Niners may look for DL upgrade in free agency

The 49ers have bigger problems than their defensive line, but that's not to say it's a low priority on the team's list of areas that require offseason upgrades. The Niners could use more bulk up front and are in definite need of more pass-rushing push from their interior line. But with the team planning to remain with a 3-4 base scheme, San Francisco must look for a particular type of player to fill each of its DL slots. To find those particular needs, the 49ers may have to turn to free agency.

With the resurgent Bryant Young and capable Marques Douglas at end, and the young tandem of Anthony Adams and Isaac Sopoaga at nose tackle (where second-year player Ronnie Fields may also figure this season), the 49ers appear adequate up front in their 3-4 scheme. But adequate won't necessarily get you to the playoffs, and the team is in definite need of adding an impact player to the mix.

The 49ers can't be sure how much the 34-year-old Young has left, and Douglas doesn't seem to offer much more than steady play on his best days. However, big defensive ends who can play on both rushing and passing downs in a 3-4 system are difficult to find, and the 49ers just released one earlier this week in veteran Chris Cooper, who would have been their third end in the rotation last year had he been healthy. Veteran Travis Hall, who replaced Cooper, is an unrestricted free agent and won't be invited back by the team as the 49ers look to get better here rather than just maintaining the status quo.

That leaves an opening on the roster that could be filled in free agency. The 49ers also could look at some of the big tackles available to help on the nose if they aren't satisfied that their Adams/Sopoaga/Fields trio can get the job done there.

There is a good collection of players available along the DL that will be available in free agency. Here, we take a look at some of the top DL who are scheduled to become free agents and get some insight from beat writers that cover them.

TACKLES

--- Baltimore Ravens DT Anthony Weaver would have had his best season except he was bothered by leg and back injuries. The Ravens will try to keep Weaver from becoming an unrestricted free agent. This is a player that 49ers coach Mike Nolan knows well, and Weaver – who can be an effective end in the 3-4 – may be interested in re-joining his former coach. And the 49ers, most definitely, may be interested in acquiring his services. Weaver's 2006 injury problems may help keep his price down on the open market and facilitate a move to San Francisco, where the 49ers would love to plug his versatility and productivity into their line. The 49ers did all right by plucking Douglas from the Ravens last year. They can do even better by doing the same with Weaver this year.

--- Arizona Cardinals NT Russell Davis, who becomes an unrestricted free agent, is a decent veteran worth bringing back. He could get some consideration from the Niners if there is lukewarm bidding for his services.

--- Baltimore Ravens NT Maake Kemoeatu is a big-bodied cog in the middle and has surprising quickness. The Ravens will try to keep Kemoeatu from becoming an unrestricted free agent in March. If he does become available, Nolan also knows Kemoeatu well from his days in Baltimore, and the 49ers may be interested in seeing if they can get a nibble on an offer.

--- Seattle Seahawks DT Rocky Bernard collected 8.5 sacks during the regular season. He is an unrestricted free agent, who the Seahawks would like back, but they have several other key players to re-sign. That would leave an opening for the 49ers, who may be interested in targeting a player such as Bernard for some of their big free-agent dollars.

--- Denver Broncos DT Gerard Warren is one of Denver's top free agents. Warren had a good season and was a solution to the Broncos' problems at defensive tackle. But Warren will probably get interest on the open market because he is athletic and strong inside, and solid defensive tackles are always in demand.

--- St. Louis Rams DT Damione Lewis hasn't lived up to expectations after being the 12th overall pick in the 2001 draft. He is solid, but the 49ers probably won't be interested when he becomes a free agent in March.

--- Buffalo Bills DT Ron Edwards, who has suffered two season-ending shoulder injuries, would be a risky re-signing as an unrestricted free agent.

--- Tampa Bay Buccaneers DT Chris Hovan is an unrestricted free agent. He led the improvement of the Bucs' run defense from 19th in the league to sixth. The 49ers considered Hovan last year and may do the same in 2006.

