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49ers in danger of falling into NFC West basement

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The 49ers were coming off three-consecutive NFC Championship Game appearances last February when the Browns revealed cracks in San Francisco's foundation by making a surprising run at Jim Harbaugh to fill their head-coaching vacancy.

A year later, Harbaugh represents the canary in the coal mine, signaling an immediate evacuation in advance of a collapsing NFC superpower.

Five-time All-Pro Patrick Willis, the league's premier inside linebacker of the last eight years, shocked the NFL community Monday with news of his impending retirement. Veteran defensive end Justin Smith, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in 2011, is expected to follow suit.

The defections don't end there.

Frank Gore, the face of San Francisco's offense for a decade, is closing in on a contract with the Eagles. Road-grading guard Mike Iupati is also searching for greener pastures, leaving the 49ers without their ground-and-pound identity.

The questions on offense go deeper with the futures of wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Stevie Johnson in doubt. General manager Trent Baalke even felt compelled late Sunday night to shoot down rumors that he was shopping alleged franchise quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

In addition to Willis and Smith, the defense has lost pocket-crashing left end Ray McDonald. Veteran outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks is next on the chopping block after losing his job to Aaron Lynch late last season. It's also worth noting that All-Pro inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman hasn't played a down since shredding his knee in the NFC title game two Januaries ago.

The secondary will need more than a tinkering, as 2014 starters Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox are both set to test the open market.

If you're keeping score at home, that is 21 Pro Bowl appearances (Willis 7, Smith 5, Gore 5, Iupati 3, Brooks 1) and as many as 850 NFL starts walking out the door.

Beyond the roster churning, the 49ers have to compensate for a brain drain that includes one of the NFL's best head coaches (Harbaugh), an offensive coordinator hailed as a "genius" two years ago (Greg Roman) and the only coordinator to lead a top-five defense in each of the past four years (Vic Fangio).

Losing a trio of team captains in Smith, Willis and Gore won't help on that front.

Owner Jed York sided with his general manager in a year-long tug of war, placing a higher value on Baalke's player acquisition skills than Harbaugh's coaching ability.

The pressure is on Baalke and hand-picked head coach Jim Tomsula to stay out of the NFC West basement while excavating a roster that Harbaugh led to heights not experienced since the halcyon days of Bill Walsh and George Seifert.

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