Adding to the OL: Will 49ers find fix in FA?

Of any area on the entire team, the 49ers feel they're getting it right along the offensive line, where a mixture of youth and young veterans gives San Francisco a solid foundation on which to build. The 49ers got their big prize in FA last year with tackle Jonas Jennings, and they have other rising players earmarked for starting roles in 2006. But they'd still like to add depth and competition to the unit, and that could come from a list of more than 20 top vets ready to hit the open market.

The 49ers are feeling good about a starting unit featuring Jennings at left tackle, Justin Smiley at left guard and David Baas at right guard. That leaves Adam Snyder and Kwame Harris to battle it out at right tackle, and Jeremy Newberry - health permitting - to keep his job at center ahead of Eric Heitmann.

That's a strong nucleus of linemen whose best days still could be ahead of them, particularly if old warhorse Newberry is able to return to full effectiveness from major knee surgery.

Snyder and Heitmann both are capable of starting at multiple positions, which leaves them also being capable of being top backups at several positions. Still, the 49ers would like to add another lively player to the mix, particularly if Newberry's status remains uncertain deep into spring.

That would more than likely be a veteran who could step in and compete immediately for playing time. It's unlikely the 49ers will use their top draft picks on a lineman, leaving immediate help on this unit to come through free agency if it comes at all.

All of San Francisco's top linemen are signed through 2006. The only unrestricted free agent currently on the roster is OT Anthony Clement, and the team won't be offering him a contract to return after his poor play in 2005.

Here, we take a look at what beat writers around the NFL are saying about some of the top tackles, guards and centers scheduled for free agency on March 3.

TACKLES

Chicago Bears OT John St. Clair is an unrestricted free agent, but he is expected to sign a three-year deal with the Bears before hitting the open market. He started at both left and right tackle last year and proved to be a valuable addition off the waiver wire.

Carolina Panthers OT Todd Fordham is an unrestricted free agent and there's no guarantee he will be back. He could provide some top depth at tackle for the 49ers at a bargain price if he does not get better offers elsewhere.

Denver Broncos LT Matt Lepsis is a free agent and replacing him would be very difficult. He has had two good seasons since making the transition from right tackle to left tackle. Cornell Green could be the successor if nobody else is found. Lepsis could contend to be a starter in San Francisco but probably will be out of the 49ers' price range.

New England Patriots offensive tackles Tom Ashworth (who is a free agent) and Brandon Gorin are interchangeable at right tackle. Ashworth has more versatility as he excelled as a short-yardage fullback and an extra tight end over the second half of the season.

Philadelphia Eagles RT Jon Runyan, 32, is an unrestricted free agent. The Eagles would like to re-sign him, but they don't want to overpay him because of his age. He'll test the market, where he'll probably get big money despite his advancing age.

Detroit Lions LT Jeff Backus continued to play with iron man willpower but struggled, especially early in the season, then turned it up a notch playing on a badly sprained ankle. Backus' contract is up, but he has indicated he will delay any free agent decision until he is able to talk with the new coach.

Atlanta Falcons LT Kevin Shaffer probably will find a suitable market for his services, particularly because this class of unrestricted free agents is low on tackles. His days with the Falcons are likely over. His defining play was allowing Simeon Rice to sack Matt Schaub, causing a fumble for a Buccaneers touchdown in Week 11 at the Georgia Dome.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers tackle Kenyatta Walker, arguably the Bucs' best lineman, is an unrestricted free agent and is not likely to return, given his tumultuous relationship with coach Jon Gruden. Bucs tackle Chris Colmer could take over next season for Walker, and the Bucs will look to free agency for improvements.

Miami Dolphins OT Stockar McDougle was a disappointment as a free-agent acquisition and probably won't be re-signed.

Cleveland Browns LT L.J. Shelton played well after a shaky start. Re-signing him before he becomes a free agent in March is a priority, but the Browns won't break the bank to keep him.

GUARDS

Minnesota Vikings G Toniu Fonoti, acquired near the trade deadline from San Diego, replaced Chris Liwienski at left guard but suffered a season-ending groin injury against the Packers. Fonoti is a pending free agent and reported to the Vikings at 404 pounds - 54 pounds more than his listed playing weight. However, if he can get in shape, Fonoti could be a force and would probably bump RG Adam Goldberg. The 49ers were interested in Fonoti last year, but that probably won't be the case this time around.

Carolina Panthers RG Tutan Reyes and C Jeff Mitchell are both unrestricted free agents. Don't expect the team to go out of its way to sign either. Remember, they have Evan Mathis, a third-round pick in 2005, and Geoff Hangartner, a fifth-round selection waiting in the wings to replace those guys. That may or may not happen this year, but it's hard to imagine Carolina spending much money to keep either Mitchell or Reyes. But somebody will, and either might fit in well in San Francisco's OL rotation at the right price. They are certainly capable players.

New England Patriots RG Stephen Neal, who is a free agent, didn't play football in college (he was an NCAA wrestling champion) but has developed into a very solid player, one who could draw interest on the open market.

Oakland Raiders G Corey Hulsey, an unrestricted free agent, never got a good look even though the guards were struggling - indicating he is strictly a fringe player.

San Diego Chargers G Kris Dielman supplanted Toniu Fonoti at LG before Fonoti was traded to Minnesota. Dielman, a restricted free agent, is expected to be back.

CENTERS

New Orleans Saints C LeCharles Bentley, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, is a solid player and was selected to the NFC Pro Bowl squad. He's the No. 1 rated free agent at the position and fourth overall on the market. He's likely to be far out of the 49ers' price range.

Denver Broncos C Tom Nalen is expected to void his contract and become a free agent this off-season. He wants to come back to Denver but it doesn't look like that will happen. Nalen is 34 years old and the Broncos already have his successor at center. He could end up in another uniform next season. He is a five-time Pro Bowler but he didn't know what to expect on the open market. Retirement isn't at option at this point. He still has a few seasons left as a quality performer. Could the 49ers be interested if Newberry falters?

Green Bay Packers C Mike Flanagan played in pain the last 10 games after rushing back from surgery for a sports hernia in early October. Flanagan, 32, will be an unrestricted free agent whose time might be up in Green Bay after a remarkable 10-year run.

Minnesota Vikings C Melvin Fowler replaced injured starter Matt Birk, but Birk is expected to return in 2006, meaning Fowler's days in Minnesota are most likely finished. He will be a free agent and is expected to look for a starting job.

Buffalo Bills C Trey Teague, an eight-year veteran and unrestricted free agent, has been a steady if not spectacular performer for five seasons in Buffalo but he's likely to be replaced by rookie Duke Preston, who played in all 16 games.

Miami Dolphins C Seth McKinney will likely be allowed to leave via free agency. He'll likely want starter's money, which would rule out the 49ers. Otherwise, he could be considered by the 49ers if the price is right. He started the first 13 games for the Dolphins last year before a lower leg injury ended his season.

Tennessee Titans C Justin Hartwig is a notch better than solid. But the center is heading for free agency and is represented by Drew Rosenhaus.


Niners Digest Top Stories