Free agency will impact 49ers at fullback

The 49ers appear reasonably set at running back entering 2006 free agency, but fullback is a different matter. Both Fred Beasley and Chris Hetherington are scheduled to be unrestricted FAs in March, with Beasley just about certain not to return. If the 49ers look at free agents at running back, it likely means they have moved holdover starter Kevan Barlow. Here, we go around the NFL and get analysis from beat writers covering some of the top running backs and fullbacks slated for free agency.

--- Beasley made the Pro Bowl in 2003 as the NFC's fullback, and it wasn't long ago he was considered the best blocking fullback in the league. But he got off on the wrong foot with the team's new regime, then lost his starting job while clashing with running backs coach Bishop Harris. Beasley is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent and it is highly unlikely he will be brought back, or even offered a deal to return.

--- Hetherington, a 10-year NFL veteran, also is an unrestricted free agent, and the 49ers would like to bring him back after he played well enough in six starts to keep Beasley out of the lineup when he was healthy enough to return from injury. Even if Hetherington is brought back, the 49ers will have to add another fullback in the offseason, though that could be accomplished through the draft. If both Hetherington and Beasley depart, the 49ers will definitely be looking to fill the void with at least one veteran free agent.

--- Buffalo Bills FB Daimon Shelton is an unrestricted free agent and is the kind of fullback who could fit in well with the 49ers as a starter. But indications are he likely is to be retained by the Bills.

--- Oakland Raiders FB Omar Easy is an unrestricted free agent, but he strictly is a special teams player, and the veteran the 49ers will have on their roster at fullback next year will be expected to be an integral part of the offense, at least in the early stages of the season.

--- San Diego Chargers FB Andrew Pinnock, a restricted free agent, had just one carry and likely won't be back with the Chargers.

--- Seattle Seahawks RB Shaun Alexander is an unrestricted free agent, but the 49ers obviously won't be involved in the high-stakes bidding for the league's reigning MVP. He's talking with the organization about getting a deal done. The problem is Seattle has G Steve Hutchinson also about to become a UFA and he would be the one to get the franchise tag. It's hard to argue that Alexander would be an upgrade for most teams, but how many good years does he have left?

--- Indianapolis Colts RB Edgerrin James, an unrestricted free agent, finished fifth in the league this year with 1,506 yards rushing and ran for 12 touchdowns. He also caught 44 passes for 337 yards and a touchdown. While team ownership has made it clear that they would love to bring James back so that he can end his career in Indianapolis, money will be the issue. Like Alexander, James had too high a price tag and too much mileage on him to draw interest from the 49ers.

--- Colts RBs Dominic Rhodes and James Mungro are both unrestricted free agents, so their return to Indianapolis next season remains up in the air. Rhodes is due a $1.45 million roster bonus, but the team may decide to not make the payment. That would make Rhodes an unrestricted free agent. If the 49ers move one of their holdovers and despite to replace with a young, experienced veteran, both of these players could get a look.

--- Green Bay Packers RB Ahman Green, who spent much of the season on injured reserve with a torn quadriceps, will be an unrestricted free agent. Green has expressed a desire to resign with the Packers, who will probably bring him back with an incentive-laden, one-year contract. The showdown between Green and Samkon Gado for the starting spot shapes up to be the most intense battle of the preseason.

--- Packers RB Najeh Davenport, who spent much of the season on injured reserve with a broken ankle, will be an unrestricted free agent.

--- Packers RB Tony Fisher also will be an unrestricted free agent, but his only value to the offense is on third down as both a blitz protector and a safety valve catching the ball out of the backfield.

--- Minnesota Vikings RB Michael Bennett is set to become an unrestricted free agent, and after averaging 3.8 yards per rush, he appears on the way out unless new coach Brad Childress decides Bennett is his guy. Bennett would have value for the 49ers if he came at the right price and was will to play a secondary role as backup to Frank Gore.

--- Carolina Panthers RB DeShaun Foster will be an unrestricted free agent and has reportedly expressed interest in playing with the 49ers. The Panthers will try to make a run at him, but you get a sense they will not overpay for a guy who has finished three of his four seasons in the league on injured reserve. The decision on how much to pay Foster could come down to how much confidence the team has in last year's second-round draft pick Eric Shelton. Foster broke his ankle in a divisional playoff loss to Chicago, but the team is likely to at least make an attempt to re-sign him. Still, Foster may want to go play in an offense that is more conducive to his cutback style of running - and the 49ers would fit into that category.

--- Denver Broncos RB Ron Dayne is a free agent but the Broncos want him back. He fits Denver's style very well and could have a big season if given the chance.

--- Washington Redskins RB Rock Cartwright exploded for 118 yards at St. Louis when Ladell Betts was hurt after losing a critical fumble at Kansas City. The popular Cartwright is a special teams regular, but he's a free agent and the Redskins already have his replacement in seventh-rounder Nehemiah Broughton, who carried just once as a rookie.

--- Houston Texans RB Jonathan Wells capitalized when Domanick Davis was injured. In his limited action at running back, Wells showed that he would likely fit better on a team that could utilize him more than the Texans did. He had a career-high four touchdowns and rushed for 325 yards, despite just 90 carries, which makes him more attractive as he enters the free agent market this off-season. The Texans would like to sign him, but he likely will command too much money for them if they end up drafting USC RB Reggie Bush.

--- Miami Dolphins RBs Sammy Morris and Travis Minor are valuable special teams players who are slated to become unrestricted free agents. They fit in the Maurice Hicks mold, with the 49ers probably favoring to keep the guy they already have in that department.


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