San Francisco 49ers: Examining 6 Best Player Contracts
But specific to San Francisco, such affordable impact pieces equate to an annual Super Bowl contender with three consecutive appearances in the NFC Championship Game.
See: pass-rush extraordinaire Aldon Smith and elite left tackle Joe Staley among others.
The 49ers have maintained their upper-echelon status through some basic means.
One is a team that dominates both lines of scrimmage and keeps the opposition off the scoreboard. Another is a no-nonsense winning culture that extends from owner to the roster’s 53rd man.
And yet another—perhaps as critical as any—is a financially sound operational M.O. that fosters immediate success and preserves it for the future.
Team president Paraag Marathe and general manager Trent Baalke have exercised fiscal responsibility throughout their tenure with the 49ers. They have drafted players, negotiated terms and finalized deals that have benefited this franchise to the highest degree.
The duo—along with all other key executives involved—haven’t been perfect. But take a gander at the team’s current books, and one easily sees intelligent monetary minds at work.
To that end, let’s now highlight the 49ers’ six best player contracts.
Note: All contractual and salary information comes courtesy of Spotrac. Pro-Football-Reference, ESPN and NFL.com provide player/team statistics, while all advanced data derives from Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Note: Each player’s total contract value, guaranteed dollars, signing bonus and 2014 salary form the basis for this top six. Comparing the 49ers’ deals—and each individual’s production—with fellow NFL players at their positions solidify the final rankings.
Tramaine Brock, Cornerback
Brock played under a one-year deal for just $2.07 million in 2013 after three previous seasons in and out of the 49ers lineup.
The undrafted free agent from Belhaven College ascended the depth chart this year due to Tarell Brown’s injured ribs and stellar play on the part of the small-school product.
Brock recorded two interceptions and a pick-six in his first career start against the Houston Texans in Week 5. That production earned him a starting role from Week 12 through the conference championship.
He finished this season with a team-best five interceptions and 15 pass breakups.
Pro Football Focus awarded Brock with the No. 15 overall ranking among 110 cornerbacks graded. He was the ninth-highest rated in coverage, having allowed a meager 55.4 completion percentage.
Here is how San Francisco’s current No. 1 corner ranks at his position regarding contract numbers: 31st in total dollars, 43rd in guaranteed money ($4.55 million), 33rd with a $3.75 million signing bonus and 46th with a $2 million cap hit in 2014 (Spotrac notes that his salary in 2015 isn’t guaranteed until April 1 of that year as well, giving the team even further flexibility in case things don’t work out).
Talk about big-time value coming on the cheap.
The modern NFL is a total pass-happy league. Being equipped with proficient cover men is an absolute must.
It’s safe to say that the 49ers have their top wideout-neutralizer without any financial strings attached.
Michael Crabtree, Wide Receiver
The 49ers selected Crabtree No. 10 overall in the 2009 draft.
He inked a six-year deal for $32 million, with $17 million guaranteed following an initial holdout. His reasonable $6.8 million signing bonus didn’t kick in until 2010.
After three solid but mediocre campaigns, the 6’2’’ game-changer broke out in 2012 with a team-high 85 receptions for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns.
The reputable statisticians at PFF detail these WR rankings for his career-best season: seventh in the NFL with a 72.0 catch percentage, fourth with 543 yards after the catch and third with 2.55 yards per route run.
It is clear that he and Colin Kaepernick have an established rapport that would compete with any quarterback-wideout duo in the NFL.
Kaepernick himself tallied seven touchdowns to just one interception with Crabtree back in the lineup for the final five games of the 2013 regular season.
The 49ers went 7-1 all told (playoffs included) with No. 15 patrolling the gridiron.
Crabtree’s total contract value (No. 20), guaranteed dollars (No. 12) and signing bonus (No. 19) aren’t commensurate with his near-elite talent level and comparative league rankings for wide receiver (seen in parentheses).
And seeing that his $4.77 million salary in 2014 isn’t either (No. 32), the 49ers have an MVP-caliber asset at an ultra cheap price.
Then vice president of football operations Paraag Marathe and general manager Scot McCloughan did quite well orchestrating this rookie deal.
Now president Marathe and current GM Trent Baalke will have to do so again before Crabtree becomes a free agent in 2015.
6. Mike Iupati, Left Guard
Mike Iupati came to the 49ers with the No. 17 pick in the 2010 draft.
He started all 53 games over his first three seasons (playoffs included) before missing four this year. NFL voters eventually recognized his powerful skill set by tabbing him as a Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro in 2012.
Iupati has helped drive the 49ers rushing offense from No. 8 in 2011 to No. 4 in 2012 and up to No. 3 this season. The high-IQ, crazy-strong run-blocker also performs at a high level as an inside pass-protector.
Despite a relatively down 2013, Iupati still qualified for the Pro Bowl. The nomination was testament to his reputation as one of the best in the business.
The veteran left guard will operate next season under the final year of a $15.11 million deal signed as a rookie out of Idaho.
