The 49ers advanced to the NFC Championship Game for the third consecutive season and have established themselves as a perennial juggernaut. Unfortunately, recent reports surrounding potential discord between general manager Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh have cast doubt on the sartorially simple coach's long-term future in San Francisco.
Making matters worse, the Seahawks -- much like the early-1990s Cowboys did to the 49ers -- have tipped the scales in their favor for conference supremacy. Then there's mercurial quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who is seeking a lucrative contract extension for more than $18 million per season.
However, the 49ers' deep -- but ultimately fruitless -- playoff run revealed a couple silver linings heading into the team's inaugural campaign at Levi's Stadium. The coaching staff, namely offensive coordinator Greg Roman, remains relatively intact. Kaepernick's inconsistency in 2013 could afford him less negotiation leverage, and the Niners are working with almost $15 million in salary cap space, per CSN Bay Area.
» WR Anquan Boldin: When No. 1 wide receiver Michael Crabtree was sidelined, the 33-year-old Boldin assumed the role with veteran aplomb, serving as Kaepernick's security blanket on third down and amassing a team-high 85 catches for 1,179 receiving yards. Niner fans need not sweat; both sides are closing in on a deal before free agency begins March 11.
» S Donte Whitner: Whitner has been a stabilizing force in the secondary and though he has expressed his desire to stay, he's due for a raise after making $3.85 million in 2013. With Craig Dahl and Jon Baldwin restructuring their contracts to free up cap room, the front office might find a way to bring Whitner back. If not, the team reportedly held a formal interview with Louisville's Calvin Pryor, though the prospect of having both starting safeties sharing a combined one season of NFL experience might deter Baalke from going that route. Whether or not Mr. Hitner remains in San Francisco, we can rest assured that he's an avid reader of Around The League's top 101 free-agent list.
» K Phil Dawson: Harbaugh was unabashed in his support for the kicker, saying the front office should "pay the man" for a career year that included a franchise-record 27 consecutive field goals and a perfect 7 of 7 in the postseason. A dependable leg in the playoffs is indispensable. The question is whether Dawson and Baalke can agree on a price, as the kicker made $2.35 million in 2013.
Other key free agents: CB Tarell Brown, C Jonathan Goodwin, WR Mario Manningham, RB Anthony Dixon, WR/ST Kassim Osgood, LB Michael Wilhoite, QB Colt McCoy
What they need
With Tarell Brown likely to have several suitors on the free-agent market and Chris Culliver returning from a torn ACL, cornerback is a primary position of need. Although the aerial attack was noticeably improved upon Crabtree's return, Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis could use a deep threat at wide receiver to stretch the field, especially for their annual home-and-home with the Legion of Boom (Oregon State's Brandin Cooks and his 4.33 speed, anyone?). Ian Williams and Tank Carradine return from injury and will bolster the interior defensive line, but Baalke might want to find some reinforcements on the edge for Mr. Versatility, Justin Smith.
On the way out?
» CB Carlos Rogers: Rogers is slated to earn $6.6 million, and unlike last offseason, he'll need to take a sizable pay cut to stick around, especially since Tramaine Brock signed a four-year, $16 million contract extension to start in the other corner spot.
» RB Frank Gore: Despite speculation that the 49ers' all-time leading rusher will be asked to restructure the final year of his contract ($6.45 million), Baalke hinted at the NFL Scouting Combine that the team could move forward without having to do so. Wise move. Gore topped 1,000 yards rushing for the seventh time in eight seasons and arguably was the best blocking back in the league. Besides, the last thing I want is a perturbed Gore; I once found out about his boxing skills firsthand in the ring.
Offseason crystal ball
If the 49ers can finalize contracts with Boldin (and Dawson) sooner than later, the team can focus on Kaepernick's deal -- one that certainly will have a domino effect on how much money will be left to sign the other pieces to what the team hopes will be a championship puzzle.
In terms of the draft, Baalke has a plethora of picks, and the last time he traded up, he netted Eric Reid. Perhaps a similar move is in order for Cooks or Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard. Bringing Marcus Lattimore into the fold is the equivalent of selecting a running back, and on defense, the unit will depend on Patrick Willis up the middle more than ever with NaVorro Bowman's knee injury likely to shelve him until midseason.
Of course, there's Harbaugh and his contract extension talks, which have been exacerbated in the public eye given the Cleveland fiasco. One could opine that keeping him in San Francisco will be Baalke's most important signing of all. If not, it might be Super Bowl or bust in 2014.