going to combine to average just $8.8 million per season over the next three years. That’s utterly ridiculous and completely out of whack as it relates to the rest of the lague.

That’s also where we can draw a final conclusion.

If San Francisco can get away with boasting Pro Bowl tackles at that cost for the foreseeable future, there is no reason to believe it can’t pony up a little extra cash to retain one the best young guards in the entire league.

At a bit under $8 million under the cap this season and with Iupati already set to earn $2.6 million, San Francisco can work out a deal that is front loaded to an extent, something to the tune of $11 million. This gives Baalk and Co. the necessary flexibility to work on deals for Kaepernick and the younger Smith next spring.

Expect it to happen at some point in the not-so-distant future.

 

Vincent is the head sports editor at eDraft, co-host of eDraft Sports Radio (which airs every Monday and Wednesday from 3-6 p.m. ET) and a fantasy writer for Pro Football Focus. He’s also the news director here at PFC and co-host of Football Debate Central with Ryan Riddle every Friday. He’s also a former league-wide featured columnist at Bleacher Report.