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49ers Always Intended For Less Cap Space In 2012, By Paying Patrick Willis

Some might worry that the San Francisco 49ers are going to be in cap trouble over the next couple seasons. They're wondering this because this is the first time in a long time the question has been "can the 49ers afford him?" as opposed to "will the 49ers spend that big pile of money they've got laying around?" It's true, that despite overpaying for someone like Nate Clements, the 49ers have been remarkably good with their cap space.

And it is true that there was some free space just sitting there last season. In 2012, that's not likely to be the case after rookies are signed and things of that nature. In fact, the 49ers are cutting it pretty close when it all comes down to it. That being said, this was the plan all along - and it's working out pretty flawlessly. San Francisco budgeted some guys at a pretty high dollar amount, and still had room to make the signings they wanted, with guys like Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs being added.

You have to wonder how far back the 49ers have targeted specific signings. Cap numbers are hammered out over multiple seasons, to a much more finite degree than some might think. When fans debate cap numbers, it's usually "this year", and "next year", is always given the cold shoulder.

"Pay the man X amount of dollars over X amount of years." "Back load it." "Front load it." "Give him X amount of dollars X amount of years from now."

That's not how the teams handle it ... they'll hammer out the details over the next couple years, and factor in how likely those last years are going to actually be used, whether they're invalidated by cutting a player or restructuring the deal. As it happens, 2012 will be an important year for the 49ers in regards to getting some significant dollars settled.

Namely in regards to Patrick Willis, who has a base salary of just $1.904 million in 2012, yet is set to have a cap hit of $17.6 million. That's right - the 49ers are paying Willis $17.6 million in 2012, which is more than $8 million higher than the next-highest cap hit, which is Alex Smith at $9.2 million. Smith is making a good amount of money in 2012, and will again in 2013, but the 49ers are planning on likely moving on from him after that point.

If the 49ers were wanting to pay Willis in a more balanced manner, they'd likely have around $6 million to $9 million more in cap space for 2012, making some other players a possibility. But who says balanced is the best?