General manager John Lynch will continue to build the 49ers up this offseason, adding pieces in free agency and the NFL draft. Most of the names are readily available to the organization, as they have likely begun their evaluations. I even scraped together a by-position guide to 2018 free agency, specifically how each player theoretically fits with the 49ers.
But in addition to looking at free agents, we can expect several noteworthy cap casualties as well, ones that may free up impact players the 49ers could sign. There will be big names dropped by teams across the league, and there could even be teams like Arizona or New England or Green Bay that might blow it all up and be sellers.
The salary cap next season is expected to be as high as $178 million, according to NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport. The 49ers are in the mix of teams expected to be aggressive, as they project to have a league-high $116 million in cap space. And even if Jimmy Garoppolo gets $25 million per, they’ll have $91 million left, give or take. So, the 49ers will be able to chase players that other teams simply can’t afford to keep.
If the following players don’t choose to restructure—or have the opportunity to—they could hit the open market.
Here is an early look at the potential cap casualties...
DeMarco Murray, RB, Titans
The Titans’ roster is too unbalanced, with running back as an oversaturated position. In addition to the veteran Murray, Tennessee has a promising second-rounder in Derrick Henry, who comes off as a thoroughbred that can’t be kept at bay much longer. Murray will be 30 years old in 2018, too, and is due $6.5 million. Those two factors could trigger a release of the veteran back. Would he be of interest to the 49ers?
Mike Gillislee, RB, Patriots
For New England, the running back position has always been a revolving door. So, it's possible they restock the group in 2018. And since he didn't make a huge dent on the offense, the Patriots could move on from Gillislee this offseason, who they originally signed to a short-term deal, without taking on a penny of dead cap. The 27-year-old bruiser was used primarily as a goal-line/red-zone type back, scoring five touchdowns on 104 carries. If the 49ers bargain shop a running back committee this offseason, and Gillislee is cut, he could be on their list of targets.
Jonathan Stewart, RB, Panthers
Very similar to Murray's situation with the Titans, the veteran running back for the Panthers could be on the outs due to a recently-drafted talent behind him in Christian McCaffrey. There's been talk out of Charlotte of this being Stewart's final year with the Panthers after 10 seasons. He is set to count for $5.25 million against the 2018 cap, and by releasing him, the team can save $3.75 million. Stewart finished out the year with 680 yards on the ground and six touchdowns. He may not be a choice candidate for the 49ers, turning 31 years old in March.
Danny Woodhead, RB, Ravens
Due to the presence of young running backs Kenneth Dixon and Alex Collins, in conjunction with Woodhead's age in 2018 (33), recent hamstring injury, and $3.3 million cap hit next year, he could be released in the offseason. It's easy to like what Woodhead was, but as it pertains to the now and where the 49ers are going, he would only occupy a roster spot a young player with his whole career ahead of him could flourish in.
Jordy Nelson, WR, Packers
At 25 years old with more recent production, Davante Adams was prioritized with an extension. By making him the fourth-highest paid WR in the league, there's no doubt he's Green Bay's primary weapon for 2018 and beyond. Meanwhile, Nelson turns 33 next May, is coming off a season in which he only posted 482 yards in 15 starts, and carries a $12.5 million cap hit next year. Because of this, we could see Aaron Rodgers’ long-time go-to-guy ousted. If Nelson were to become available, he would be an interesting option for the 49ers.
Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Broncos
The Broncos have a little depth at receiver, and Sanders is only getting older. He’ll be 31 years old next season carrying a near $11M cap hit. Added to which, production has been hard to come by for Sanders — he's had a tough time staying healthy (four missed starts in 2017), and hasn’t been able to get in a groove in the Broncos' mess of a quarterback situation. So, Sanders might not be in Denver's plans. If he becomes available, though, the 49ers would have to consider this: In the three years prior to 2017 he had 256 catches for 3,571 yards and 20 touchdowns. And as a receiver that has a strong foundation as a route technician, Sanders could likely produce 2-3 more very good seasons in the 49ers’ offense.
Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys
This would be a surprising one, but there’s been talk around #CowboysTwitter about the 29-year-old wideout being shown the door. Why? Bryant hasn’t had a 1,000-yard season since 2014, he hasn’t had a 100-yard receiving game in 21 straight contests, while leading the NFL this past season in drops (12). He also holds a lofty $16.5 million cap hit next year. On top of that, Bryant may or may not be in the middle of a rift with quarterback Dak Prescott. If a trade or release happened, it wouldn’t be that big of a surprise.
T.Y. Hilton, WR, Colts
If you're a team in need of a wide receiver and you have the opportunity to potentially buy low on T.Y. Hilton from the Colts, you should. Indianapolis was reportedly looking to deal Hilton at the 2017 deadline, but didn't get an offer it liked enough to sign off. They could revisit it in the offseason, parting with Hilton via trade or release. He has a significant $13.5 million cap hit in 2018, but conveniently has an out-clause built in this offseason as well, which only comes with $4M in dead cap. In any case, the 49ers would be wise to scoop him up.
