Niners' drop-off could lead to eventual Kaepernick trade

The 49ers could face an interesting decision with Kaepernick after this season. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

The San Francisco 49ers are going through Post-Harbaugh Syndrome.

On Friday, right tackle Anthony Davis, 25, became the fourth key 49er to retire this offseason, three of whom are 30 years old or younger. Four other starters left in free agency. The draft selection of punter Bradley Pinion led to Saturday's trade of three-time Pro Bowler Andy Lee to Cleveland for a seventh-round pick in 2017.

Despite having three consecutive trips to the NFC title game in his first three years, Jim Harbaugh was let go because of his wearing effect on upper management and ownership and his failure to win a Super Bowl. And you have to wonder if Harbaugh's strong personality and ubercompetitiveness had a similar impact on his players.

While that's not out of the realm of possibility, it didn't show during Harbaugh's practices leading up to the Super Bowl in 2012, when I had the fortune of being the 49ers' pool reporter. I saw up close that his practices are fair, smart and efficient. He assembled perhaps the best coaching staff in football and players responded to the coaches' instructions with enthusiasm.

But the physical and mental toll of going to three straight title games, including one trip to the Super Bowl, eventually catches up to any team. The 49ers went 46-11-1 during Harbaugh's first three years. They played eight playoff games. Not only did Harbaugh get the most out of a talented, underachieving roster assembled by Mike Nolan, Mike Singletary and Scot McCloughan, but Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke put the franchise over the top with what they did with the personnel in 2011.

They hit it big in free agency with the additions of cornerback Carlos Rogers, safety Donte Whitner and center Jonathan Goodwin. Their first three choices in the 2011 draft were Aldon Smith, Colin Kaepernick and cornerback Chris Culliver.

Football is a game of attrition. The first sign of wear and tear was visible on the injury report. The 49ers had only 16 missed starts during the regular season in 2012. Missed starts jumped to 86 in 2013 and went to 92 last year.

The reality is the current 49ers championship run is over. Pro Football Focus recently published 32 depth charts with ratings for each player. The 49ers lost one elite player (Willis), three high-quality players (Lee, Chris Borland and Chris Culliver), three good players (Mike Iupati, Anthony Davis and Justin Smith) and four players with average ratings (Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Dan Skuta and Perrish Cox).

If you give an elite player five points, a high-quality one three, a good player two and an average player one, the 49ers' roster lost 24 points. The 49ers added wide receiver Torrey Smith (good grade) and Reggie Bush (average grade). That takes the net loss to 21.

Using the same grading system, the 49ers have 43 points returning, 16th in the league. Instead of expecting 11 to 13 wins each season, the 49ers look more likely to repeat last year's 8-8 campaign.

Which brings us to thoughts about the future of Colin Kaepernick, who makes $19 million per year and is 27 years old. Any team with a good defense -- which I expect the 49ers to have -- and a talented quarterback can sustain success on the field, and an 8-8 season is unlikely to force a QB change unless there are viable replacement alternatives. But the 49ers might still be tempted to trade Kaepernick to a quarterback-starved franchise for two or three high draft choices, if they found the right deal. They could then look to find a way to come away with a top quarterback prospect in the draft, while retooling other parts of the roster.

With Harbaugh, the 49ers climbed to the top. Without Harbaugh, the organization has to start a new climb.

From the inbox

Q: In response to the growing salaries of quarterbacks, would the NFL and NFLPA ever agree to a type of salary cap wage scale? For example, no one player on an NFL team can account for more than 20-25 percent of a team's salary cap in a given year? This would help curb the increasing financial demands of retaining QBs while presumably helping the middle class of the NFL.

Brandon in Westchester, New York

A: I can't see the union agreeing to a cap within a cap. Putting in such a percentage cap would slow the increasing salaries of quarterbacks. It's the NFLPA's job to find ways to grow salary, and the bigger the contracts, the better it is for players at all positions. You are right about how the middle class is getting squeezed. Rosters are getting younger. More and more aging veterans are stuck with minimum salaries or no jobs at all. Plus, owners have no incentive to make many changes in this system. There also isn't any guarantee the money saved from such a move would go to the middle class. The union agreed to a smaller percentage for the rookie pool, and the excess money didn't necessarily go the veterans in the middle of the rosters.

Q: I read about the Chargers informing Eric Weddle that his contract won't be addressed this offseason, and Weddle has now turned his attention to practice and making sure he has the best contract year possible. I'm wondering: Why don't all teams do this with their holdouts?

