SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The San Francisco 49ers’ depth chart isn't quite as barren at wide receiver as it is at quarterback, but it won't be far off after the team officially parts ways with wideout Torrey Smith.
News of Smith's release broke Monday afternoon, with former NFL receiver Steve Smith first tweeting about it and ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter confirming it via a source. Although the 49ers recently re-signed slot receiver Jeremy Kerley, they figure to be losing Quinton Patton and Rod Streater, both of whom are headed to unrestricted free agency on Thursday. That leaves Kerley as the only receiver under contract for 2017 who has more than Bruce Ellington’s 19 career catches.
With that free-agent period still about three days away, most roster moves made over the next 72 hours will be done in an effort to create salary-cap space that can be used elsewhere when the bell rings and the market opens.
But that isn't really the case for the 49ers and Smith. Sure, Smith's release will save the 49ers a little bit of money (something around $4.7 million after subtracting the dead money from an accelerated signing bonus), but it's hard to argue that it was the main motivation behind the move.
That's because the latest numbers from the NFLPA salary-cap tracker indicate that the Niners already had upward of $90 million in salary-cap space before factoring Smith into the equation. That's more than enough money for the team to be as active as it wants to be on the open market. That means that making last-minute cuts to free up space isn't something the Niners really need to do.
Instead, Smith's departure comes down to other factors that were hard to ignore. First and foremost, new coach Kyle Shanahan made it clear to general manager John Lynch and his staff that there is a defined description for what he wants at wide receiver.
"He has a very focused and specific profile for what he wants at each position," Lynch said. "And I think it’s as strong as any at the receiver position. And so, you can look at traits, and those are things we’re looking at, traits at how he does at certain things at each level of the routes, and that’s one thing Kyle’s done a tremendous job of is developing a philosophy for what he’s looking for at each position. That’s not just offensively -- that’s defensively as well. And I’ve been thoroughly impressed, and that helps us a lot as a front office to know exactly what your head coach and his coaches are looking for."
Because Shanahan wasn't officially hired until after the Super Bowl, he got a late start in evaluating the team's in-house options -- not to mention outside candidates for free agency and the draft. While Smith has long been known as a speedy vertical threat, his ability to do more than take the top off a defense has been a lingering question.
Although the ability to make plays vertically is still a valuable commodity, Smith hasn't provided that in San Francisco. In 28 games in two seasons with the Niners, Smith had 53 catches for 930 yards and seven touchdowns. He averaged almost those exact numbers in individual seasons in his four years with the Baltimore Ravens. He also had 63 catches of 20-plus yards in his time with Baltimore, compared to just 12 in two seasons with the 49ers.
Of course, though salary-cap space wasn't needed, that doesn't mean money didn't factor in somehow. In this case, it's more about Smith's cost relative to his lack of production. With a contract paying him $8 million a season, Smith was the Niners' most accomplished receiver, but he never produced like the player they believed they were getting when they signed him. Some of that was out of Smith's control, as the 49ers' lack of consistent quarterback play limited his effectiveness down the field and caused his targets to drop precipitously from where they were in Baltimore.
So it is that the 49ers look poised to be aggressive this offseason in upgrading at receiver. Their ability to do so will largely come down to how much money they are willing to offer, though getting their quarterback situation straightened out (they don't have one under contract for 2017) would be helpful in those pursuits.
Even before releasing Smith, the Niners figured to be part of the bidding for receivers such as Washington's Pierre Garcon, Chicago's Alshon Jeffery, Cleveland's Terrelle Pryor and the Rams' Kenny Britt. Garcon could be the easiest fit because of his previous relationship with Shanahan, whom he played two seasons for in Washington.
Smith's departure doesn't change the 49ers' need to upgrade the quality of their receivers. Instead, it alters the quantity they need to find this offseason.