Michael Crabtree, WR, Raiders
A red and gold reunion in the making? Crabtree was discussed as a potential cap casualty even before Jack Del Rio was out as head coach. And now with Jon Gruden aboard, there could be substantial roster turnover, which keeps Crabtree in the conversation as a possible cut. This may not be the best course of action, though. Crabtree, 30, is past his prime and coming off his worst career year; the 49ers have someone like him in Pierre Garçon; and he would only bring back old memories and feelings to a team avidly trying to move forward into a new era of football.
Jordan Reed, TE, Washington
If Kirk Cousins stays in D.C. on a costly long-term deal, it would make sense if Reed became a cap casualty. Though one of the best tight end talents in the league, Reed has struggled to stay healthy every year, sustaining a litany of injuries and missing a ton of time. He’s never even hit double-digit starts in a single season since joining the pro ranks. Reed is also on a five-year, $46 million deal and just so happens to have an out clause in 2018. If available, this could be a fascinating one-year prove-it offer the 49ers could extend.
Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots
Not an outright cap casualty, but could Rob Gronkowski be a potential trade candidate this offseason? Crazy to think, since he's more than just the best player at his position, he's a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But in a fascinating read from ESPN's Seth Wickersham about the end being in sight for the Patriots, it's possible the regime blows it all up, which could mean they entertain trade offers for their most expensive, aging players. That includes No. 87. Worth noting, Gronk has missed 30 of 92 games over the past five years, including the playoffs. He's out a third of the time, having sustained injuries to his back, thigh, ankle, arm and knee(s); he’s torn his ACL and MCL; all of which has led to him having three back surgeries, three arm surgeries and knee surgery. He turns 29 next year. The Patriots extended Gronk prior to 2017, but not for much longer, maybe because they've witnessed his injury history up close. And the last year of his deal just happens to coincide with Tom Brady's in 2019.
Jason Kelce, C, Eagles
One of Philadelphia's key strengths is its offensive line, and one of its best and longest-tenured members is center Jason Kelce. He's continued to play standout football, as he was named a first-team All-Pro this year. However, the Eagles have gotten quite good in a hurry and can't afford to keep everyone. From an eval standpoint, Kelce will be 31 years old by the middle of next season, and plays one of the less critical positions. Philadelphia can also save $6 million with Kelce's release, and there is a strong belief the team has a contingency plan in former first-rounder Chance Warmack. If Kelce does become available, the 49ers should pounce, as they badly need to upgrade the center position.
Mike Pouncey, C, Dolphins
Pouncey is compensated like a top-five center in the NFL, and hasn’t quite been playing like it. He's had six holding penalties called on him this season. And with head coach Adam Gase not being afraid to move on from players he doesn't feel are performing up to team standards, that puts Pouncey on thin ice. Moreover, the team could be looking to rebuild the offensive line yet again. With all that considered, the talk around Miami is that it could very well result in the release of the team's center. If cut, Pouncey would provide the 49ers with another option in free agency.
Bryan Bulaga, OT, Packers
The soon-to-be 29-year-old starting tackle for the Pack is entering an offseason in the middle of his five-year contract signed in 2015 in which he has an out clause. He only made five starts this past season before going on injured reserve with a torn ACL. It was his third major injury. In fact, Bulaga has only started one full 16-game schedule over his seven seasons in the league. If the rebuilding Packers desire to get fresher at the position and want to be able to sign others, namely on defense, they may part with Bulaga. Could he be a guard for the 49ers? Competition, mentor or replacement for Trent Brown? It'd be something to think about.
Aqib Talib, CB, Broncos
The five-time Pro Bowl cornerback will be 32 years old in 2018, and would cost Denver $11.3 million to keep him on his current deal. With the once dominant “No Fly Zone” seeing a decline this past season, and the Broncos in need of young building blocks, it’s possible that Talib is a place they look to save money. Talib even admitted as much. That said, the 49ers 100 percent need to improve at cornerback, but whether they view him as a fit for the locker room is another story. Talib would also be a short-term fix at best, and the team may be eying a long-term running mate for Ahkello Witherspoon.
Muhammad Wilkerson, DL, Jets
This is certainly not a place the 49ers need to spend money, but the 2011 first-round pick could be one of the more intriguing cap causalities this offseason. The only way this makes sense is if the 49ers bring Wilkerson in on a reasonable one-year deal like the Falcons did with Dontari Poe this year, and even then, it’d be a questionable signing. Wilkerson has underperformed and not been worth the headache for the Jets.
Michael Bennett, DL, Seahawks
Bennett strongly hinted at 2017 being his last season in Seattle, and even said, "I probably won't be back next year." He has an $8.3 million cap hit next year, and only $5.2 million in dead cap if released. Again, this isn't a need for the 49ers, but Bennett is the level player worth inquiring about if he gets let go. He also knows coaches Robert Saleh and Ken Norton Jr., and plays in almost the exact same defense. One drawback is that DeForest Buckner plays the same spot for the 49ers, so Bennett would have to be open to rotational role or one that sees him attack from all over the line.
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