Shane in Birmingham, Alabama

A: Re-signing players is very difficult, but it is important for a franchise to retain its core group. Technically, Weddle isn't a holdout. He's only a holdout if he misses days of training camp. What he's missing now is voluntary workouts. Several future free agents who don't have contracts after this season are missing OTAs. The problem facing the Chargers is what to pay Weddle. He remains one of the best free safeties in football. He just turned 30 in January. He's currently making $8 million per year. Top young safeties make $9-10 million per year. I'm sure the Chargers would like to lock up Weddle for $7 million per year or less, but making such an offer might only anger Weddle more.

Q: To make field goals and PATs more exciting, put a second crossbar on top of the uprights. That would make shorter attempts more challenging, since the kicker would have to lower his trajectory (and risk a block) to avoid missing high. It would also eliminate disputes about balls that sail just over the uprights.

Victor in Kenner, Louisiana

A: The mission of the conversion changes is to create some excitement, not take points off the scoreboard. A block could create excitement. A block could be taken by the defense for points. I agree with Marvin Lewis: The conversion wasn't a problem that needed to be fixed. Let's not make this thing worse.

Q: I'd like to know your opinion of the Packers' decision to retire Brett Favre's jersey and include him in their ring of honor at Lambeau Field, as well as their Hall of Fame. Personally, after he insisted on playing for the Vikings and danced around Lambeau Field in a Vikings uniform (my lasting image of him), if I were Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, Paul Hornung, or any of the other great Packers from the past, I would be highly insulted. I've been a Packers fan since 1967, but no more.

Fred in Portsmouth, Virginia

A: Brett Favre, Reggie White, Ron Wolf, Mike Holmgren and others revitalized the Packers. Sure, Favre came back as a Minnesota Viking, but remember, the Packers traded him to the Jets. They broke the relationship. The ring of honor in Green Bay isn't complete without Favre. Welcome him back.

Q: Is there anything that makes you think the Dolphins have solved their O-line problems this offseason, particularly at guard? With three first-rounders on the line, Ryan Tannehill should have plenty of time to throw the ball instead of being one of the league's most sacked quarterbacks ... again.

Dave in Conover, North Carolina

A: If Branden Albert comes back healthy, they should be OK. Tannehill would have two Pro Bowl talents (Albert and Mike Pouncey) and a good young right tackle (Ja'Wuan James) in front of him. Billy Turner should be OK at left guard. All they have to do is figure out right guard. Jeffrey Linkenbach might be the answer if Dallas Thomas doesn't work out. Tannehill is going to need good protection because he's adjusting to a completely new receiving corps.

Q: Even with the loss of Ndamukong Suh, I still believe Detroit has a pretty good front 7. However, there is no depth at the DT position behind Haloti Ngata. So my question is, why wouldn't Detroit switch to a 3-4 defense? They already have some good linebackers with Stephen Tulloch, DeAndre Levy, Tahir Whitehead, Kyle Van Noy. And they could also put Ezekiel Ansah back there if need be.

Aaron in Norfolk, Virginia

A: If there isn't enough depth along the defensive line now, there would be even less if Ansah had to move to linebacker. A change to the 3-4 would probably force such a move. Ansah fits better in a 4-3 as an end. I'm sure you saw the Lions are in discussions to re-sign C.J. Mosley at defensive tackle. I think Tyrunn Walker will help, but it's clear the Lions' defense won't be the same up the middle. Imagine how bad it would have been had the Lions not traded for Ngata. Going from Suh to Ngata is a drop, but Ngata is still a very good talent. I don't know if the drop from Nick Fairley (now in St. Louis) to Walker is enormous, but if it is, the Lions are in trouble.

Short takes

Mark in Saratoga Springs, New York, wants to move the PAT back to the 2-yard line. But he suggests placing the ball outside the hashmarks to make kicks tougher. No doubt such a move would make kicks more difficult. With the ball at the 2, you could see more fakes. Not a bad suggestion, but remember, the league is trying to make kicks more interesting. Most kickers would adjust and make those kicks.

Paul in Richmond, Virginia, can see Russell Wilson playing this year at $1.542 million and getting two years of franchise tags at $44.7 million with the plan of getting a massive franchise number in 2018. He is considering that, but he would make only $46 million from 2015 through 2017. I think he will take a four-year, $87 million deal that would allow him to hit free agency in 2020 or get a franchise tag when the cap is close to $200 million.

Brigitte in Woodinville, Washington, wonders if Tom Brady would retire instead of going through an appeal process that might not overturn his suspension. Brady loves the game and wants to play past the age of 40. No way that happens.

Kamil in Cambridge, Massachusetts, wants to know if a bad season could cost Lovie Smith his job in Tampa Bay. It's possible, but he has a five-year contract. As long as the Buccaneers improve, he should get another year.