News, views & previews on what's going down
News: 49ers court WR Antonio Bryant, agree in principle on deal to bring free agent to San Francisco. Views: Bryant has been known as something of a problem child in his first two NFL stops, but he is one of the few remaining veterans yet to be snapped up on the open market who possesses the skills to be a No. 1 receiver, though he's yet to attain that status after four seasons as a pro. The former second-round pick still needs nurturing and polish, but he'll get some of the best of both from Niners' WR coach Jerry Sullivan, and Bryant has the kind of defense-stretching speed that San Francisco has been sorely lacking at the receiver position. If he can pass the eyeball test and tough standards of the team's new regime, the feeling is that this talented youngster – who just turned 25 last Thursday – is a solid and intriguing pickup who is on the verge of coming into his own in the NFL and can give the Niners the top target they couldn't have found among any of the remaining free agents. There is some risk involved with this move, considering that Bryant will be counted on heavily to carry the torch on a weak and unproven WR corps, but there also is an opportunity for high reward. Previews: Look for Bryant to be penciled in as the 49ers' new speed-burning starting split end in 2006, and the things he brings to improve San Francisco's offense and, particularly, provide a needed dimension and complement to the players around him in the passing game. News: 49ers trade Brandon Lloyd to Washington Redskins for 2006 third-round draft pick and 2007 fourth-rounder. Views: Losing Lloyd, San Francisco's leading receiver in 2005 and arguably the team's most productive offensive weapon last season, is not a good thing for the 49ers. But that's not to say this deal is a bad thing. Looking long term, this quick-triggered move will be a positive as long as the Niners get a solid return from each of the two picks. Though Lloyd has been a favorite in this space since he joined the team, and he hardly deserved the bad rap he got from several places (including teammates, coaches and the media), the hard truth is that he's never going to be a No. 1 receiver, and receivers lacking dimensions in their game can easily be replaced in the NFL. While Lloyd had solid (not great) hands and an acrobatic ability unmatched by virtually any other player in the league, he could not separate from defensive backs and was not a factor in the middle of the field or blocking downfield. Lloyd was steadily progressing into a quality receiver with the 49ers, but he pretty much has reached the upside of his ability. We liked Lloyd as a solid part for San Francisco's rebuilding project, but the 49ers now can get two of those for one player they were unlikely to re-sign after the 2006 season because of the money he would command. If there wasn't such a weak crop of free-agent receivers available on the open market this year, the 49ers never would have gotten both third- and fourth-round picks for a receiver who hasn't really proved much more than that he can make the highlight-reel catch on a regular basis. The team was correct to jump on the offer. The worst thing about seeing Lloyd leave is that his 11 touchdowns were the most scored by any 49er over the past two seasons. But those are the numbers of a complementary player and not a star performer. Lloyd was expendable, and the 49ers got value in return. Previews: Lloyd, a fourth-round pick in 2003, was immediately replaced in free agency with Bryant, and his departure opens the door again for the two receivers who were drafted high in 2004 to eventually play ahead of him anyway, and the 49ers will continue to look for another veteran to add to the mix. And don't downplay the significance of an extra third-round pick in this year's draft, which is deep in mid-round talent. The 49ers will find a player that will help them there – like they did with RB Frank Gore and OL Adam Snyder with their two third-round picks last year – with another fourth-rounder next year ultimately becoming an added bonus. News: 49ers lose their leading receiver in offseason for third consecutive year. Views: Like Terrell Owens and Cedrick Wilson before him, Lloyd departs the team the year after leading all 49ers wideouts in receptions. But in Lloyd's case, that wasn't saying much. His career-high 48 catches (for 733 yards, a healthy 15.3 average, and team-leading five TDs) were the fewest to lead the 49ers since Freddie Solomon had just 31 as the team's leading receiver in 1978. It was the first time since 1979 that the team's leading receiver had fewer than 60 receptions. Wilson, who led San Francisco wideouts with 47 receptions in 2004, was second on the team that season behind tight end Eric Johnson's 82 receptions. Previews: The 49ers will have a new leading receiver for