Destination 49ers?

Sure, the 49ers have the big bucks to spend in 2007 free agency. But will the top players on the open market be convinced to take the money and run to San Francisco? They will if the guys who've joined the team via that route since Mike Nolan took over have anything to say about it. And those guys probably will, since the 49ers suddenly have appeal as a trendy destination for established veterans.

Those guys could be some of Nolan's best selling points as he tries to get more like them to join the team's playoff-or-bust mission and mentality in the months to come.

A guy like Walt Harris, for instance. In the span of 10 months, Harris has become what the new-and-improved 49ers are all about.

And Harris, who came to the 49ers as a free-agent bargain in 2006, was sold as soon as he saw what San Francisco had to offer when he went shopping as an unrestricted free agent last March.

"I don't know if it was a sales pitch," Harris said about what he saw in the 49ers, a team rebuilding from the bottom up, when he decided to sign a two-year deal to come to San Francisco. "To me it, it was just more personally having a sense of feeling, first of all, seeing what the direction in which the organization is going."

Now, after being part of the 49ers' rise from 4-12 to a 7-9 finish in Year 2 of the Nolan Plan, Harris has proof.

"Sometimes (a team) will do a lot of talking about it, but it's never really there when you get there," Harris said. "But once I got here, I really felt that was the strides in which they were going. This organization is going to win, and we're going to win immediately."

Now, after two years of carefully playing the market, the 49ers can go into the free-agent sweepstakes swinging away this spring. San Francisco will have $40 million-plus in space below the NFL's 2007 salary cap to spend on free agents this year, and don't expect Nolan and his crew to handle that advantageous position casually once the market truly opens on March 2.

Nolan and his subordinates had to be careful during their first two years in San Francisco while getting the 49ers out of the salary-cap muck they inherited and getting the team to the point where it could make a mark in free agency again - which it certainly can do this year with more projected salary-cap surplus than any other NFL team.

Nolan knows better than to dive in recklessly, but he's encouraged the team can take an aggressive approach just when it's at the point of being a contender again. The 49ers will proceed cautiously, but certainly with more resources to attract some big names in areas of vital need.

"Right now, I've been feeling like we're going in with, 'No hold me back,' " Nolan said. "But the reality is, there has to be a little bit of, 'Hold me back,' because if there's not, you go back to where you just did. But there is a lot more, 'Let's push forward' than there is, 'What about this?' "

Now, Nolan said, the 49ers can truly go after players they really want. Even though they got some of those players last year - all things considered , the team got optimum value for the price it paid for a 2006 free-agent class that included Harris, Pro Bowl guard Larry Allen, fullback Moran Norris and receivers Antonio Bryant and Bryan Gilmore, among others - the 49ers had to approach free agency cautiously and with restrictions.

"There were a couple of players that went other places in free agency that we talked extensively about (in 2006)," Nolan said. "We kind of (dragged) our heels on them because we really weren't sure we wanted them or not, but looking back on it, I wished we had gone after a little harder. But we didn't, for a lot of different reasons.

"One was trying to get the cap situation right for the future. The other was compensatory picks, things like that. That all affects your team. There are a lot of things that we've kind of watched over. I would like to think that we've got things in as good an order right now as you could wish for in a short period of two years. I would expect (free agency) to impact our football team a little better than we did last year, when I thought we did a good job."

Now comes the payoff.

And Nolan believes the payoff will be accentuated by virtually anybody on his team that gets asked about the current situation in San Francisco, which had a very dry run on free agents signed in 2003-2004 - the two seasons before Nolan arrived.

The top player acquired by the team in free agency during those two lean years was defensive tackle Travis Kirschke, a journeyman starter. Four of the other six free agents acquired during that span didn't even make the team coming out of training camp and never played a snap for the 49ers after receiving signing bonuses.

Nolan hasn't made those kinds of mistakes since arriving in 2005. Of the 24 free agents signed by the 49ers in the past two years - some of them unrestricted big-money types and several of them cheap street variety - 23 still are on the team's roster today.

Those players and other holdovers will help sell what Nolan and the 49ers have to offer

"I would hope that two things help us," Nolan said. "One, from an outsider, what do you see not knowing anybody on the team? That's the progress we talk about, 4-12 (to) 7-9, the teams we beat, what was at stake. And then coming on board and talking to our players. Believe me, before a player signs with a team, it's the age of the cell phone. They talk to all of them now. They call, they ask, they want to know.

"It's important that your players talk like our players talk. There are a lot of places - you can check them out - where players don't talk like that. They say, 'It's good. We'd love to have you,' because they're thinking, 'We just need to get another good player so we can win.'

"Our guys talk more positively than that. They talk about why it is the way it is and why they feel the way they feel. Everybody from the guy at the top to the guy at the bottom - not 100 percent, but a majority of our guys - sell our program every bit, if not better, than we do."

Take, for example, 13-year veteran quarterback Trent Dilfer, who already has been fielding some of those calls on his cell phone, and expects to get more.

"Yeah, I think I'll get a few," Dilfer said. "I've already been asked by some guys. We've got a good thing going here. This is a very attractive place to be. There's a lot of good things about being a 49er right now. There's a lot of reasons you would want to be a 49er if you're a free agent, and I can see us making some really nice additions."

The process of identifying those new additions - along with identifying whom to bring back among San Francisco's own 11 impending free agents - already has begun.

"The big thing is, we've got work to do," Nolan said. "We need to continue to strengthen ourselves from a personnel standpoint. We'll add the best players we can. If it just creates competition, I'm all for it."

Which is bound to be the same response some attractive free agents have about joining the 49ers.

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