Replacing Staley, Sanders and Buckner might be tough. And not for the reason you think


For 13 seasons Joe Staley was team captain, morale officer and mentor. They’ll miss his play, but how about the intangibles?

Here’s a thing. Or actually, two things, only one of which is true.

One, this might be the kind of observation that not many are making about the 49ers. And it might be something we look back on later and say, “You know, I had a feeling this was going to be a problem.”

Or, it might be nothing. And we’d wonder why we spent any time on it at all.

It is . . . wait for it . . .


Which needs a little explanation. As we know, every NFL roster is fluid and changeable. There are two reasons. First, because the sport is violent and dangerous. As the players say, “The injury rate in the NFL is 100 percent.” Players get hurt, often badly enough that they have to quit.

And the second reason is money. The salary cap is basically the chaperone at the owners’ party. There wasn’t a salary cap at one time and a guy named Eddie DeBartolo put together a 49er team that was the best roster money could buy. That team was the class of the league. And the other owners were like, “I knew I was going to have to spend money, but if I have to spend Eddie-money, I’m out.”

So the league created a maximum, a cap, that each team could spend. And that meant that you could pay one or two players — a quarterback and someone else probably — big money, but then you’d have to make some tough choices with other players.

And those are all reasons why, this year, the 49ers will no longer have Joe Staley, DeForest Buckner and Emmanuel Sanders on the team. That’s just how the business works. We’ll break it down, but (spoiler alert) there’s nothing underhanded or sneaky about any of it.

But I am concerned about intangibles. Because in interviews over the last couple of weeks, players who are still on the roster have made a point to call out each of those three players for their leadership and mentorship. And I’m just wondering if that is going to be missed more than we might think.

Staley is the archetypal veteran. We’ve all seen this movie. The craggy, steady veteran was tough enough to play hurt and witty enough to joust with the media. When Jimmy Garoppolo took heat for saying winning “Feels great, baby,” Staley Tweeted “Feels great, baby!” in an I-am-Spartacus moment. He had a good run and retired when injuries took their toll.

But what was impressive was to hear other players talk about him. Nick Bosa said he talked to Staley “after every practice.” Kyle Juszczyk said “Joe is one of my favorite teammates of all time.” Juszczyk had a story of Staley riding to the airport after the Super Bowl loss, first announcing he was going to retire and then, little by little, talking himself out of it. Until, by the time they got to the plane, Staley had decided to come back. (Obviously, common sense prevailed, and he isn’t returning.)

“I really wish we’d gotten Joe a ring,” Bosa said. “But it doesn’t always work out.”

The 49ers had a good idea they were going to lose Sanders. As a free agent, he signed a two-year deal with New Orleans for $16 million. That was apparently too rich for the 49ers. And they drafted wide receivers Brandon Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings, who look like potential replacements on paper.

But I keep thinking back to second-year receiver Deebo Samuel, who jumped at a chance to take about Sanders. As players do, he saw it in terms of the room where teams hold individual position meetings.

“When we got Emmanuel, the whole room, like, changed,” he said. “Any time we wanted advice on anything, on or off the field he was there.”

That guy, the trusted veteran, who has not only been there and done that — this was Sanders’ third Super Bowl — is a real asset. He has to, of course, be able to bring it on the field and make plays. But if you find that guy, and he’s willing to mentor younger players, he’s incredibly valuable. Deebo is only in his second year, but he’s the presumptive leader of the WRs. I hope he’s ready.

Buckner is a tougher situation. Trading him to Indianapolis was strictly business. The 49ers signed Arik Armstead for five years and $85 million and traded Buckner. It is not controversial to say Buckner is the better player. The 49er coaches already said so, voting him the team MVP at the end of the season.

But they also signed Armstead for $4 million less that what Buckner got at Indy. Money was saved and the hope is that No. 1 draft choice Javon Kinlaw will fill the spot on the defensive line. And he may.

But you can’t help but remember Armstead saying it was “a shock” when Buckner was traded and how he “definitely still wishes we were playing together.”

Or Bosa, calling Buckner “definitely one of my best friends on the team.” And praising him for “sprinting to the ball on every play, making those tackles down the field.”

It is hard to know how much guys like that mean to a culture of a team, to the development of young players. Staley, Sanders and Buckner will be missed one way or another. But I wonder how much of it will be their leadership? And what that will mean to the team.

To know that we have to wait until the NFL gets its season underway. Then we can look at the 49ers on the field and see if they are back to Super Bowl form. We will have numbers, outcomes and standings as measurements.

We’ll have something  . . . tangible.

And finally, as a reward for reading all the way to the end, here’s a clever little Juszczyk workout video in the snow.

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