the fourth consecutive season in 2006. Among the team's returning receivers, only Arnaz Battle has more than seven career NFL receptions. News: 49ers have more than $20 million of cap room after new CBA deal, but they fail to use it to strike quickly in free agency. Views: Contrary to last year, when they identified a target early and then laid out big money for OT Jonas Jennings on the first day of free agency, the 49ers were relatively silent on opening weekend despite having more money to spend than most NFL teams – and the approval to spend it from owner John York. While the 49ers were working out an agreement to secure the services of Bryant, they watched as players that were on their radar – players that would have filled big voids on their roster – were snatched up by other teams. The 49ers had both the will and the money to go after linebackers Will Witherspoon (signed by St. Louis) and Ben Leber (Minnesota), defensive backs Sam Madison (New York Giants) and Brian Williams (Jacksonville) and receiver Joe Jurevicius (Cleveland), but they stood by as other teams made winning plays for those established veterans. Previews: What Nolan says, he usually means – and it's what he usually does. This is how he put it when describing the team's approach in free agency this year: "We will stay involved in free agency from the beginning to the end as far as trying to stay in the hunt for whatever players," the coach said earlier this month. "Whether we sign someone early or not remains to be seen, when there are a lot of discussions that go on between agents and players and teams when it all opens up and it just takes one team to out bid you. If we do not get anyone early, we will continue to stay involved and hopefully add a player that is our kind of guy that will help us, so from beginning to end we'll stay involved but some of it may or may not seem like that just by the opportunity we have to get someone. But we will continue to bring players in and continue throughout the entire process because there are some players that will benefit us to sign later rather than early and I believe that we are all under the consensus here that some of those players will certainly be there at the end." Got it? The 49ers intend to get the help they need in free agency this year, but they're in no rush to overpay anybody early in the process. News: 49ers sign 2005 team co-MVPs Derek Smith and Joe Nedney to long-term contracts. Views: The 49ers locked up Smith before free agency began with a fair but not exorbitant three-year, $14 million contract extension, then signed Nedney to a four-year, $5.6 million deal the day free agency started. Both deals are really old news, because each had been in the works for some time. The 49ers finally raised the stakes high enough to keep Smith – who was headed for a bigger payday had he made it to the open market – and the deal for Nedney shows a commitment to the kicking game that the 49ers haven't displayed in more than a decade. The 49ers have said they've been targeting these veterans for months, and they hit on both targets before either could see what they were worth to other NFL teams. Previews: Both deals are examples of a team opening its checkbook to both reward and keep its top veterans, but not to be overlooked is this sober fact: Now that Smith and Nedney have the fat contracts, they have to keep earning them on the field with the level of play that got them the money. The 49ers have way too little to show for the contracts they have awarded to free agents – both theirs and others on the open market – in recent years. News: The search for a new high-level football executive continues. Views: It's no secret that not having this NFL-experienced individual already in place in the team's hierarchy hurts the 49ers in free agency, where San Francisco could use another NFL sage to work the phones and remain linked to player agents and contacts on other teams throughout the league. The 49ers needed this guy in place yesterday to help them with today and the franchise's tomorrows. The longer they wait, they lose. But this is another instance where the Niners will deliberately take their time to get it right. Previews: Don't expect the search to go on too much longer. The 49ers need to have this new guy entrenched in their system well before the April 29-30 NFL draft. It would be best to have him in place by the end of this month – heck, by the end of this next week. Stay tuned on that one. "We are still looking and we hope to have a decision as soon as we can," York said. "But it needs to be the right person to fit into the whole structure. Mike and I, along with Scot (McCloughan) and others, are still working on that." Just like the 49ers are still working on a lot of things as a new week in the heart of free agency begins.
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