The five-year, $50 million deal Patrick Willis signed this week was a great one for both the team and its inside linebacker. Willis is the face of the franchise, and his new deal sends a message to the locker room that the best players are handsomely rewarded. But Willis' deal also casts a light on the tremendous challenge the 49ers face in keeping all their top players happy.
NFL contracts already are hazy because no one knows what the future will hold. Will there be a salary cap in 2011 - and if, so what will be the number? Will there be a rookie slotting system? Will there be a franchise tag? Will there be a lockout? Those questions are compounded for the 49ers because so many key players are nearing the end of their contracts. Here's a look at the players whose contracts run out at the end of the 2010 season and where the 49ers' priorities lie.
QB Alex Smith. I'm not listing Smith first because he's one of the top players on the team. He's first because of the position he plays. The 49ers have to set aside money in 2011 and beyond for a starting quarterback whether that person is Smith or Smith's replacement. The 49ers are expecting Smith to take a big step forward this season and lead the team to the playoffs. If he does, he can expect to be rewarded. If he doesn't, the 49ers will have to find another franchise QB. (Rhymes with "Vichael Mick"?)
TE Vernon Davis. Think of Davis in opposite terms to Smith. Davis not only is one of the best players on the team, he is arguably the NFL's best at his position. But that position - rightly or not - is not valued as highly as others. Just look at the franchise-tag figures (the average of the top five highest-paid players at each position) for 2010. The franchise figure for tight ends is $5.9 million. Only kickers and punters have a lower number. Of course, you can look at that two ways. First, given the relative salaries of tight ends, you might expect the 49ers will be able to lock in Davis at a reasonable rate. But if Davis and his agent are asking for Willis-like numbers, it might prompt the 49ers to let him walk.
With the threat of a work stoppage in 2011, the 49ers could not afford to extend both Willis and Davis this year. It was one or the other, and the team went with Willis. (It's hard to argue against that move.) That does not mean that both can't be on the 49ers roster moving forward. Then again, the closer Davis gets to unrestricted free agency, the more difficult he will be to sign. The 49ers might have to end up letting the market decide his worth. Who knows - it could be that no team values a tight end that can run and pass block like Davis as much as the 49ers.
S Dashon Goldson. The 49ers were close to reaching an extension with Goldson when he switched agents. Now he and Drew Rosenhaus are looking for a bigger - much bigger - deal, one that would make Goldson one of the three or four highest-paid safeties in the league. (Rosenhaus client Antrel Rolle is the highest-paid safety. He signed a five-year, $37 million contract with $15 million guaranteed with the Giants earlier this year). The 49ers need to see Goldson in action another season before making a decision. Yes, Goldson has plenty of potential, and the 49ers are salivating over a potential Goldson-Taylor Mays safety tandem. But that's all it is right now - potential. Goldson also has a long injury history that goes back to college. Last year was his first 16-game season.
NT Aubrayo Franklin. This is assuming Franklin signs his franchise tender and is on a one-year deal for 2010. Perhaps no 49er should have been happier about the team's recent draft haul than Franklin. The 49ers did not take a nose tackle, giving Franklin better leverage in negotiations. Isaac Sopoaga was Franklin's back-up last year, but he has said he is more comfortable at defensive end and may not be instinctual enough to be a full-time player on the nose. The 49ers are currently looking at Ricky Jean-Francois and perhaps Kentwan Balmer as backups to Franklin in 2010. Franklin's negotiating position has been strengthened by Willis' new deal. The 49ers have made a huge investment in Willis, whose productivity depends in part on how well his defensive linemen, in particular Franklin, play. What's going against Franklin is this - he played his best season in his contract year. If he gets a big contract, will Franklin's play fall off? The 49ers are asking themselves exactly that.
LB Manny Lawson. Lawson is underrated. He had a very good year last year, and he's better at setting edge in the run game than you'd think a lanky linebacker who has struggled to reach 250 pounds would be. The 49ers' defense is predicated on taking away the big, back-breaking play and making sure linebackers clean up anything underneath. Lawson is fast and excels at chasing down ball carriers. But he's not an elite pass rusher, and more than that, he gets replaced by Ahmad Brooks on third downs. As I've been writing for a while now, Lawson wants a contract extension and that's why he's been missing from voluntary OTAs. He's certainly valuable to the 49ers, but with the team's resources headed elsewhere, he likely will find more money on the open market.
WR Jason Hill. It's tough being a receiver on a team that favors running backs and tight ends. And it got even tougher for Hill after the team drafted Michael Crabtree and signed Ted Ginn Jr. At best, Hill is fourth on the depth chart. Injuries certainly have played a role in limiting his opportunities, but the overarching issue for Hill - and Brandon Jones - is the offensive philosophy. That being said, look for Hill to seek greener pastures as a free agent.
-- Matt Barrows