The 49ers entered the 2014 season fresh off third straight trip to the NFC championship game and were expected to once again contend for conference supremacy and a Super Bowl. They stumbled to a disappointing 8-8 record, however, thus ending their three-year reign as an NFL superpower. What ensued was a bizarre offseason headlined by a diaspora of several figures who were integral to the 49ers’ recent success and could’ve been part of the solution going forward.
- Chris Borland, LB: Retired
- Michael Crabtree, WR
- Perrish Cox, CB
- Chris Culliver, CB
- Anthony Davis, T: Retired
- Frank Gore, RB
- Mike Iupati, G
- Josh Johnson, QB
- Stevie Johnson, WR: Released
- Brandon Lloyd, WR
- Jonathan Martin, T: Waived
- Kassim Osgood, WR
- Dan Skuta, LB
- Aldon Smith, LB
- Alfonso Smith, RB
- Justin Smith, DL: Retired
- Phillip Tanner, RB
- Raymond Ventrone
- Patrick Willis, LB: Retired
Unexpected retirements contributed to the shredding of San Francisco’s roster during the offseason. Four of the team’s standouts – linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland, defensive lineman Justin Smith and offensive tackle Anthony Davis – elected to step away from the sport.
Willis was a defensive captain for the Niners and perennially among the premier players in the league throughout his eight-year career, during which he totaled 100-plus tackles six times and made seven Pro Bowls. The normally durable Willis missed 10 games last year (he hadn’t missed more than three in any previous campaign) because of a toe injury, but he finished every season from 2007-13 anywhere from first to fourth among inside linebackers in Pro Football Focus’ grading system. Willis was a Hall of Fame-caliber defender who, at age 30, still had plenty to offer, and his void will be immensely difficult for the 49ers to fill.
Borland’s retirement came as an even bigger shock than Willis’, given that Borland only played one season in the league. The 49ers drafted the former Wisconsin Badger in the third round last year and he proceeded to pile up 107 tackles and a pair of interceptions in his rookie season. Borland’s play earned him a fourth-place ranking among 37 ILBs who played at least 50 percent of snaps in 2014, per PFF (subscription required). His presence would’ve helped make up for a lack of Willis, as it did last season when Willis was injured, but the 24-year-old decided to leave the game out of self-preservation.
“I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” Borland said. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.
Like Borland, Davis – who appeared in and started 71 games for the 49ers between 2010-14 – also chose to retire because of health concerns.
“This will be a time for me to allow my brain and body a chance to heal. I know many won’t understand my decision, that’s OK,” the 25-year-old said in a statement.
Unlike Borland, though, Davis’ flight from football looks as if it’ll be more a hiatus than a real retirement. The 25-year-old tweeted in June that he’d “be back in a year or two,” and iterated that sentiment to NJ Advance Media earlier this week.
While it appears Davis will be back in the league at some point, the same can’t be said for the 35-year-old Smith. The longtime defensive line stalwart elected to step away after 14 productive seasons, the last seven of which were spent in San Francisco. He amassed 87 sacks during his career and was consistently one of the best D-linemen in the league with the 49ers, with whom he made five Pro Bowls and was named PFF’s top 3-4 defensive end three straight times (2009-11).
Prior to the above slew of retirements, some noteworthy contributors left the 49ers via free agency.
If Willis was the heart and soul of the 49ers’ defense, running back Frank Gore – who signed with the Colts – held the same distinction for their offense. Gore spent the first decade of his career with the 49ers and rushed for 1,000-plus yards eight times, including 1,106 last season, and finished with 250-plus carries in each of the last four years.
One of the offensive linemen who helped clear paths for Gore was guard Mike Iupati, who signed with NFC West rival Arizona. Iupati, 28, was a 49er for five seasons and made three consecutive Pro Bowls to close his career in the Bay. He earned a reputation as a dominant run blocker, ranking among PFF’s top five guards in that category two of the last three years.
The 49ers also said goodbye to a couple of well-known receivers, Michael Crabtree and Stevie Johnson. Crabtree, who signed with the Raiders in April, seldom lived up to pre-draft hype with the 49ers after going 10th overall in 2009. He was especially disappointing last season, when he found the end zone only four times and averaged a paltry 10.4 yards per catch on 68 grabs. Johnson was also a letdown with the 49ers, who acquired him from Buffalo last year. The Niners released Johnson after a 35-catch, three-touchdown 2014, and he subsequently signed with San Diego.
