49ers Making Some Plays in Free Agency?
March 01, 2002
On the eve of the free agency period, what looked like a thin free agency class has gotten kinda crazy with all the veteran talent released by salary cap strapped teams. No doubt this has sent personnel departments scrambling around the league to reassess available talent and priorities.
The Niners stated priority will be to resign their own free agents. Over the last decade teams have learned that free agents are a huge gamble, so much more often they are sticking with known quantities if their own are quality players. As much as Terry Donahue has declined to prioritize these four players for resigning, lets make a stretch and do it for him. I prioritize by value to the team's continued high level of play, long-term improvement, and inability to be replaced:
1. Jeremy Newberry (Center) - He is a smart, aggressive center that is the linchpin of the line's success. He is also versatile enough to play other positions along the line - rumor is some teams even think he could start at either tackle spot, remember he was tried there by the Niners also. Yes, the Niners need some improvement along the line, but being relatively young this is a guy to build around for the future. Loosing him now would be a big blow to the development of the offensive line. How would the Niners replace him? The back up center on the roster is Ben Lynch, who did a pretty good job when Newberry was hurt last year. But rumor is the Niners will let Lynch move on because he is in his sixth year and hasn't improved enough to make the starting line - remember, base salaries go up with the player's number of years in the league and it is hard for teams to keep guys as perennial back-ups anymore. Otherwise, Olin Kreutz is a free agent Center from Chicago, but he will command a huge contract, probably even more than Newberry. After that, finding a replacement would be very iffy.
2. Fred Beasley (Fullback) - He doesn't get much press, but fullbacks of his caliber are harder to find than most people realize - great lead blocker, picks up the blitz well, and good hands. He doesn't get many touches, and that may be why his short-yardage runs aren't so consistently a success. But, over the last year two teams became stunning examples of what happens to a good running team when they loose their starting fullback - Denver and Tennessee. Both of these teams running games fell off dramatically. Yes, there are some other good fullbacks available in free agency, but why risk it? Fred Beasley is among the best, has improved every year, and knows the system. He may be highly valued by other teams and the Niners could loose him in a bidding war. Replacing him? Terry Jackson is the other fullback on the roster and he has showed real flashes, but mainly running the ball - he is a bulked-up halfback converted to fullback. He may be able to pull it off, but it's risky. Free agent fullback fitting the Niner's might be Greg Comella from NY; Mack Strong of Seattle is mainly a punishing blocker; and William Henderson from Green Bay is getting older.
3. Lance Schulters (Safety) - Lance tends to overrate himself, especially since his stellar 1999 season. When he gets his shots he is a big hitter and pretty good in coverage. And he showed his commitment and toughness playing hurt most of the season - with a bad shoulder no less! And he can play either safety position. The Niners secondary made huge improvement last year and it would be a tragedy to risk setting it back some. Replacing him? Remember, the Niners secondary has been good against the run, but still needs pass defenders with the Rams in their division. There was the Niner's own John Keith that looked good at Schulter's position (and for a lot less money), but he has been lost two seasons in a row with injuries - plus, rumor is the team was not pleased with his choice to rehab away from the team all year, missing valuable learning time in meetings and the film room. Ronnie Heard has shown good things, but only the coaching staff can make that assessment, and Al Blades got a lot of praise but would need a lot of improvement to rise from a practice squad player. Free agents: Shaun Williams, N.Y. Giants, has the physical abilities for both coverage and run stopping and as such will probably command big dollars; Robert Griffith, Minnesota, likewise will probably get big dollars, but is mainly a run stopper; Tony Parrish, Chicago, likewise a big dollar guy that plays the run better than coverage. After that, it is a big gamble. But your Niners scouts would know better than me if there is someone else.
4. Garrison Hearst (Running Back) - Although he is one of my favorite players and a locker room favorite, he is displaced to 4th because of his age and some viable back-ups. He had some breakout games last year and showed some old form, but he also seemed to wear down (but who wouldn't!) and was bottled up in some big games. That wasn't all Hearst's fault; he didn't seem to have the room to run in those games. But it did reveal what might be a lack of power and his propensity to get stood up now. There is Kevan Barlow in the wings, and he did show power, speed, and elusiveness in relief of Hearst - but hey, that's what you get when a guy is fresh. And even Jonas Lewis has shown some flashes. It was hoped Paul Smith would develop as an option, but that seemed to fade. So, not taking anything away from Garrison, but his age, injuries, and some viable back-ups probably mean he will be the retained only if the price is reasonable. Unfortunately for us and the Niners, there are probably teams out there that will take a chance on him and give him the big bucks. Free Agents: The Niners probably wouldn't venture into the free agent market for a running back at this point.
