Should Smith be LB 49ers sign in free agency?

The 49ers would feel pretty good about entering 2006 with the same pair of inside linebackers with which they began the 2005 season. That is certain to happen with Jeff Ulbrich, who signed a four-year contract extension late last season. But the team has less than two weeks left to sign Derek Smith before he hits the open market as an unrestricted free agent. If the Niners decide not to make a winning bid for Smith, they may find some options in free agency to replace him.

Smith has been a productive player since joining the 49ers in 2001 and has been San Francisco's leading tackler each of his five seasons with the team, including 163 last season and a team-record 189 in 2003. Smith had one of his best pro seasons in 2005, but some wonder if his numbers are just a product of the system and if, at 31, he really is worth the kind of money he may attract in free agency.

Some believe he easily could be replaced with a younger, cheaper player who would provide the 49ers with better athleticism at the position. The 49ers also have some options on their own roster to replace Smith in Saleem Rasheed and Brandon Moore, each of whom also can become unrestricted free agents on March 3.

Though the 49ers figure to look for linebacker help in the April draft, if they don't bring back any of the potential free agents listed above, they ostensibly must find at least one established veteran in free agency as a replacement.

The 49ers are likely to spend some of their free-agent dollars on the linebacker position, and it could be on the inside. Here, we take a look at what beat writers around the league think about the inside linebackers they cover that are scheduled for free agency in March.

--- Smith is a player the 49ers want to hold onto, and he ended 2005 as the team's MVP in a vote San Francisco coaches. The Niners would like to get a deal reasonable to both sides in place before free agency begins, but that might not happen. The 49ers are looking for a deal that would be a bargain for them while still paying Smith good money with an attractive bonus. If he hits free agency, the team will not be interested in overpaying him like some other team might.

--- Rasheed missed time in 2005 because of knee surgery and has been a disappointing backup the majority of his career. He still has untapped potential, and the 49ers would hate to see their high 2002 third-rounder realize that potential elsewhere. But his time is just about up in San Francisco, and the 49ers appear likely to let him walk if he receives a deal offering him more than minimum-wage level from another team.

--- Moore also is a developing young player the 49ers would like to keep, but he may attract some interest on the open market after a fine 2005 season. After stepping into the starting lineup for the injured Ulbrich, Moore – in just 10 starts – finished second on the team with 93 tackles and led all linebackers with five sacks.

--- Minnesota Vikings ILB Sam Cowart paced the Vikings in tackles with 101. He'll be 31 before the start of free agency and might not fit into the new defensive scheme. The 49ers like Cowart, but if they go the free-agent route, they'd likely be looking to get younger and not older.

--- San Diego Chargers ILB Matt Wilhelm is a restricted free agent. He hasn't proven enough for another team to make a push for his services.

--- Detroit Lions ILB Earl Holmes was having an outstanding season until he was sidelined with a knee injury in November, and the Lions' run defense suffered. He'll turn 33 before the start of next season and there is a question how much he has left in the tank. That about rules him out for the 49ers.

--- Indianapolis Colts ILB Gary Brackett stepped into a starter's role and ended the regular season with three interceptions and a team-leading 131 tackles. As a restricted free agent the Colts will have a good chance at retaining his services.

--- Cincinnati Bengals ILB Nate Webster, an unrestricted free agent, will likely not be back. He missed the entire season because of a knee injury. He was a promising prospect before the injury.

--- Houston Texans ILB DaShon Polk became a steady player on a shaky defense. He finished with 92 tackles and 3.5 sacks. In the middle of needing to revamp the roster, Polk is a player the Texans will try to keep. Polk is a player who might fit in well with the 49ers.

--- Indianapolis Colts ILB Rocky Calmus spent the season on injured reserve after needing surgery to repair a torn hamstring. The Colts took the time to rehabilitate him through the season is a sign he's a player they're interesting in re-signing.

--- Colts ILB Rob Morris, a former starter, accepted his role as a backup fairly well and proved to be a valuable resource when needed. He was also one of the team's best special teams performers.

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