Niners could turn to free agency at tight end

Eric Johnson will come with an expensive price tag in 2006, so if the 49ers aren't certain they can count on him as their starting tight end, they may be looking for a viable replacement in free agency. If Jeb Putzier becomes available in March, the 49ers may seriously consider altering their structure at the position in free agency, where holdover veteran Terry Jones also will be on the market. Here, we go around the NFL and get analysis from writers covering some of the top TEs slated for FA.

--- Jones was released by the Ravens in the middle of the season, the 49ers claimed him, and he ended up as the team's starting tight end for the final six weeks of the season. He also finished as the team's leading receiver among tight ends with nine receptions for 76 yards. There's a chance the 49ers may give him a veteran's minimum offer to compete for a roster spot, but it's more likely they'll look to upgrade at the position through the draft or with a better veteran free agent.

--- Steve Bush, who started two games for the 49ers last year, also is an unrestricted free agent, but San Francisco has little interest in bringing back the ninth-year veteran whose play slipped in 2005 while he battled injuries. Bush had just three receptions for 21 yards last season and has no place in the team's 2006 plans.

--- The tight end position could have had a Pro Bowler available if Jason Witten had his way. After three years in the league, he reached incentives that allowed him to void the final year of his deal with the Dallas Cowboys and test free agency. However, the Cowboys also had the right to buy back an option in the contract for that fourth year and did so.

--- The biggest potential get at tight end in free agency is Jeb Putzier. The Denver Broncos have an important decision to make by March 1. That is whether to pick up the $1.5 million option on Putzier's contract or let him become an unrestricted free agent. The team is trying to develop first-year tight end Wesley Duke, who they are sending to NFL Europe. They also have veteran tight end Stephen Alexander, who is under contract through 2007. The 49ers will be watching Putzier's situation closely before they make any moves at tight end.

--- Chris Baker of the New York Jets is an unrestricted free agent. He wasn't heard from much after a seven-catch outburst on opening day, finishing with 18 receptions for 269 yards and one touchdown. His season ended prematurely when he suffered a broken leg against San Diego on Nov. 6. He has become a better blocker and receiver, although he still suffers from occasional drops and needs to be more consistent.

--- Dan Campbell is the Cowboys' primary blocking tight end. He is key to the running game while also bringing toughness and leadership. An unrestricted free agent, Campbell's return is a top offseason priority for the Cowboys. If they let him go, Campbell is another guy the might draw interest from the 49ers.

--- Chad Lewis re-signed with the Eagles at mid-season, but he probably won't be back next season. He's another guy who could find a place with the 49ers, depending on how Johnson's status shakes out.

--- Cleveland's Aaron Shea caught only 18 passes. He is an unrestricted free agent and unlikely to return with the Browns.

--- Brandon Manumaleuna of the St. Louis Rams blocks well in tight quarters but poorly in space on the move. He was mostly forgotten in St. Louis' high-powered passing game, catching just 13 passes for 129 yards. Manumaleuna's salary rises to over $1.3 million in 2006, and a decision will have to be made on his future with the team, which could put him on the open market.

--- Marcellus Rivers emerged as somewhat of a dual threat with the Houston Texans last year. He was a solid blocker and had a career-high 24 receptions for 168 yards. He still struggled to hold onto the ball at times, though, dropping a number of opportunities.

--- Sean Berton, a pickup from the Vikings in midseason, might have a chance to stick in the long term with the New York Giants or some other suitor. He looks to be the best of the tight ends scheduled to become restricted free agents in 2006.

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