Niners' safety search headed for free agency?

The 49ers' safety search of 2005 began with a well-intended plan of converting rangy Mike Rumph from cornerback to pair with Tony Parrish. That plan ended in early failure, and by the time the season finally ended for an injury-ravaged secondary, the 49ers were down to rookie Ben Emanuel and second-year pro Keith Lewis as their starting safeties. Parrish returns in 2006, but a top-flight safety to join him cries out as one of San Francisco's biggest needs, with FA perhaps the place to fill it.

Adding a starting-caliber defensive back – whether it be a cornerback or a safety – is one of the 49ers' top priorities in free agency, and it's an area on which the team will focus big money if the right player is available.

Before Parrish broke his leg in Week 10 at Chicago – ending his string of 121 consecutive regular-season starts to begin his career – the safety position actually was beginning to shape up well for the 49ers after speedy second-year player Mike Adams was moved from nickel back to free safety.

The 49ers may be content to go with the Parrish-Adams combo at safety again in 2006 if the team can't find a better option to pair with Parrish than Adams, who is a promising young player but appears better suited to cornerback and the role as nickel back.

Emanuel and Lewis both return, and each figures in the team's plans, but the 49ers would rather depend on them as backup safeties and special teams anchors rather than starters in the secondary.

That leaves an opening at safety that could be filled in the draft or free agency, where a collection of quality names will be available. Here's a look at what beat writers around the league think about the safeties they cover that are scheduled for free agency, along with a look at some of the recent cuts at the position.

--- St. Louis Rams SS Adam Archuleta did not have his best season in 2005, but he is a rock-solid option and still a young player who is on the rise. He's not suited for free safety, however, which means the 49ers aren't likely to show much interest.

--- Pittsburgh Steelers S Chris Hope is a priority for the world champions. No formal offer has been made, but keeping the two-year starter off the open market is the game plan. Hope will attract attention from several teams if he does hit the open market.

--- Minnesota Vikings SS Corey Chavous is an unrestricted free agent and is almost certain to walk away. Unhappy with his contract entering the season, he had two interceptions, and he took the nameplate off his locker before leaving Winter Park after the season.

--- Miami Dolphins FS Lance Schulters, an unrestricted free agent, is looking to cash in after being a bargain with a $665,000 base salary in 2005. The 49ers found themselves in the same situation with Schulters before he left the team in 2001. He might be interested in returning under a new regime, and he's versatile enough to shine at free safety. But there is a question of whether his skills are in decline, and he doesn't appear to be the type of player the Niners are looking for to fill the position.

--- Tennessee Titans SS Tank Williams was not himself after an ACL reconstruction, though the team felt he improved at the end. He is heading for unrestricted free agency and should only be back at an inexpensive price.

--- Baltimore Ravens S Will Demps' season ended with a knee injury. It's uncertain whether the Ravens will re-sign him. If not, the 49ers will have interest – as they did in Demps last year – because of his previous association with Mike Nolan. Demps, however, is now damaged goods, which may greatly reduce San Francisco's inclination to give him any serious consideration. But if his knee checks out, the Niners could come calling.

--- Tampa Bay Buccaneers S Dexter Jackson, the former Super Bowl MVP, is a free agent, leaving the starting free safety spot open for Will Allen next season. The 49ers may have interest at the right price.

--- New England Patriots S Artrell Hawkins, a veteran cornerback who converted to strong safety after signing in mid-November, filled in well for injured Rodney Harrison. He's doesn't have ideal size (5-foot-10, 190 pounds) and really played the position like an extra cornerback. Hawkins is a free agent and signing him will likely be a priority.

--- Oakland Raiders S Jarrod Cooper was pressed into full-time action at safety because of injuries and had some good moments, although his strength is as a core special teams player who can play safety as a reserve. Cooper, an unrestricted free agent, has stated his desire to return.

--- Raiders S Reggie Tongue was signed Nov. 2, and his defensive role was increasing quickly, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury and was placed on injured reserve Nov. 29. He is an unrestricted free agent.

--- Russell Stuvaints, recently released by the Steelers, is a special teams type/project player.

--- Mike Logan, also recently released by the Steelers, is an adequate run and pass defender and has the ability to help a team as a depth player. He should not be deemed a serious starting quality safety, but can step in and fill a gap in the short term.

--- Lawyer Milloy, recently released by Buffalo in a cap-cutting move, is not the dominant defensive back he once was, but he still can play the game at a high level and provides a great deal of experience. Over the years, Milloy has lost a step and may not cover as much ground, but he makes up for this due to his ability to be in position. Any team looking for a safety for a couple years will seriously consider this former Bills and New England Patriots standout. Milloy is on the 49ers' radar at the right price, but – much like Schulters – he might not be seriously considered if the 49ers would rather look for a younger player who can grow with the team.

--- Tebucky Jones, recently released by Miami, has never played to the level expected when he was a first-round draft selection. Poor fundamentals and a lack of urgency leaves Jones on the sideline.

--- Marcus Coleman, recently released by Houston, was starting for the Texans until he violated team rules and fell out of favor with the coaching staff. Coleman still has the ability to be a serviceable safety if above average talent surrounds him in the defensive backfield, due to questionable pass coverage skills at this point in his career.

--- Brent Alexander, recently let go by the Giants, is considering retirement and coming off a poor season with New York. Alexander appears to have nothing left and won't be considered by the 49ers if he does decide to keep playing.

--- Oliver Celestin, recently released by the Jets, is a reserve player with potential. He's a definite special teams player who will play on Sunday somewhere in the 2006 season, but the 49ers are looking for starters in free agency.

--- Jerry Wilson, released by the Chargers, is a step slow, average at best in coverage, and will not intimidate a receiver. His days as a starter in the NFL appear over. At best, he's now a backup and special teams type contributor.

--- Derek Pagel, recently cut by the Cowboys, is strictly a special teams-type player.

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