Time is now to hire new kicker

As the prices begin to fall in free agency, the 49ers will step up their efforts to fill holes on their roster with veteran talent, starting first with the significant search for their new kicker, which began and ended with Joe Nedney.

It hurt the Niners when Todd Peterson left the team last week to accept a one-year deal with the Atlanta Falcons. Peterson is the kind of kicker this team needs – a proven, reliable veteran who makes the kicks he should and can be counted on to perform at the end of a close game.

But the 49ers – who reportedly offered Peterson more money than he received from the Falcons – weren't going to overpay to retain Peterson's services. The team seems to have a pretty clear value and worth established for every player it is considering, and it appears even a better offer wouldn't have prevented Peterson from taking the deal from Atlanta, where he has strong ties. Peterson grew up in Valdosta, played two seasons at the University of Georgia and lives in the Atlanta area.

With Peterson off the market, replacing him jumped to the top of the team's priority list.

"That's one of our priorities right now in trying to get somebody in that capacity," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "We're continuing to evaluate all of the free agents that are out there, and there are several guys we are looking at. I'm very hopeful that we get somebody in the position prior to the draft."

Nolan accomplished that a day after saying those words.

The 49ers visited Wednesday with the big, strong-legged Nedney, who is an excellent choice to succeed Peterson as long as he's completely healthy. The Niners will have to be sure about that, however. Nedney – who has played for six teams in a nine-year NFL career – tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right (kicking) knee in the 2003 season opener before he even had attempted a field goal or PAT. He hasn't kicked in a game since, tearing a hamstring in his left leg a week before the 2004 season began.

But the native of nearby San Jose would fit in well if his knee's not shot. At 31 (he turns 32 in two weeks), Nedney is three years younger than Peterson and would provide an upgrade on kickoffs over the former 49ers kicker.

Nedney looked good during his Wednesday tryout and, according to his agent, has agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the team. That 49ers announced they had signed Nedney on Thursday morning.

Outside of Nedney, the list of quality veteran candidates falls off quickly, though there are some out there who have seen better days. Names such as Martin Gramatica and 16-year vet Steve Christie might not inspire, but they've had proven NFL success. Don't laugh, but the names Anderson and Andersen – as in 45-year-old Gary and 44-year-old Morten, the two leading scorers in NFL history – even have been whispered in the wind, though both clearly are ready to be put out to pasture.

Then you have Wade Richey and Jose Cortez, both former full-time 49ers kickers who could only find NFL work last year as part-time kickoff specialists. Neither of those guys was a viable option.

When asked about Richey - who handled kickoffs last season in Baltimore, where Nolan was defensive coordinator - the coach responded, "He had been one of the guys we looked at. Wade is an excellent kickoff guy. I think in time… He had some injuries a while back and that is why all he does for (Baltimore) is kick off, or should I say when they go for the 50-plus yarder (field goal), he kicks those. He's a good kickoff guy."

The 49ers, obviously, were looking for more than a kickoff guy. Before Nedney entered the picture, there was speculation the team could attempt to secure the top college kicker available this year – Ohio State's Mike Nugent – at some point early in the draft. But the team clearly did not want to depend on that option.

That's understandable, because Nugent may be the only incoming rookie who has the talent to immediately handle NFL kicking duties, and draft analysts are saying it may take the high price of a second-round pick to get him. The 49ers' second-round pick actually could be considered a late first-rounder – the No. 33 overall. Nugent might not still be around when the Niners pick at the top of the third round.

And even Nugent is no sure thing, at least if you consider what was – for him – a subpar effort at the recent NFL Combine. Nugent failed to put any of his six kickoffs into the end zone; his hang time was decent but nothing special. He also missed twice on field-goal attempts from 45 yards. In a dome. Without defenders running at him.

The other kickers invited to the Combine – Boise State's Tyler Jones, Maryland's Nick Novak, Michigan State's Dave Raynor and Kansas State's Joe Rheem – are not prospects good enough for the Niners to consider in the role.

Nedney figures to begin a trickle – if not a stream – of free-agent candidates that the 49ers will visit with or bring into their Santa Clara facility during the next few weeks.

"We've talked to and talked about a ton (of free agents), and we still are," Nolan said. "We talk about quite a few guys every day just to continue and see where we're at. We've been talking with agents. It's an ongoing thing and it will be. It's something just about every day where there is discussion with agents and players and the whole bit. As far as bringing guys in, I could see us in the next week or two having a few guys walk through the doors. Whether we sign them or not is another thing, but to just bring them in and take a look at them."

It has been reported that two players the Niners might have in for a look are tight end Anthony Becht and quarterback Brad Johnson, though Nolan couldn't exactly be pinned down on the visiting status of either player.

Regarding Becht, Nolan said, "There is no schedule right now to bring him (in). We certainly talk about Anthony. I was with the Jets when they drafted Anthony and he certainly has some things that he can add to anyone's roster. I don't know where he'll end up. He is somebody that is good enough. He is an asset if he came in here, but again, every player has a price and he is more valuable to some than others."

On Johnson, Nolan said, "We've talked about Brad Johnson and we've talked about a number of (quarterbacks). They aren't out of the mix by any stretch. There has been no visit set yet (with Johnson), but we continue to talk about it. I'm not going to say that there couldn't be a visit that we have, but right now, it's nothing more than just discussion. That is all it is. There is no reality to it at this point."

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