Defensively, the 49ers lost their two starting corners from last year and a quality role-playing linebacker in free agency. Corners Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox joined Washington and Tennessee, respectively, after combining for nine interceptions in 2014. PFF (subscription required) ranked Culliver 13th out of 74 corners who played at least 50 percent of snaps last year, while Cox ended up 24th. Linebacker Dan Skuta also left for bigger money elsewhere, signing for $20.5MM with the Jaguars. The six-year veteran was a 49er from 2013-14 and wasn’t exactly a household name with them, but he managed to draw positive grades from PFF both seasons. He also contributed career bests in sacks (five) and forced fumbles (three) last year.
As if the 49ers didn’t take enough of a beating during the winter and spring, the coup de grace may have come earlier this month. After yet another run-in with the law – this time an arrest on hit-and-run, DUI, and vandalism charges – the 49ers parted ways with star linebacker Aldon Smith. The 49ers drafted Smith seventh overall in 2011 and he emerged as a pass-rushing demigod, accumulating a whopping 44 sacks in 50 games. However, his on-field prowess was blighted by off-field problems. The 25-year-old was arrested three different times on suspicion of drunken driving while with the 49ers and garnered a nine-game suspension last season for an April 2014 incident with a TSA agent at Los Angeles International Airport.
- Torrey Smith, WR: Five years, $40MM. $8.75MM guaranteed.
- Darnell Dockett, DL: Two years, $7.5MM. $2MM guaranteed.
- Shareece Wright, CB: One year, $3MM. $1.5MM guaranteed.
- Erik Pears, T: Two years, $4.7MM. $1MM guaranteed.
- Reggie Bush, RB: One year, $2.5MM. $1MM guaranteed.
- Chris Cook, CB: One year, $1.3MM. $800K guaranteed.
- Blaine Gabbert, QB: Two years, $4MM. $500K guaranteed.
- Jarryd Hayne, RB: Three years, $1.583MM. $108K guaranteed.
- Nick Bellore, LB: Two years, $1.69MM. $30K guaranteed.
- Garrett Celek, TE: One year, $735K. $25K guaranteed.
- Philip Wheeler, LB: One year, $1MM.
- Jerome Simpson, WR: Two years, minimum salary.
- Desmond Bishop, LB: One year, minimum salary benefit.
The biggest splash the 49ers made in free agency was the signing of wideout Torrey Smith. The 26-year-old mixed big-play ability with durability in Baltimore from 2011-14 and parlayed that combo into a $40MM contract. Smith has never caught more than 65 passes in a season, but he averaged 15.7 to 17.4 yards per catch each individual season with the Ravens and is coming off an 11-touchdown showing – his best so far. Just as impressive, perhaps, is the fact that Smith hasn’t yet missed a game in his career.
Accompanying Smith as a newly added skill player is running back Reggie Bush, who joins second-year man Carlos Hyde in the backfield as the 49ers try to replace Gore. Bush, a 10-year veteran, signed with the 49ers after a pedestrian 2014 with the Lions (550 total yards and two TDs on 116 touches). To Bush’s credit, he was an adept No. 1 back from 2011-13 with the Dolphins and Lions, respectively, as he exceeded the 215-carry mark three years in a row and the 1,000-yard plateau twice, and his averages ranged from 4.3 to 5.0 yards per attempt. Further, the 30-year-old has long been a threat in the passing game (466 career receptions), and should give quarterback Colin Kaepernick a capable target out of the backfield.
Defensively, the 49ers’ only noteworthy pickup in free agency was lineman Darnell Dockett, who was with Arizona from 2004-14. Dockett missed all of last season with a torn ACL and, at 34, his best days are likely behind him. Nevertheless, the three-time Pro Bowler has 40.5 career sacks and should aid the 49ers’ pass rush. Just don’t expect him to contribute against the run.
- Acquired a 2015 first-round pick (No. 17; DL Arik Armstead), a 2015 fourth-round pick (No. 117; TE Blake Bell), and a 2016 fifth-round pick from the Chargers in exchange for a 2015 first-round pick (No. 15; RB Melvin Gordon).
- Acquired a 2015 fifth-round pick (No. 165; P Bradley Pinion) and a 2015 seventh-round pick (No. 244; OL Trenton Brown) from the Colts in exchange for a 2015 fifth-round pick (No. 151; DT David Parry).
- Acquired a 2016 sixth-round pick from the Cowboys in exchange for a 2015 seventh-round pick (No. 246; TE Geoff Swaim).
- Acquired a 2017 seventh-round pick from the Browns for P Andy Lee.
