Whitner had one of his best seasons in 2013 and plays a big role both on the field and inside the locker room. The 49ers can potentially lose a leader on the team and a veteran on the defense. If the Pro Bowl safety is allowed to test free agency, the 49ers will have lot inexperience in the secondary with Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver and Eric Reid most likely the starters. If they let Whitner go, they could possibly add another rookie to that mix and that’s not something most teams want. But are the 49ers willing to shell out extra money just for leadership and a veteran presence?
In 2011, Whitner signed a three-year, $11 million contract with the 49ers. While he struggled massively in coverage in 2012, he picked up his game in 2013. The NFL is a “what have you done for me lately” type of league and lately Whitner has been playing well. Whitner knows how he’s been playing and he knows the position the 49ers are in. That gives him a little leverage in negotiations, but he has to remember the 49ers have history of just letting players walk if they want too much money.
So, just how much money does Whitner want? According to Pro Football Focus, Whitner was ranked sixth overall among all the safeties in the league. If he wants to get paid like the sixth-best safety in 2014, it would put him right in between Michael Griffin ($6.2 million in 2014) and Dashon Goldson ($6 million in 2014), in terms of salary. That would mean that Whitner would want about $6.1 million for 2014.
The 49ers are projected to have a little more than $5.1 million in cap space in 2014, not including a $2 million or so roll over from 2013′s cap. That gives the 49ers some $7 million of cap space. As you can see, there’s a problem. Now, the 49ers will mostly make cuts to save up some cap space. Players like Carlos Rogers, who is owed $6.6 million or Frank Gore who is due to make $6.45 million, will be asked to take significant pay cuts or will be let go.
Even if the 49ers clear up cap room with cuts or pay cuts, the 49ers still need to look to the future. Players like Colin Kaepernick, Aldon Smith, Michael Crabtree and Mike Iupati are all due for extensions soon. Those are four players that will command a lot of money for the future. If the 49ers want to keep and pay all or most of these players, they are going to have to make difficult decisions with personnel. They will have to let good players, like Goldson last year and maybe Whitner this year, go in order to keep their great players.
Of course, Whitner could always take an extremely team-friendly contract to continue playing in San Francisco, but players know they need to get their money while they still can. It is a long shot for Whitner to stay on the team, especially with other important free agents like Anquan Boldin needing to be paid. There is a possibility Whitner returns, but the 49ers might not want to unload a lot of cash for the 29-year-old safety.