His minimal salary will pay him just $4.4 million in 2014. That cap hit rates as only the 19th-highest among his positional counterparts.
Throw in his 21st-ranked total contract value, and the 49ers have reaped some supreme benefits from a perennially consummate player. A run-first team that prides itself on tenacious interior blocking has been sitting pretty with Iupati both on the field and in the books.
San Francisco will unfortunately find itself negotiating new contractual terms in due time, as Iupati’s deal expires following this upcoming campaign.
5. Justin Smith, Defensive End
How does the most important member of a defense get paid with an 18th-ranked salary?
An unmatched football culture coupled with unrivaled negotiators and a blue-collar model American—that’s how.
Justin Smith, known affectionately by teammates as Cowboy, has been locking down the defensive end position for the 49ers since 2008.
Smith is the essential cog for San Francisco’s 3-4 alignment. He performs all the dirty work in the trenches—occupying multiple blockers so those NFL-renowned linebackers can make plays behind him.
Spoiler alert: two of those better-recognized Niners might appear later in this list.
The five-time Pro Bowler, two-time second-team All-Pro and 2011 first-team honoree has also compiled laudable stats of his own. He has totaled 38.5 sacks, 26 tackles for loss, nine pass breakups, eight forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries with the 49ers.
Even at the elderly age of 34, Smith managed the sixth-most tackles (49) and second-most sacks (6.5) for San Francisco in 2013. He added two TFL in the playoffs.
But more than anything, the 49ers defense simply could not function at its fifth-ranked echelon without Smith—a man who transcends mere statistical totals.
His fellow run-stoppers, sack-artists and secondary personnel are forever indebted to No. 94.
The fact that Smith has served with such distinction, yet without sufficient compensation points to three things: who he is as a person, an attractive football environment instilled by 49ers coaches and the bargaining prowess of Trent Baalke and Paraag Marathe.
The GM/president one-two punch inked Smith to a two-year extension as part of a $16.7 million, three-year deal before the 2013 season. Smith himself helped draw up the numbers that saved San Francisco over $4 million in cap space, per Yahoo Sports.
His $6.74 million in 2014 and total dollar amount for all three seasons rank 18th and 30th, respectively, among NFL defensive ends. And his $6.56 million guaranteed signing bonus over the life of the contract comes in all the way down at No. 38.
One way or another, a top-five player with a top-five contract value on a top-five defense receives, well, a top-five spot on this list.
4. Aldon Smith, Outside Linebacker
“Brothers” in arms—the Smith tandem arrives back-to-back appropriately enough in these rankings.
Aldon Smith joined the Red and Gold after being selected seventh overall in 2011. He signed a fully guaranteed $14.38 million deal over four years.
The former defensive end at Missouri switched to 3-4 outside linebacker and never looked back.
Smith amassed 14 sacks and two forced fumbles his rookie year. He did not start a single game and San Francisco used him solely on pass-rushing downs.
Pro Football Focus gave him the No. 2 ranking at his position. It might even surprise some fans out there that Smith received a positive grade against the run as well.
Full-on statistical explosion occurred just one year later.
Smith piled up 19.5 sacks through the 49ers’ first 13 games. The promoted starter was well on his way toward the all-time record of 22.5.
Unfortunately, a shoulder issue—combined with Justin Smith’s torn triceps—hampered Aldon Smith the rest of the way. He did not record another sack over the final six contests (playoffs included).
Smith then began 2013 with a memorable bang. He dominated to the tune of 4.5 sacks and 17 quarterback pressures over the opening three games.
However, a rehab-necessitating hiatus forced Smith off the field for the next six weeks. He returned in limited fashion off the bench but eventually realized his unparalleled abilities during the 49ers' playoff run.
He tallied 3.5 sacks and 17 pressures over three January matchups. It truly was a showcase of unstoppable force. PFF again placed his season-long output in the top five—run defense included.
Arguably the most complete and dominant 3-4 OLB in football is also a total bargain.
Even though he is seemingly under contract for just one more year, the 49ers can exercise a team option in 2015, per David Fucillo of Niners Nation. It would amount to a transition tag worth $9.6 million.
Being well below the salaries of the higher-paid but inferior LaMarr Woodley and Trent Cole would deem it yet another steal for Trent Baalke.
All told, Smith’s on-field production far exceeds his cap-friendly contract.
3. Joe Staley, Left Tackle
These next two selections revolve around premier talent secured over the long-term at key positions.
The first of which is Joe Staley, who technically was a first-round pick of a former regime. Current general manager Trent Baalke scouted but did not officially sign Staley back in 2007, per 49ers.com.
Yet, technicalities aside, current president Paraag Marathe remained a pivotal figure throughout those contract negotiations.
Marathe helped create a brilliant six-year, $43.2 million extension for the franchise left tackle in 2009. It ensured that Staley would remain in San Francisco through 2017 for a pleasantly mind-blowing $18 million guaranteed.
