Niners still could dig for some nuggets in FA

With the way the 49ers lit it up by waiting to get serious in free agency until the first wave of signings had passed, the team might still be on the lookout for talent upgrades with several second-tier FAs still out there who warrant attention – and could find a niche on the 49ers roster – including a QB who started for the Niners last year but definitely won't be coming back to San Francisco.

Only two weeks into free agency and, after starting slowly on the first day of permissible contact with veterans, teams have been spending money as if they owned the keys to the mint. As of Monday night, only 149 of the original 440 unrestricted free agents – not counting players who were released by their teams the past two weeks – remained unsigned.

Fewer than two dozen members of that group started 10 games or more in 2010.

The league isn't quite to the bottom-feeding stage, but after spending so much on the most attractive free agent players, teams are now apt to fill out their shopping carts and their rosters by browsing through the modest offerings in the NFL's equivalent of Filene's Basement.

The 49ers appeared to fill a lot of their needs while signing 10 free agents since the beginning of the training camp, several of whom figure to be key starters and each of whom could make the final roster and become contributors.

Even after the surprising return of starting free safety Dashon Goldson, who expected much bigger things on the open market than the one-year deal he settled on Monday to play in San Francisco again this year, the 49ers still could strike again after filtering through the talent pool that's still available.

There remain a few high-profile players: Safety Darren Sharper would like to extend his career into a 15th season. Wide receivers Terrell Owens (knee surgery) – the former 49ers All-Pro now bouncing around teams at the end of his career – and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (suspect speed) hope to catch on with someone. Tailback Laurence Maroney, the onetime first-rounder who has now struck out with two franchises, remains free. Linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, productive for most of his eight-year career but also injured at times, is looking for a home.

But the market at this point has already reached the middle level and teams are seeking some bargains. Here are a few players who might fit the description, several of whom actually could find a niche on the San Francisco roster if the 49ers were interested:

--- WR Steve Smith (New York Giants): One of the NFL's best possession receivers before injuring his left knee in 2010 and undergoing a microfracture procedure in December. Questions about the knee could force the four-year veteran and former second-round draft pick (2007) to sign a one-year contract and at least a deal that protects the team. Career average of just 10.8 yards per reception and only 11 career touchdowns, but money in the bank on third down, and a security blanket for Eli Manning. Had 107 catches in 2009. The 49ers probably would have a lot more interest here if they didn't recently sign Braylon Edwards, who could start for them and fills a big hole in the WR rotation with Michael Crabtree out with a foot injury.

--WLB Ben Leber (Minnesota): Nine-year veteran isn't necessarily a big-play guy, but knows how to play the game. In stints with San Diego (2002-2005) and the Vikings (2006-2010), the 32-year-old Leber has logged 113 starts. Well-rounded defender does a lot of things well, very good in coverage and rarely out of position, and has 382 career tackles, 24 sacks, five interceptions. Surprising he hasn't gotten a little more action in free agency. He has experience in a 3-4 system, which might make him attractive to the 49ers.

--- MLB Kirk Morrison (Jacksonville): Pure 4-3 middle linebacker who isn't going to make many big plays and is limited athletically, but is steady against the run, and incredibly durable. Has never missed a game in his six-year career, and has missed just one start. Former San Diego State star, a third-round pick of Oakland in 2005, was traded to the Jaguars last season, but has been bumped aside already by Jacksonville's free agent signing of Paul Posluszny a few weeks ago. Has 720 career tackles, only once failed to post 100 tackles in a season, and has three campaigns with 125-plus stops.

--- DE/LB Matt Roth (Cleveland): Probably best suited to playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 front, but might be able to take some snaps as a 4-3 end. Six-year veteran started all 16 games for the Browns in 2010 for the first time in his career. Has 20 sacks in his six-year career with Cleveland (which claimed him on waivers from Miami in 2009) and the Dolphins. Notched 7½ sacks the past two seasons and generally plays the run well.

--- QB Troy Smith (San Francisco): In a league seemingly desperate for experienced quarterbacks, the 2006 Heisman Trophy winner might find a home as a No. 2 guy or a No. 3 insurance policy – but it certainly won't be with the 49ers, who did not tender him an offer earlier this year, thus relinquishing his rights. Only 27, Smith isn't exactly the prototype NFL quarterback, but his arm is stronger than some people think and he's got some movement skills. In four seasons, he's notched eight starts, including six starts last season for the 49ers, when he went 3-3 and threw for 1,176 yards. Smith did take 18 sacks last year, an alarmingly high number for someone who moves so well, and that might evidence some shaky decision-making. He certainly did not make much impression with San Francisco's new coaching staff, which could use a veteran presence behind Alex Smith and rookie Colin Kaepernick. The other two quarterbacks currently on San Francisco's roster also are rookies.

--- C-OG Nick Cole (Philadelphia): As is the case with a lot of the free agent leftovers, the five-year veteran isn't special, but he has 29 career starts, and has started at both guard spots and at center. Had 16 starts only two years ago. The onetime undrafted free agent is a tad undersized for an interior blocker, but plays with good leverage and smarts.

--- DE Jonathan Fanene (Cincinnati): Coming off a 2010 season in which a hamstring injury limited him to two games. Bengals would like to re-sign him but probably are offering only a one-year deal, and he must demonstrate he is healthy. Stout versus the run and, despite only average outside speed, has some pass-rush skills, as evidenced by a career-best six sacks in '09. Six-year veteran has played in a 4-3 front in Cincy, but might be able to transition to 3-4 end.

--- WR Brandon Stokely (Seattle): Yeah, the 12-year veteran is 35 years old, has had more than his share of injuries, and has a lot of tread rubbed off the tires. But if he's healthy, there still aren't more than a handful of better slot/third-down receivers in the league, and he caught 31 balls in only 11 games for the Seahawks in 2010. Was announced that he had reached an agreement with Washington, but he backed off, and remains available. A class act who works hard and will be a terrific teacher for younger wideouts. Will never again come close to the 1,077 yards he rang up with Indianapolis in 2004, but has eight seasons of 20-plus receptions, and knows how to shake open.

--- OT/OG Trai Essex (Pittsburgh): Big-bodied six-year veteran whose most notable attribute might be his versatility. Former third-round from Northwestern is stiff and doesn't have great feet, but has opened at tackle and guard among his 25 starts. For a team seeking a veteran "swing" guy, who probably will end up signing just a one-year deal, the 28-year-old Essex might be an option.


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