NFL free agency begins Tuesday at 1 p.m. PDT with three-fourths of the 49ers’ starting secondary headed for the open market.
Cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown and safety Donte Whitner were thrown together in 2011 as the 49ers and their incoming coaching staff reshaped the back end of the defense. The composition was a success. The 49ers went from 13th in the NFL in overall defense in 2010 to fourth in 2011. Rogers, Brown and Whitner also combined for 12 interceptions on a team that led the league in turnover differential that season.
Now the 49ers risk losing all three to other teams willing – and able – to pay more.
Brown’s and Whitner’s contracts expire today. Rogers has two years remaining on his deal, but he is due to a count a team-high $8.1 million against the salary cap, and cutting him will free more space. The 49ers are expected to be more than $16 million below the cap after that transaction occurs.
The team has remained in contact with the agents for Brown and Whitner, and both have said they would like to return to a 49ers squad that has played in the NFC Championship Game in each of the past three years.
“I’d love to stay in the Bay,” Brown said Monday after a track workout in his native Texas. “That’s where my heart is.”
Still, that won’t stop him from exploring what seems like a robust market for cornerbacks. And it won’t stop the 49ers from investigating other, perhaps less expensive, alternatives.
For instance, the 49ers were one of about 10 teams to call about Dolphins cornerback Nolan Carroll, according to Carroll’s agent. He was a fifth-round pick by Miami in 2010. At 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, the 27-year-old Carroll also fits the mold of the bigger, physical cornerback the 49ers and other teams seek.
Meanwhile, there appears to be competition for Whitner. A league source said the Browns, Jets and Bears called about the 49ers’ strong safety, whom San Francisco would like to retain. Cleveland may be particularly intriguing because it is Whitner’s hometown and the Browns have plenty of salary cap space. Whitner averaged just under $4 million a season for the past three years, and the 49ers likely will not go too far beyond that figure.
Still, without Whitner and the others, the 49ers risk entering the 2014 season with an inexperienced secondary, or at least one that hasn’t played together.
Rogers and Brown, for example, were the 49ers’ starting cornerbacks in 50 of 56 games over the past three seasons. Rogers started at left cornerback and also moved to the increasingly critical nickel cornerback position in passing situations. Perrish Cox filled the nickel cornerback role when Rogers was injured during the team’s most recent playoff run. Cox is a restricted free agent who will not be tendered. Another cornerback, Eric Wright, also becomes a free agent today.
The only sure thing at cornerback for the 49ers in 2014 is Tramaine Brock, who has started 10 games during his four-year career and who signed a four-year deal during the season. Chris Culliver is returning from an ACL tear suffered in last season’s training camp. The only other cornerbacks on the roster are Darryl Morris and Dax Swanson. Morris was an undrafted rookie in 2013 who spent the year on special-teams coverage units. Swanson, also an undrafted rookie in 2013, spent part of the season on San Francisco’s practice squad.