Niners Face Big Decisions in Free Agency

Gore, Iupati, Crabtree among team's class of unrestricted free agents this offseason.

The departure of head coach Jim Harbaugh will give the 49ers a much different look in 2015. New head coach Jim Tomsula still is in the process of hiring his offensive and defensive coordinators, and the Niners will no doubt look somewhat different on both sides of the ball in Game 1 next season.

But another factor relating to how different the 49ers will be concerns the team’s free-agent class. This offseason, the 49ers potentially face a huge roster turnover based on which free agents they choose to pursue and keep.

Impact players such as running back Frank Gore, left guard Mike Iupati, wide receiver Michael Crabtree, linebacker Dan Skuta and cornerbacks Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver all are unrestricted free agents. Also on the market will be backup QB Blaine Gabbert, wide receiver Brandon Lloyd and cornerback Chris Cook. Linebacker Aldon Smith has another year on his contract, but may be let go. And defensive end Justin Smith is thinking about retiring.

But it’s the departure of the high-profile free agents that could most impact the 49ers strategy in the draft and their own quest for free-agent replacements.

Two thirds of the way through the season, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Gore – despite his great career – was playing his last season in San Francisco. But then came his flurry of productivity once the offensive line began to get healthy and become more effective. With 158 yards in Game 15 vs. the Chargers and 144 vs. the Cardinals in the season finale, Gore finished with 1,106 yards rushing, his fourth consecutive season with at least 1,100 yards on the ground. At age 31, Gore wants to return. And, if the 49ers can bring him back for a one- or two-year deal, Gore seems as if he is physically capable of being a big contributor.

Crabtree, on the other hand, appears to be on the way out. He may seek a change of scenery after being supplanted as Colin Kaepernick’s favorite target by Anquan Boldin.

Perhaps the most interesting scenario will involve left guard Mike Iupati. Iupati is only 27 and has been voted into three Pro Bowls in his five seasons in the NFL. As perhaps the No. 1 offensive lineman available in free agency, it’s possible that it will take a huge contract to keep him. And, the 49ers have some depth at the position. But if the 49ers want to run the ball – as GM Trent Baalke said at the news conference introducing Tomsula as head coach – Iupati is one of the best in the business.

But, a business is what the NFL is. Baalke must weigh not just Iupati’s strength as a run blocker, but his cost against the salary cap. That may mean the team says goodbye.

Iupati wants to return. “But if not,” he told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group, “it’s been a pleasure and honor to know I play for the 49ers.”

Sounds like a man willing to test his worth on the open market.

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