The free-agent losses of Mike Iupati, Michael Crabtree and the 49ers’ two starting cornerbacks from a year ago were expected.
After all, the 49ers’ track record is if one of their players hits the open market, that player is as good as gone. Recent history suggests the 49ers do not get into the bidding wars for players that come when a player is eligible to begin negotiating with other teams.
But the unexpected losses -- well, three of four were unexpected, anyway -- due to retirements probably were not accounted for on the 49ers’ three-year roster plan.
So let’s take a look at what the 49ers lost this offseason with the four retirements:
Patrick Willis: On the surface, Willis was still playing at a high level at the time he required season-ending surgery to repair a damaged big toe. But, clearly, Willis holds himself to a higher standard. He did not believe he was the same player whose speed and quickness separated him from others at his position. He would have been teamed with NaVorro Bowman -- a player with a similar skillset -- to recreate the tandem of inside linebackers that was a strength of the team’s defense for three seasons before Bowman missed all of 2014 as he rehabbed from a devastating knee injury. Certainly, Willis knows his body better than anyone else. He did not believe he could continue to play at a high level or withstand the discomfort and risks of playing on feet that he felt were breaking down. But any way you analyze it, losing Willis is a huge blow to the roster.
Chris Borland: The timing of Borland’s decision to step away from the game was curious. He said he knew for a while he would retire, but it wasn’t until a week after Willis announced his retirement that Borland did the same. Borland’s body took a punishing toll from his eight starts as a rookie, according to sources. There were questions whether his shoulders could withstand the punishment that comes with being a starting NFL linebacker. Unquestionably, he could’ve been a huge contributor on special teams. The previous coaching staff felt Borland was best-suited for Bowman’s position. Borland was known as an instinctive player who sometimes free-lanced to make plays. It was a good pairing when he played alongside Michael Wilhoite, who is a more by-the-book player who is willing to do the dirty work. Many believed Wilhoite would have been the better match to play alongside Bowman for those reasons.
Anthony Davis: When he announced his decision to step away for a year or two, the 49ers lost a proven right tackle. The 49ers retain his rights indefinitely while he’s on the reserve/retired list. The 49ers were in the frame of mind to begin looking to replace Davis because he was not exhibiting great work ethic or passion for the sport, according to sources. Also, he missed most of last season while struggling with shoulder, hamstring and ankle injuries, as well as a concussion that left him contemplating his future in the sport. The 49ers really are high on seventh-round draft pick Trent Brown, but they also have the options of veterans Alex Boone or Erik Pears at right tackle. Davis’ departure means there is uncertainty at every position on the offensive line, except left tackle. The other four spots are in flux, as the coaching staff must determine who are the best fits at the specific positions, and then let the competition dictate what happens at the other spots. If Davis does decide he wants to return down the road, he will have to prove himself as if he were an undrafted rookie to win back his old job.
Justin Smith: Believe it or not, this is the one departure that probably registers less on the field than the others. The 49ers have very good depth on their defensive line, which they bolstered with the selection of Arik Armstead in the first round. Smith’s production tailed off after he sustained the triceps injury late in the 2012 season. He rarely practiced during the week in recent seasons and the 49ers limited his snaps as they tried to keep him as healthy and fresh as possible. The 49ers are not going to attempt to replace Smith with just one player. Instead, they will mix and match with a lot of different combinations of players that also includes Glenn Dorsey, Tank Carradine, Ian Williams, Darnell Dockett, Quinton Dial and Tony Jerod-Eddie. The 49ers’ defensive line should be in good shape, even without Smith.