Fixing the 49ers: Defense and specialists
"We've never been a team that has been built around the big, quick fix," Nolan reiterated a few days after his second team with the 49ers finished 7-9, a three-game improvement over the 4-12 finish produced in his first season as a NFL head coach. "Obviously, we are just finishing our second year and going into our third, and I think we are getting beyond that, which is important." "At the same time," Nolan continued, "some people look for a quick fix in free agency, some people look for a quick fix in the draft, and that will remain to not be our motto, or the way we do things." Nolan's motto and method of operation is to take the steady, shrewd, comprehensive approach to building the 49ers into a contender, and during the first two years of his regime the team has taken numerous steps in that direction. Now the time has come to take the final steps. With $38.5 million in space underneath the NFL's 2007 salary cap to go bidding for top veteran talent in free agency, and an expected eight selections in the first four rounds of the April draft, the 49ers have plenty of resources to fill holes in their lineup that are necessary to get the team back in the playoffs. Here, SFI goes through the 49ers roster and gives suggestions at what the team should do at each position to improve itself in 2007 - even if that means doing nothing at all. Today: Defense and specialists DEFENSIVE LINE In analyzing the 49ers' offense on Thursday, we indicated that San Francisco's No. 1 offseason priority should be upgrading at receiver with a true No. 1-caliber talent. OK, we meant to say that No. 1 priority should be somebody that can put the heat on opposing quarterbacks as an edge pass rusher. Be it a defensive end or an outside linebacker, the 49ers have to bring in somebody who will be feared by opponents for their ability to get to the quarterback. And they have to be willing to spend the money it will take to get him. The best option would be to bring in a premier free-agent defensive end such as Dwight Freeney (Colts) - who will command big bucks as one of the top players available in free agency, regardless of position - or ends like Charles Grant (Saints), Cory Redding (Lions) and Patrick Kerney (Falcons), who will come cheaper but may be just as valuable to the 49ers. The 49ers also are sure to pluck one or more prospects out of the draft to compete for playing time here, and they also will look for a big nose tackle to plug the middle and challenge the incumbents who already reside there - players from whom the team would like to get more production. The 49ers don't figure to bring back unrestricted free agent Anthony Adams, who doesn't really fit their scheme, and he's a contributing player who will have to be replaced. Tackle Alan Branch (Michigan) and ends Gaines Adams (Clemson), Quentin Moses (Georgia) and Lamarr Woodley (Michigan) are all possibilities for San Francisco's first-round draft pick. If stalwart Bryant Young opts to retire instead of return for a 14th season with the 49ers, grabbing one of the free agents or draft picks listed above becomes even more essential. LINEBACKERS The 49ers could use several of their mid-round draft picks on linebackers, and they also should make a big-money push for linebackers Adalius Thomas (Ravens) and Lance Briggs (Bears), two of the top defenders available in free agency this year. San Francisco needs to upgrade at linebacker, the heart and soul of its preferred 3-4 scheme, and the team needs to do it both on the inside and on the outside. After giving Jeff Ulbrich a contract extension in 2005 and Derek Smith a lucrative deal in 2006 free agency, the 49ers felt they were in good shape at middle linebacker. But both players had average-to-mediocre seasons last year, raising the question whether San Francisco must now upgrade at their positions. Luckily for the 49ers, they also signed Brandon Moore to a long-term deal in free agency last year, and he blossomed into a standout, well-rounded playmaker after taking Ulbrich's starting job at midseason. Moore now will anchor this unit, which has another playmaker developing on the outside in 2006 first-rounder Manny Lawson. But the 49ers must add talent at one of the other positions, and it would be ideal if that could be their big score in 2007 free agency, landing a prize such as Thomas, who has a history with Nolan going back to their days together in Baltimore. SECONDARY The 49ers landed cornerback Walt Harris on the cheap in free agency last year, and he repaid them with a marvelous, All-Pro-level season, but the team certainly shouldn't be of the mindset that upgrading the position no longer is an immediate priority. It is. And top-tier free agents such as Nate Clements (Bills) and Asante Samuel (Patriots) should be bulls-eye targets for the 49ers during the offseason. They need a third quality cornerback to throw into the mix with Harris and Shawntae Spencer, and then San Francisco would finally be onto something at one of the game's most volatile positions. The 49ers also could look to the draft for that guy, but everybody knows impact cornerbacks are difficult to find outside of the first two rounds. The 49ers also need to take a look at bringing in another safety, though the team got a whole lot better at that position once Mark Roman and Keith Lewis entered the starting lineup. Tendering Lewis an offer as a restricted free agent is a no-brainer, and adding a late first day/early second day draft pick to compete with those guys looks like a winning plan from this vantage point. Holdover free agents Mike Adams and Chad Williams should be offered contracts to return because they are hard-working, team-first players who compete, but both are backup types who can be replaced elsewhere in free agency or through the draft. SPECIALISTS The work already is done here. The 49ers fixed their situation at kicker last year when they signed Joe Nedney to a four-year deal. Punter Andy Lee and long-snapper Brian Jennings continue to prosper in their roles, and restricted free agent Lee without question should be tendered an offer to return. The 49ers might want to think about locking up Lee for a few years for a fair price with a contract extension. Brandon Williams was a disappointment as a return man in 2006, but he's sure-handed and started to come on at the end of the season. Since he cost the team a third-round draft pick, Williams should be given another shot to fulfill the potential the 49ers thought they saw when they drafted him. Hicks, after adding five yards to his previous career average on kickoff returns in 2006, is a keeper in that role and should be tendered as a restricted free agent, if for nothing else than that talent alone.
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