So, if the Niners pursue some free agents, who might they be? Terry Donahue has indicated that the Niners still need improvement in the secondary and along the defensive line. There has also been a lot of talk about the offensive line getting an upgrade also. But I think there might be a surprise also, so I'll throw it out there first.
1. Wide Receiver - The Niners passing attack has been erratic at best. Although it still is credited with a lot of praise by the media and announcers, the reality is that defenses have been able to contain the attack for a couple of years now. Terrell Owens is the only true deep threat. Although there was hope Tai Streets would develop into such a threat, he didn't show that ability last year after returning from his injuries. Stokes is really a possession receiver, although he can sometimes get behind coverage, he is usually contained quickly after the catch. Granted, it isn't just the receivers' skills bottling up the passing game. Garcia, despite his great play, doesn't seem to put the ball on his receivers so they can stay in stride - that needs improvement also. And the offensive line tends to break down erratically in pass protection, again disrupting Garcia's ability to deliver the ball and the timing of plays. However, the Niners need a player that can stretch the field, with proven hands, and the elusiveness to make gains after the catch. There are several such players available:
a. Az-Hakim (Rams) is a sure handed speedster. Plus, adding him would give some insights into the Rams game planning and put a ding on the Rams at the same time. Don't be surprised to see the Niners pull one off here. Plus, Hakim can double as a dangerous return man.
2. Offensive Line - Besides Newberry discussed above, the Niners are probably going to release Ray Brown, but I expect him back for one more year at a lower cap number. Ideally, the Niners could get another top-notch tackle and relieve Derrick Deese from really playing out of position at tackle, although he has done a good job there. But there don't seem to be good alternatives out there in free agency. If they can retain Brown, look for them to add future help through the draft. If they loose Brown, the Niners may be forced to try to sign a good, young guard.
a. Steve McKinney (Colts) is a better pass protector.
3. Cornerback - Terry Donahue has spoken to the need to improve the pass coverage, particularly in nickel and dime defensive packages. The Niners hoped Anthony Parker would provide that help, but his skills and injury apparently have them possibly releasing Parker and looking in other directions. Rookie Rashad Holman was criticized as lacking quickness when the secondary couldn't keep up with the Packers or Rams. But as a rookie, I thought he played okay and showed some good things. Although the Niners might be looking for a cheaper "nickel" back, this free agent class seems to be comprised of starters. The Niners could conceivably sign a starter and let Jason Webster and the new free agent compete for the starting role - Webster seems a natural as a nickel back with his speed and ball-hawking abilities. And although this looks like a demotion, the reality is defenses seem to be in nickel and dime packages almost as much as their base formation these days. Eric Warfield (Chiefs) seemed the best candidate to me, but the Chiefs recognized his skills and upside (he is young) and wrapped him up in a high-priced (average $4 million per year) seven year deal - so he would have been out of the Niners price range anyway. This may be another position best addressed in the draft.
a. Brian Kelly (Tampa Bay) was elevated from nickel back to starter last year; has speed, and said to play best in zone. Seems like the best fit to the Niners.
4. Defensive Line - Again, Terry Donahue has spoken to the need to improve the d-line, particularly its pass rushing threat. We all know that defensive ends come at a premium, and this year's class doesn't seem to possess any obvious improvement for the Niners. (As a note, Chike Okeafor is a restricted free agent that the Niners should keep since he showed marked improvement last season and may have become a starter but for injury.) And since the Niners already invested in a "quick" DE in Andre Carter, they will probably be looking for a stouter DE for the other side. You may see a more surprising scenario of the Niners signing a defensive tackle with some pass rushing skills and a movement of Bryant Young outside to defensive end on some downs. BY seemed to play well from the defensive end spot in the Green Bay game. In the end, the Niners may be forced to stand pat and wait to see how they do in the draft before addressing upgrades on the defensive line.
a. La'Roi Glover DT (Saints) is a good pass rusher from the tackle position, but he may be way out of the Niners price range.
How would you like a March 1st announcement of the Niners signing Az-Hakim, or one of these other players? Well, it isn't likely. The prudent Niners will wisely bide their time to let their own free agents test the market. Then do their best to wrap them up and seek the other best deals still on the market. But we can always keep our fingers crossed for some excitement.
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