Is there a WR in FA worth big money to 49ers?

The 49ers have big money to spend in free agency this year, and perhaps the best use of it would be to find a big-time veteran wide receiver to upgrade a unit lacking a true No. 1-caliber, go-to guy. How do the names David Givens, Reggie Wayne, Antonio Bryant and Antwaan Randle El grab you? They might be the best WRs available on the open market this year, but none is a bona fide star, leaving the Niners with decisions to make regarding how much value to place on this year's crop of free agents.

The 49ers added veteran wide receivers to their WR unit late in the free-agent process each of the past two years.

But Curtis Conway (2004) and Johnnie Morton (2005) each were well past their prime and made little impact on a floundering unit that needed a veteran who could make a big impact. Both players started multiple games after locking down roles as the team's No. 3 receiver, but Conway caught only 38 passes for 403 yards and three touchdowns in 2004, and Morton finished with 21 catches for 288 yards and no touchdowns while playing for a passing-challenged offense last season.

The 49ers must try to do better than that in free agency this year, because their receiving corps desperately needs one more legitimate threat who could make the whole unit better.

The 49ers have only one starter certain to return in 2006, and Arnaz Battle - while capable - had only 32 receptions for 363 yards and three touchdowns in an injury-plagued 2005 season, and he is not a home-run threat.

Fourth-year veteran Brandon Lloyd, the 49ers' leading receiver from 2005 with 48 catches for 733 yards and five TDs, is scheduled to be a restricted free agent, and the 49ers have sent mixed signals about what they think of him. He probably will be back playing under a one-year tender in 2006, but the 49ers need another established receiver with talent equal to or better than Lloyd to open the passing lanes and take pressure off 2005 starters Battle and Lloyd, not to mention the team's entire passing-game structure.

That receiver is unlikely to come from the college draft, which is weak in top-flight receiving talent. It's highly questionable if it will come from the collection of unproven prospects already on the San Francisco roster, a list that includes disappointing youngsters such as Rashaun Woods and Rasheed Marshall to go along with Marcus Maxwell, Otis Amey, Derrick Hamilton and journeyman veterans Jason McAddley and P.J. Fleck.

So the 49ers definitely have a keen interest in this year's free agents, and could make a major play for at least one of them to come in and bolster what some observers consider the NFL's weakest group of receivers. Here, we go around the league and get analysis from beat writers covering some of the top receivers slated for free agency.

--- New England Patriots WR David Givens is an unrestricted free agent and seems destined to cash in big time. His career highs in catches (59 this season) and yards (874 in 2004) appear modest, but the Patriots' spread-the-wealth approach to the passing game keeps anyone (other than Deion Branch in the playoffs) from posting big numbers. When Branch was sidelined by a knee injury in 2004, Givens had three straight 100-yard games - a fact that did not go unnoticed around the league. He might fit in nicely with the 49ers, but the team will be hesitant to pay Givens more than he's worth - which is a price somebody probably will pay him on this year's open market.

--- Indianapolis WR Reggie Wayne also will be an unrestricted free agent, but team president Bill Polian has said that he is committed to signing him to a career contract. The Colts have other contract issues with other big-name players, so their commitment to Wayne remains to be seen in the next few weeks.

--- WR Antonio Bryant caught 69 passes for 1,009 yards to lead the Cleveland Browns, but he also dropped several key passes, and those drops weigh in the decision on whether to re-sign him. The Browns say they want him and Bryant says he wants to return. He would provide the 49ers with the deep threat they are lacking.

--- Pittsburgh Steelers WR Antwaan Randle El may have played in his final game for Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl. He will be an unrestricted free agent in March and the Bears will be among the top suitors for his services. The 49ers also will have some interest, but the versatile Randle El is similar to Battle in several respects.

--- Green Bay Packers WR Antonio Chatman was more than serviceable in a prominent role (three starts) and more than doubled his 2004 output with 49 catches. He figures to be re-signed as a restricted free agent.

--- Minnesota Vikings WR Koren Robinson, never used as a kick returner in his first four seasons with Seattle, was elected to the Pro Bowl at that spot after leading the NFC and finishing fifth in the NFL with a 26.0-yard return average. He also had a touchdown return in an upset victory over the New York Giants. The 49ers gave some consideration to picking up Robinson last year after he was dumped by Seattle, but coach Mike Nolan passes because of his off-field issues. Despite Robinson's rebirth in Minnesota, those issues remain.

--- KR-PR Eddie Drummond, selected to the Pro Bowl a year ago, was again hampered by injuries and slipped from 26.6 yards to 22.0 on kick returns, and from 13.2 to 6.0 yards on punt returns. He's an unrestricted free agent and his future in Detroit is up in the air.

--- Atlanta Falcons WR Brian Finneran was the Falcons' most consistently productive receiver for the first two months of the season. The Falcons should try hard to re-sign Finneran, who triggered a clause in his contract that made him an unrestricted free agent. He could fit in with the 49ers, but he doesn't appear to add a talent upgrade over Battle or Lloyd.

--- Tampa Bay WR Ike Hilliard was a serviceable backup and is an unrestricted free agent, but signing him would look a lot like the previous signings of Conway and Morton.

--- Buffalo Bills WR Josh Reed (32 catches, 449 yards), an unrestricted free agent, had a nice bounce-back year and is likely to be retained as the primary slot receiver. If not, he might come cheap for the 49ers.

--- Patroits WRs Tim Dwight (19-332, three TDs) and Andre' Davis (9-190, one TD) are both free agents who showed some big-play ability but can't be considered must-keeps. The 49ers would like Dwight's stretch-the-field speed, but they need more steady consistency than flash at the position.

--- San Diego Chargers WR Reche Caldwell, a free agent, probably won't be brought back as the team has grown weary of his up-and-down play. The 49ers certainly have enough receivers of that caliber already on their roster.


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