Money best spent: 49ers may focus FA $$ on CB

Quality cornerbacks don't come cheaply in the NFL - they cost multi-millions of dollars. Some feel that's a position where it would be most wise for the 49ers to concentrate their free-agent dollars in 2006. While the dust settles this weekend around the uncertain status of free agency, the 49ers continue to hone in on their greatest needs on the open market, where CB certainly hovers at the top of the list, particularly now that the team has dumped Ahmed Plummer and his high salary-cap figure.

In what may be a surprise to some, Plummer's release last week – which saved the 49ers more than a $1 million against their 2006 salary cap – immediately vaulted his name among the top cornerbacks available in free agency.

Somebody will take a chance on Plummer, and he will be earning a hefty sum from some other team this year, even after cashing in on $11 million in guaranteed bonus money alone with the 49ers the past two seasons despite not finishing the final three years of the five-year pact he signed in 2004.

Even serviceable cornerbacks are priceless in today's NFL. Plummer, despite the injury problems that chased him out of San Francisco, will get another chance and another lucrative payday based on the potential he displayed as one of the NFL's top young cornerbacks during his first two seasons in the league.

The 49ers weren't going to wait around any longer – not at the $5.5 million in base salary alone Plummer was scheduled to receive in 2006 – to see if he could perform at a quality level for them again, particularly after he got on the bad side of coach Mike Nolan and his crew in 2005.

But Plummer's absence leaves the 49ers looking for a top cornerback to take his place on the left side to pair with starting right cornerback Shawntae Spencer, who continued to come into his own during his sophomore season of 2005 and looks like he could be a solid cog in the San Francisco defense as it moves forward.

There are some attractive names that will be available on the open market whenever free agency finally does start, both young and old, and that list figures to grow if teams have to continue to release veterans to get in salary-cap compliance, as Miami did earlier this week with the release of four-time Pro Bowler Sam Madison.

The 49ers have veteran Mike Rumph returning, and he showed some promise as a starting cornerback in 2003 before his injury-ruined 2004 season and his ill-advised move to safety in 2005. The Niners also have a collection of young and unheralded players at the position – such as Bruce Thornton, Mike Adams and Derrick Johnson – who have displayed they can compete at the NFL level.

But the team would like to add a talent with true shutdown potential to the mix, whether that comes through the draft or through free agency, where some of that ilk definitely can be found – but only at an exorbitant price.

Here's a look at some of the top prospects available and what beat writers around the league think about the CBs they cover who are scheduled to hit the open market:

--- Plummer had a solid rookie campaign after being the No. 24 player selected overall in the first round of the 2000 draft, then displayed tremendous potential with seven interceptions and 21 passes defensed the next season. But he slipped in effectiveness the next two years, then played only nine of a possible 32 games – with mixed results – after signing a five-year, $25 million deal with San Francisco's previous management regime in 2004. If he recovers fully from the ankle problems that doomed his 2005 season, he still may good enough to start for several NFL teams. But, for those wondering, there is no truth to the rumor that the 49ers would consider bringing him back at a greatly reduced price now that his big numbers have been slashed from the payroll. Plummer's days in San Francisco, most definitely, are over.

--- New York Jets CB Ty Law tied for the NFL lead with 10 interceptions last year and still appears to be playing at an elite level despite the wear and tear of 11 NFL seasons. He battled some leg injuries that forced him to pull himself from games, although he said his surgically repaired foot no longer is a problem. Because he is owed an $11 million option bonus in March, it's likely he won't be back. He evidently ruffled some feathers among his teammates in New York, and that's not something Nolan and crew will stand for. And, if the Niners are going to give big money to a CB, they'd like one that's a little younger and is just coming into his prime rather than just coming out of it.

--- Madison offered to stay with the Dolphins at a reduced price, but apparently not reduced enough from the $3.4 million in base salary he was scheduled to receive in 2006. Madison, a ninth-year veteran, has displayed signs in recent seasons that he isn't the player he once was, but he still is a legitimate starting NFL cornerback and his experience at the position also counts for something. He might be attractive to the 49ers on a short-term deal that compensates him well and gives him an opportunity to slide right into a starting position. But, again, the team is thinking young at the position, and Madison is getting old.

--- Buffalo CB Nate Clements had the franchise tag placed on him by the Bills, which effectively takes him out of the running for the 49ers, who certainly won't consider giving up the compensation it would take to sign Clements to an offer sheet, even though he is exactly the kind of cornerback the 49ers need. Clements, who played every game like it was an audition for 32 teams last season, finished with 125 tackles and two interceptions, giving him 20 for his young career. But he was inconsistent and beaten on the deep ball too frequently for someone hoping for a $10 million to $12 million signing bonus.

--- Oakland Raiders CB Charles Woodson started five games before suffering a broken fibula. He will be allowed to test the market, since tagging him would have cost the Raiders more than $12 million in salary. Woodson remains an injury-prone player who hasn't achieved the stardom expected but can be a solid, all-around defensive player when healthy. The 49ers will consider Woodson, who still can be an elite cornerback, but it's unlikely they will consider meeting his price tag or overpaying him like some other team will.

--- Chicago Bears CB Jerry Azumah was reduced to the nickel role in 2005. A chronic hip problem appears to have taken a step away from his game as a cornerback and a kick returner. Still, he could start for a lot of teams and will draw interest on the open market. He doesn't seem to be the kind of player the 49ers would consider giving big money to.

--- New York Giants CB Will Allen had an erratic season, missing six sure interceptions (he wound up with zero), and he didn't cover all that well. He'll probably end up with another team in free agency, but it's not likely it will be the 49ers.

--- San Diego Chargers CB Jamar Fletcher beat out Sammy Davis, a former first-round pick, for the nickel role. The Chargers would like to keep him in San Diego, but they are not offering enough and Fletcher believes he can make more on the market.

--- Carolina Panthers CB Ricky Manning Jr. had a stellar season as a nickel back and will likely earn a big contract from another team that offers him a chance to be an every-down player. Manning had been a starter before the arrival of Ken Lucas this past off-season. He's a young player with potential that the 49ers may consider, but he's on the small side and the 49ers won't break the bank to sign him.

--- Pittsburgh Steelers CB Deshea Townsend is one of several free agents the Super Bowl champions have on the roster. He's considered a priority for the Steelers, but '05 No. 2 pick Bryant McFadden could push him to nickel back, which means he could be testing free agency.

--- Jacksonville Jaguars CB Terry Cousin is an adequate nickel back. He spent three seasons (1997-99) with the Bears to start his career. The 49ers would be looking for more than an adequate nickel back in free agency, as Nolan says the team will spend money on the open market only on players who can come in and be starters.

--- The Minnesota Vikings placed the transition take on CB Brian Williams, who replaced Fred Smoot as a starter when Smoot broke his collarbone in early November. Although Smoot was able to return after missing four games, he could not regain his starting spot. Williams would have been an unrestricted free agent this offseason, but the transition tag takes him off the 49ers' radar as long as it remains attached to him.

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