49ers sign top punter, others on minicamp eve

On the eve of their three-day, full-squad spring minicamp, the 49ers signed four undrafted rookie free agents on Thursday who will get a look from the team over the next few months and be given an opportunity to compete for roster berths.

The top name is USC punter Tom Malone, who was one of the nation's top 10 punters in 2005.

Malone is known for his quick release and explosive power and was one of the nation's strongest punters for the two-time defending national champions. He had knee surgery before his senior season and must improve his accuracy and directional skills to make it at the NFL level, but he certainly has enough leg to get the job done.

Malone figures to stick around until the end of the summer and provide training camp competition for incumbent Andy Lee, the team's sixth-round pick in 2004 who has held the job with the 49ers over the past two years. Lee's job does not appear in jeopardy, but Malone is the kind of top prospect who could give Lee a run for his roster spot.

The Niners also signed tall tight end Onye Ibekwe of Long Beach State (6-foot-8, 254 pounds) and offensive tackles Bobby Harris of Mississippi (6-foot-4, 310 pounds) and Tavares Washington of Florida.

Ibekwe is a project who played the past two seasons for Long Beach State's basketball team, though he did not play in the team's final 12 games this year. He is following the recent trend of college basketball players who are attempting to transition into the NFL as receiving tight ends.

Harris was a two-year starter used at both tackle and right guard. He is quick off the snap and is an effective blocker in confined quarters who controls opponents at the point of attack. Considered among the top 40 tackle prospects in the nation this year, Harris has potential to make it at the NFL at either tackle or guard once he learns to play with leverage. He could work his way onto the 49ers' practice squad with an impressive showing in the months to come.

Washington, a junior college transfer that started 10 games at left guard for the Gators last season, is a wide-bodied blocker who is quick off the snap, jolts defenders with a good punch and plays with a nasty streak. He also displayed some development in pass protection last season, but is a raw prospect who lacks good footwork and ability in space. He is a developmental player who must improve his fundamentals of the game, but has the quality size to make it as a NFL backup.


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