That’s cheaper than seven of his positional counterparts.
The durable but comparatively sub-standard Matt Kalil and William Beatty were two who received more dollars up front. Kalil was one of the lower-rated run-blockers this season, while Beatty surrendered a league-high 13 sacks, according to Pro Football Focus.
Staley, in comparison, boasted the No. 6 ranking out of the 73 graded. His NFL-low 20 quarterback pressures allowed solidified his status as a preeminent blindside protector.
Ask 49ers’ all-time leading rusher Frank Gore who’s the best run-blocking LT, and don’t be surprised with his answer.
It’s not like he produced his highest average of 5.4 yards per carry in 2013 when running behind Staley or anything.
In any case, the 49ers have the asset most responsible for preserving the franchise’s future (i.e. QB Colin Kaepernick) locked in for an extended period.
And to think—team brass didn’t even have to break the bank. This surely was a beneficially proactive strike by Marathe and Co.
2. NaVorro Bowman, Inside Linebacker
Okay, the 49ers aggressively tapped the savings account on this one.
But it really couldn’t have come at a better time.
NaVorro Bowman put pen to paper on a five-year, $45.25 million extension in November of 2012. The fifth-largest current contract for an inside linebacker also guaranteed him some of the most dollars at the position.
The pertinent idea, however, is that San Francisco extended Bowman—like Willis—when it had the contractual upper hand.
Trent Baalke cemented his stamp on the rising 49ers organization by locking up the incomparable ILB duo before either one reached free agency. He and Paraag Marathe avoided any such loathsome bidding war with outside suitors.
They secured the future of the defense’s elite corps and the team’s essential foundation.
With Bowman, team management understood his sky-high ceiling. It correctly foresaw a 2011 Pro Bowler’s transformation into a Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro for the next two seasons.
The stat brains at Pro Football Focus certainly agreed as much.
Bowman led the 49ers this year with 145 tackles, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He added a second-best six tackles for loss, in addition to five sacks and nine pass breakups.
He took the second of his two interceptions 89 yards for a game-clinching pick-six against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 16. It also propelled San Francisco to a sure-fire playoff berth.
Regrettably, painful memories of his torn ACL and MCL in the NFC Championship will haunt both Bowman and all who witnessed it for some time. It was quintessential football brutality at its worst hour, especially since he had been one of the 49ers’ MVPs throughout the entire year.
But with a tireless work ethic and some of the NFL’s finest team physicians, Bowman should return at full strength within the first month of the 2014 campaign.
Having the assurance of five years and eight-plus figures surely won’t hurt either.
From a pure contract perspective, the 49ers had the potential Defensive Player of the Year operate under a $630K base salary in 2013. Incredible.
His $3.10 million cap hit will only increase to $7.05 million in 2014 as well. Six other inside ‘backers have larger deals next season—and zero exist at Bowman’s level (outside of maybe Sean Lee).
Securing greatness at fiscally sound prices—the 49ers are one of a kind.
1. Colin Kaepernick, Quarterback
Nowhere does gridiron output greater outweigh the financial backing that supports it than with this final entry.
The 49ers identified their looming Super Bowl viability in the second round of the 2011 draft. They selected quarterback Colin Kaepernick out of Nevada with the No. 36 overall pick.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh found his man and general manager Trent Baalke authorized the green light.
Chief negotiator and current team president Paraag Marathe then utilized his professional expertise. He crafted an appropriate, yet entirely minuscule four-year deal for $5.12 million.
Stipulations indicated that the contract offered just $3.8 million guaranteed, with no cap hit exceeding $1.6 million in any one season.
Suffice it to say, San Francisco’s lowly, affordable draft pick became a franchise-leading, postseason sensation in short order.
Kaepernick assumed the starting role in Week 11 of 2012. He powered the 49ers with arm, legs and brain all the way to within inches of a Vince Lombardi trophy.
The 6’4’’, 230-pound dual-threat dynamo returned in 2013 with utter vengeance driving his every move. He guided San Francisco to eight straight wins at season’s end. He was front and center of the hottest team on the planet.
Alas, the 49ers fell short on the final play of the conference championship. A villainous defensive back usurped destiny away from the Red and Gold.
Yet, despite two consecutive heartbreaking defeats en route to football’s ”promised land,” Kaepernick’s performance up to that point had been superb.
And it was his afterthought of a contract that freed up capital toward the signing of all necessary supporting personnel.
When Kaepernick hits the field in 2014 with a $1.63 million figure (No. 38 among QBs) during an expected career-defining season, how will his production match up with contract value?
How will this impending culmination affect the Kaepernick-led 49ers as a whole moving forward?
Let’s go with extensions all around—from elite-level QBR, to contractual fulfillment, to Super Bowl opportunities for years to come.
Baalke, Marathe and the 49ers brass will parlay short-term gains into an enduring championship pursuit.
And it all began with a sensible four years and $5.12 million shelled out to a modest second-round quarterback.
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