After the NFL season ended, the focus turned on offseason moves. With the NFL draft in April, it was a common belief that the upcoming free agency period would make or break many teams. After much examination, many believed that the San Francisco 49ers – with a healthy amount of cap room for the first time since the end of the DeBartolo-York Era – were in the best shape to make some big free agent signings.
On the first night of the free agency period, San Francisco didn’t disappoint.
Using much of their league-best $30 million cap space, the 49ers addressed their 26th ranked defense – a defense that gave up a league-worst 412 points in 2006 – by bolstering their secondary. The Niners made a big splash by signing the most coveted cornerback in free agency: Nate Clements of the Buffalo Bills. Making sure they keep him for the prime of his career, San Francisco signed Clements to the largest contract ever offered to a defensive player: 8 years for $80 million. They further strengthened their struggling secondary by inking a six-year deal with Philadelphia Eagles strong safety Michael Lewis. Despite his struggles in the Eagles defense in recent years – he was benched in his final year in Philadelphia – he is still considered one of the most physical and hardest-hitting safeties in the league.
With their big names in free agency signed after Day 1, the 49ers proceeded as planned. Later, they did what they set out to accomplish – sign a barrage of potential starters to further improve and deepen their roster. In order for head coach Mike Nolan to implement the 3-4 defense he intended to use in San Francisco, which he used as defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens, the 49ers signed 325-pound nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin. Schooled in the 3-4, Franklin was a backup NT for the Ravens. With Nolan and new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, the 49ers believe Franklin will fit well as a potential starting nose tackle.
Next, they addressed their offense – particularly, the weapons quarterback Alex Smith will have at his disposal. After a four-game suspension for violations on the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, and a subsequent drunk-driving arrest, the 49ers released volatile WR Antonio Bryant, leaving Smith without a vertical threat. After Bryant’s release, they signed the Falcons’ Ashley Lelie. Underused as the deep threat for Michael Vick, Lelie only caught 28 passes for 430 yards last season. The 49ers believe Lelie can find the form he had while with Denver in 2004, with 1,084 receiving yards, and the highest yard-per-catch average in the league.
With the prospect of signing prized free agent LB Adalius Thomas dashed a week before, the 49ers still needed to address their depth at the position. With Thomas going to the New England Patriots, the 49ers took from New England’s deep LB core and signed Tully Banta-Cain. A speedy linebacker who is capable of working well on the outside, and a Bay Area native, Banta-Cain was a good signing to strengthen the depth at the 3-4’s key position.
Also important for the 49ers was to keep their own free agents in-house, to build on what they established in the 2006 season. Fullback Moran Norris, wide receiver Bryan Gilmore, punter Andy Lee and cornerback Donald Strickland were all signed to new deals. Norris helped block for Pro Bowl starter Frank Gore, who set the 49ers’ single-season rushing record (1,695 yards) and led the NFC in rushing yards. Gilmore is a speedy receiver/returner, and Lee has one of the best punt yard-averages in the league.
With their spending in free agency most likely over, and their defense improved, all eyes focus in on the draft. The 49ers happen to have eight picks this year – three in the fourth round, and their first round pick at 11th overall. Projections for this pick are all over the board – some have them choosing Michigan CB Leon Hall, giving the 49ers more depth in the secondary. Others have them choosing Michigan DT Alan Branch – a monster of a defensive tackle which would help an already-improved 3-4. Mississippi LB Patrick Willis is also on the radar – another strong linebacker who could also flourish in the 3-4 defense. Then there are those who think, with the signings of Clements, Franklin and Banta-Cain, they could go the other way – some are projecting Ohio State WR Ted Ginn Jr. to fall to San Francisco. A speedy wide receiver and deadly kick returner, he could prove to be another vital weapon for Alex Smith. Others are looking at USC WR Dwayne Jarrett, another deep threat who has the speed and skills to do wonders with Smith. Nebraska DE Adam Karriker and Pittsburgh CB Darrelle Revis have also been mentioned as possibilities at 11th overall.
Whatever they do in the upcoming draft, the 49ers have been mentioned as one of the big winners so far this offseason. If they continue to make the necessary moves to improve the team in the coming weeks, the 49ers are liable to be a real threat for the NFC West title this coming season. After years of waiting, the 49ers look to be headed in the right direction.