Extensions and restructures:
- Kyle Nelson, LS: Extended through 2018. Four years, $3.48MM. $600K guaranteed.
- Derek Carrier, TE: Extended through 2017. Two years, $2.4MM. $400K guaranteed. Max value of $3.3MM.
- 1-17: Arik Armstead, DL (Oregon): Signed
- 2-46: Jaquiski Tartt, S (Samford): Signed
- 3-79: Eli Harold, OLB (Virginia): Signed
- 4-117: Blake Bell, TE (Oklahoma): Signed
- 4-126: Mike Davis, RB (South Carolina): Signed
- 4-132: DeAndre Smelter, WR (Georgia Tech): Signed
- 5-165: Bradley Pinion, P (Clemson): Signed
- 6-190: Ian Silberman, G (Boston College): Signed
- 7-244: Trenton Brown, OL (Florida): Signed
- 7-254: Rory Anderson, TE (South Carolina): Signed
Considering how their offseason went, it would obviously help the 49ers’ cause if at least a couple of their rookies stepped in and acquitted themselves well immediately. That includes ex-Oregon defensive lineman Arik Armstead, whom the team took in the first round. But the 6-foot-7, 292-pounder was viewed as a raw (albeit highly talented) prospect pre-draft and has work to do to climb up the 49ers’ depth chart, as the Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows wrote Friday.
Thanks to all the offseason departures San Francisco endured at linebacker, third-rounder Eli Harold will have an opportunity to make his presence felt quickly and replace Aldon Smith on the right side. Harold, who has shared reps with third-year man Corey Lemonier this summer, combined for 15.5 sacks during his final two season at Virginia and has impressed his new head coach so far.
“Eli Harold, he came in beeping (like on radar),” Jim Tomsula said last week, according to ESPN’s Paul Gutierrez. “Again, rookie going through it, we’ve all seen it, the ups and downs. He hasn’t had the downs, but we are still early on in this thing. But Eli is doing a really good job. He’s an energetic guy. I think everybody sees what we saw in him and why we drafted him.”
- Promoted Jim Tomsula to head coach to replace Jim Harbaugh.
- Promoted Geep Chryst to offensive coordinator to replace Greg Roman.
- Promoted Eric Mangini to defensive coordinator to replace Vic Fangio.
- Hired former Raiders interim HC Tony Sparano as tight ends coach.
- Hired former Raiders DC Jason Tarver as senior defensive assistant and outside linebackers coach.
- Signed nine undrafted rookie free agents following the draft.
In 2011, the 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh as their head coach after seven strong years in the college ranks. The Niners were in the midst of an eight-year playoff drought when Harbaugh took the job, but his arrival brought dramatic improvement in the form of a superb 44-19-1 regular-season mark and three playoff berths. However, his relationship with CEO Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke deteriorated and became particularly discordant in 2014. That led to a divorce between the sides in December, and Harbaugh went back to college to coach Michigan.
To take over for Harbaugh, the 49ers hired from within and chose Tomsula. The 47-year-old had run the 49ers’ defensive line since 2007 and was their interim head coach for one game back in 2010 (a 38-7 win over the Cardinals).
Tomsula continued the in-house theme with his coordinator hires, promoting Eric Mangini (defense) and Geep Chryst (offense). While Mangini was an offensive consultant with the 49ers in 2013 and their tight ends coach last season, the majority of his coaching career has been spent on defensive staffs. He took Vic Fangio‘s old job, while Chryst grabbed the reins from Greg Roman. Chryst, who was last an O-coordinator with the Chargers in 1999-2000, was previously San Francisco’s quarterbacks coach.
Top 10 cap hits for 2015:
- Colin Kaepernick, QB: $15,265,753
- NaVorro Bowman, LB: $7,654,000
- Joe Staley, LT: $7,600,000
- Ahmad Brooks, OLB: $7,055,000
- Vernon Davis, TE: $6,967,920
- Anquan Boldin, WR: $6,909,000
- Aldon Smith, OLB: $4,854,875
- Antoine Bethea, S: $4,750,000
- Ray McDonald, DT: $4,609,971 (dead money)
- Phil Dawson, K: $4,134,000
While it’s unwise to write teams off prior to the season in the parity-driven NFL, it’s hard to imagine the 49ers improving on their .500 record from last year after their calamitous offseason. They’re likely to have a difficult time staying afloat as part of a division that houses a Super Bowl favorite (Seattle) and a pair of potential playoff contenders (Arizona and St. Louis).