Change is afoot in Santa Clara. The 49ers are expected to make their most significant pivot since the end of the 2010 season. Who stays and who sails into the sunset? Here's the best guess in order of most certain to leave.
Coach Jim Harbaugh
He will not be back for his fifth season. The question is whether he heads back to college, in which the case the 49ers would get no recompense but wouldn't have to worry about him upstaging them, or to another team, which might result in a mid-round pick. Bleacher Report's Jason Cole today reported that Harbaugh is expected to go to Michigan.
G Mike Iupati
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Iupati, who was voted to his third straight Pro Bowl, could be the premiere offensive lineman in free agency this season, which would nearly guarantee he isn't back with the 49ers. The team likes to use mid-round picks on interior linemen -- they probably will do so this year, too -- and have stockpiled players at the position. A pair of 2014 third rounders, Marcus Martin and Brandon Thomas, could compete for Iupati's left guard spot.
WR Michael Crabtree
His contract year has not been nearly as prolific as he would have liked, which actually increases the chances he could be back. Still, Crabtree was not happy with how he was used this season while the 49ers need a deep threat, not another mid-range possession receiver.
OLB Ahmad Brooks
The 49ers reportedly tried to deal Brooks before the trade deadline, which was a signal they wanted to part ways with Brooks and his more-than-$9 million salary-cap figure for next season. Brooks' Nov. 16 blowup on the sideline and his missed meeting further eroded his relationship with the team.
DE Justin Smith
He has one year left on his contract but has said he would walk away from the game if he felt he was overstaying his welcome. Smith's return could depend on whom the 49ers hire as their next head coach. That is, a team run by defensive coordinator Vic Fangio or defensive line coach Jim Tomsula likely would be more appealing to Smith than one in which a young, offensive minded coach is brought in.
TE Vernon Davis
His decline is one of the hazier mysteries of the 2014 season. Last year he led the team with 13 touchdowns. This year? He has two, both of them coming in Week 1. The tight end's performance does not come close to warranting his $7 million camp figure for 2015. Still, Davis at least has the potential for explosive plays, something the 49ers badly lack.
CB Perrish Cox/CB Chris Culliver
The 49ers could re-sign one, none or both of these soon-to-be free agents. If they had their druthers, they'd go with Culliver, the home-grown talent who has the size the team wants at the position. Cox could be a good fall-back option after his break-out season. He can play both outside and the slot position. Still, the 49ers might wonder how Cox, who has tailed of in previous seasons, would react to a big-money deal. Of course, they should wonder the same thing about Culliver, whose early career has been marked by lapses in judgement.
RB Frank Gore
He's said he wants to be back and the 49ers -- suddenly thin at running back -- want him back. But there are all sorts of details that must be worked out, starting with Gore's salary. He nearly held out of training camp in 2011 because he felt undercut by the team. Like Smith, Gore's return could rest on what the 49ers do in the offseason
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