--- New York Giants DT Kendrick Clancy, acquired as a free agent from Pittsburgh, was a true find. He had a pair of sacks, several hurries and made unexpected penetration from the middle. An attempt to re-sign him will be made. He could provide situation relief for the 49ers, but only at the right price.

--- Indianapolis Colts DT Larry Tripplett lost weight and showed improved quickness off the ball this season as he had four sacks as a part-time starter. He could look for a starting job elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent, and the 49ers may be interested in the dollar amount does not climb too high.

--- Kansas City Chiefs DT Lional Dalton had a considerable drop-off after a promising first year in Kansas City, and his future under new coach Herman Edwards remains uncertain.

--- San Diego Chargers DL DeQuincy Scott saw action mostly on passing downs and responded with 4.5 sacks. The unrestricted free agent is expected to get an offer from San Diego.

--- Green Bay Packers NT Grady Jackson was an occasional enforcer in the middle, particularly near the goal line, and the 33-year-old managed to stay healthy the entire season. As much as he expects to be paid on par with the top nose tackles in the league, Jackson may have to settle on re-signing with Green Bay for a modest deal beefed up with incentives.

ENDS

--- Tennessee Titans Pro Bowl DE Kyle Vanden Bosch has signed a four-year contract that will keep the top defensive end scheduled for free agency this year in Nashville rather than test the open market. Reportedly, the contract calls for Vanden Bosch to receive about $15 million in guaranteed money. He had 12.5 sacks in 2005.

--- New York Jets DE John Abraham has an uncertain future after being slapped with the franchise tag by the Jets, who may attempt to trade him. Abraham stated emphatically that he did not want the franchise designation, but the Jets tagged him anyway. They still may break down and give him that coveted long-term contract he wants, but the 49ers won't be interested in any kind of trade for his services. Abraham, however, was unhappy going into 2005, and skipped all of training camp, yet finished with 10.5 sacks. He would be a hot commodity for someone if things don't work out in New York, or if the Jets rescind the tag, which appears unlikely since they have no plans for a talent such as Abraham to get away for free.

--- New Orleans Saints DE Darren Howard dropped off dramatically, with Howard getting just 3.5 sacks before he was deactivated for the final four games. He's likely headed for a new destination in 2006, but the 49ers would be taking a chance if they think he can recover his old form in San Francisco.

--- Green Bay Packers DE Aaron Kampman is the Packers' biggest priority as free agency draws closer. He's scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent. Contract talks late in the season didn't pan out, so Kampman could wind up on the open market as a hot commodity after a sterling year (career-high 105 tackles, 6.5 sacks) in which he was on the field more than 90 percent of the time. At 6-4 and 286 pounds, Kampman has optimum size for an end in the 3-4 system the 49ers envision.

--- Cleveland Browns DE Orpheus Roye played most of the season on a bad knee and for last half of the season teams ran away from him, yet he still led the team's defensive linemen in tackles. He's someone the Browns would like to re-sign, but at their price and length of contract.

--- Indianapolis Colts DE Robert Mathis paced the team with 11.5 sacks in his role as a situational pass rusher. He was also bothered by a foot injury late in the year. As a restricted free agent the Colts will try to get a long-term deal done. The 49ers were impressed by the way Mathis wreaked havoc against them in an October game last year, but they won't be interested if the Colts tender him an offer.

--- Jacksonville Jaguars DE Reggie Hayward, their prime free agent, had 8.5 sacks. The 49ers also got a first-hand look at Hayward last year.

--- Buffalo Bills DE Ryan Denney had four sacks and is an unrestricted free agent who will draw attention as a young pass rusher with experience.

--- Detroit Lions DE Kalimba Edwards, who will be a free agent in March, had seven sacks in his best season since posting 6.5 as a rookie in 2000.

--- Packers DL Kenny Peterson, who will be a restricted free agent, showed some flashes in a versatile backup role.

--- St. Louis Rams DE Tyoka Jackson has some years on him and is a free agent. This isn't a player the 49ers would consider an upgrade at the position.


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