Ah, mid-June in the NFL, when the newsiest items involve contract negotiations, courtroom hearings and more contract negotiations.
The 49ers, for example, will have their first mandatory practice session of the spring today. The biggest story line to come out of it will be the two players who aren’t there – tight end Vernon Davis and guard Alex Boone.
Both want new deals, and both can make good arguments why they deserve a raise. Unfortunately for them, the 49ers have a better argument: We’re already squeezed against the salary cap like Luke Skywalker in the trash compactor.
More on that later. First, here are the players’ complaints:
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Boone is set to make $2 million in base salary this season. He has started every game the last two seasons at right guard and also has been the team’s emergency backup at tackle.
He certainly has outplayed his contract, which he signed in 2011, one year before he became a starter. Of the 49ers’ likely starting offensive linemen this year, only center Daniel Kilgore, who never has started a game, is paid less. Next year, the final year of Boone’s deal, he will be below even Kilgore.
Davis’ rationale isn’t as clear cut.
He also has two years remaining on his contract, and he’ll make $7.4 million this year, the second most on the team. Among NFL tight ends, Davis is third in compensation behind New England’s Rob Gronkowski and Dallas’ Jason Witten.
His best argument seems to be the one Jimmy Graham is making in New Orleans – that an NFL tight end is far more important than in the past and that the position is underpaid.
Earlier this year, the Saints gave Graham the franchise tag at the tight-end level, $7.04 million. Graham led New Orleans in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns last year, and his 16 touchdown catches were more than the Saints receivers’ combined total last year. With that in mind, Graham feels he should be worth the franchise amount for wide receivers, which is $12.31 million.
Davis could take a similar stance based on last year’s numbers.
He had 13 of the team’s 21 touchdown catches during the regular season and was the 49ers’ sole deep threat, averaging more than 16 yards per catch. Davis missed all or some of two games in 2013 with a hamstring strain, and the 49ers lost both.
Davis is a vital cog in the 49ers’ offense, and unlike Graham, he’s also valuable in the running game as a blocker. Boone, meanwhile, has been far better at guard than anyone imagined when he moved there from tackle two years ago.
But the 49ers have reached a stage typical of talent-laden teams – they can’t pay what every player deserves, especially the ones with two years remaining on their current deals.
The 49ers are prepared to say goodbye to either their top wide receiver, Michael Crabtree, or their top guard, Mike Iupati – or perhaps both – when they become free agents at the end of the season. The team would love to do long-term deals with them. It just doesn’t have salary cap room.
The 49ers are a little more than $5 million under the cap. Teams like to go into the regular season with a $5 million cushion in case there are injuries and they have to sign players.
San Francisco will be even more strapped next season when quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s new contract – and its $15 million cap hit – comes into effect.
The 49ers also are on the hook for nearly $9.8 million for linebacker Aldon Smith, and they will have to make decisions on other young players such as running back Kendall Hunter and cornerback Chris Culliver, both of whom could have bigger roles beyond this season.
The 49ers’ response to Boone, Davis and any other player who feels he deserves a better contract is this: Take a number; the line goes around the block.