Where do 49ers go now in free agency?
Mike Nolan is glad you asked. "For one, we continue to evaluate all positions, which is what we're doing, and watch how things swing," the first-year 49ers coach said after landing his big catch in Jennings. After filling such a glaring void with Jennings, the Niners are off to a stunningly successful start in free agency. But they're hardly done. That said, they must proceed carefully from here on out, because now they actually can see the edge of the salary cap after doling out a generous $36 million deal to land Jennings. After tendering an offer of at least $7.3 million to Julian Peterson as their franchise player, and tendering qualifying offers to four restricted free agents, the Niners now have less than $5 million of space under the cap with which to work. That's still room to bring in more quality players, and the number can easily grow depending on what the team might decide to do with contracts of particular players already on the team. However, the Niners now are out of the running for another big fish such as Jennings. Those kind of prime veteran starters are being snatched up quickly and, while the Niners have the resources to assemble another attractive deal for a top player, they now are inclined to let the dust settle and then scrutinize who's still available at their positions of need. "There are a lot of guys that are coming off the market really quickly with different teams signing people," Nolan said. "But we're going to stay active and alive in the whole thing and continue to evaluate stuff." After a month of analyzing all the players currently on the team's roster – the 49ers so far have released only one player (defensive end Brandon Whiting) from their final 2004 roster – Nolan and his subordinates now have a clear understanding of what the team needs and where it needs it. Some of those numerous holes will be filled in the draft, where the Niners – picking at the top of each round and owning four additional selections – will be able to find some quality players who can contribute right away. But filling another hole or two or three with established veterans definitely is the way the team would like to go to ease its draft-day decisions. "One of the important things for us to do with 11 picks in the draft … it's important for us to minimize the opportunities in the draft when we're on the fence with two players," Nolan said. "When you do add some players through free agency, you allow yourself the opportunity when the draft comes up, if there is – for example – if there's a tackle tied with a defensive corner, let's say, well obviously in this situation we know where to go. "Whereas, if you don't make this move, a lot of times there is a lot of , ‘Ooh, which one to go with?' So, whether it is today or a week or two from now or any time before the draft, all those moves will be to not only strengthen our football team, but also strengthen our position in the draft. We will continue to build through the draft, but certainly supplementing through free agency and supplementing in this form and fashion is critical to us in doing the things in the draft that we hope to do." The Niners now can feel confident about taking a meticulous approach the rest of the way in free agency. There are always players who were looking for substantial paydays who fall through the cracks and are waiting weeks into March for an offer attractive enough to make them bite. Nolan also made the point that there are several free agents out there whom nobody really knows about – young players who played behind star veterans and never really got a chance to shine, but who could blossom when given a more extensive role. "There are players out there we are looking at, without a doubt, and we'll see how long they'll stay on the market and see if we really want to make a play for them," Nolan said. The 49ers already are making a play for two of their own top unrestricted free agents, kicker Todd Peterson and receiver Cedrick Wilson, both of whom apparently are looking for more money than the Niners currently are offering. "There hasn't been any (progress with those two), but we talk a lot every day about it," Nolan said. "We meet over it and discuss it and the whole bit. As the complexion of the guys that are out there changes and all those types of things … But as far as getting closer, no." Nolan avoided getting into specifics about positions – he didn't need to say the 49ers no longer are in the market for an offensive tackle – but the defensive line and defensive backfield each are areas the team will be focusing on the rest of the way in free agency. That's not to say those are the only areas. But after landing a player coveted by many, the Niners now are hoping to unearth an unheralded gem that will shine once he's wearing a San Francisco uniform. "We have evaluated as many guys as we can," Nolan said. "And we continue to evaluate the guys. If a lot of people don't think someone's value is very much, and then all of a sudden – it happens every year. Someone in free agency (that) somebody gets and you say, ‘Where did that guy come from?' Well, he was just backing up a lot of good players. That is where a lot of homework comes right now in trying to find film on guys that are backups." Backups? In free agency? Nolan, Baltimore's defensive coordinator last year, knows there are some good ones out there to be had. "For example," Nolan said, "Ray Lewis' backup … does anybody know how good he is in here? I know. That is a tough call. So, when you have starters that played the whole year, a lot of time their backups are guys that right now we are looking at. That, I guess you can say, is your second-tier player that can really help your squad sometimes. That goes for all positions. So, we're in the process all the time of continuing to evaluate guys on other squads." And, in the months to come, a few of them will become 49ers.
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