The 49ers know what the market is like for starting quarterbacks. And time and time again Jim Harbaugh has defined Colin Kaepernick's value to the team. That's why they want to get an extension done with the 26-year-old signal caller sooner rather than later.
"We're going to work extremely hard, very diligently in trying to get something done prior to training camp," general manager Trent Baalke said to reporters at the annual NFL owners' meetings in Orlando, Florida this week.
"That's the objective right now, as it stands…We've addressed the generalities, so to speak, and now it's time to enter the next phase."
Kaepernick is entering the final season of his rookie four-year deal and could officially begin negotiations for a new contract once the 2013 season ended. As a second round pick in 2011, his original deal paid him $5.124 million with a signing bonus over $2.2 million. He's slated to count for just $1.63 million against the salary cap in 2014.
Few quarterbacks have done as much as Kaepernick in his first three seasons in the league. He's been the team's starter for just a year and a half and already has an extensive playoff resume, including a 3-1 record in road playoff games. Negotiations on the extension with Kaepernick's camp reportedly began at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis late-February.
"You know he's just going to get better and better. So that's where we are…and he's a very young, gifted player, talented, smart, really got it all," Harbaugh told reporters this week.
But while the market would dictate Kaepernick becoming an $18-million-per-year player, many would point to his failures in both last year's Super Bowl loss to the Ravens and this season's fourth quarter in the NFC Championship Game as cause to not make him one of the league's highest paid quarterbacks.
Team CEO Jed York disagrees with that idea.
"I think there's a lot that he's done that put him in that position where he should be paid like one of the top quarterbacks in the league, whether we get it done now or later," said York, according to Tim Kawakami of the Bay Area News Group.
"We hope we get it done seen. If we don't, I don't think it's going to be acrimonious."
Since Baalke took over personnel decisions in 2010, the 49ers have maneuvered under the salary cap without having a franchise-quarterback-type contract to deal with. But even with Alex Smith at the helm, Baalke and the personnel department knew that they would have to give one out eventually.
That's why the 49ers have maintained a frugal approach when it comes to free agency in recent seasons. Instead of taking expensive players at obvious positions of need, they've waited for cheaper alternatives they could coach up. After making three consecutive trips to the conference title game, it's tough argue with that approach.
San Francisco's highest paid players are still relative bargains, in part due to the timing of their signings. NaVorro Bowman signed his five-year, $45.25 million deal before the end of his third season, midway through his second as a starter. If signed later, that number would have likely gone up. The same could be said for Joe Staley, who inked his six-year extension after his second pro season. Staley has evolved into one of the league's premier left tackles, but still makes less per year than 12 other players at the position.
Kaepernick won't be the same kind of bargain as those two players, but they could be putting themselves in danger of having to pay more later if they don't get a deal done. They could look at the team that beat them in the Super Bowl two years ago as a template to avoid.
The Ravens gave Joe Flacco a massive six-year, $120.6 million deal after beating the 49ers in the Super Bowl in the fifth and final year of his rookie contract. Had Baltimore elected to give him an extension prior to the start of the season, his price wouldn't have been nearly as steep.
If San Francisco and Kaepernick's representatives can't get a deal done before the start of training camp as they hope, they can use the franchise tag next season until they're able to hammer something out. The issue with the franchise tag would be the inability to backload a deal meaning his salary cap number would be sky high.
"So the sooner we can sign him to a contract that's long-term, extended, the better for our organization," Harbaugh said. And to put that into a win-win, where it's a win for Colin, a win for us, the sooner the better, absolutely," Harbaugh said.
After winning the Super Bowl in 2012, the Ravens missed the playoffs last year after trading wideout Anquan Boldin to the 49ers for a sixth-round draft pick. The team had wanted Boldin to take a pay cut following Flacco's extension, but he declined and moved on to San Francisco, had one of his best seasons in years and was voted as the team's MVP by the coaching staff.
But San Francisco still wouldn't have those type of salary cap problems. According to Overthecap.com, the 49ers will have upwards of $33 million in cap space for 2015 assuming the salary cap hits its projection of 143 million. In a long-term deal, Kaepernick's cap number would likely be a fraction of the average amount per season.
Flacco's deal, for example, averages out to over $20 million per season. But in the first year of his extension, his cap number was $6.8 million. But in the final three years of his deal through 2018, his cap number jumps to $28.55, $31.15 and 24.75 million respectively. The 49ers will want to do something similar with Kaepernick by back-loading his deal and allowing them to renegotiate his massive cap number through various channels down the road.
Of course the 49ers have other raises to consider, including some to Michael Crabtree, Aldon Smith and Mike Iupati, all of whom are entering the final years of their rookie deals. But the sooner the team can get the deal done, the sooner they can begin their salary cap planning for years to come.
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