Should he stay or should he go? Anthony Adams

NFL free agency begins in three weeks, and SFI editor in chief Craig Massei takes a one-by-one look at some of the 49ers who are scheduled to become free agents when the new NFL season begins in March, analyzing which players San Francisco should attempt to bring back and which players the team should let go. Today: The case of defensive lineman Anthony Adams, who's a tough call for the 49ers.

Adams is a tough call because he's in the mold of the good-character, tough-nosed, hard-working players the Mike Nolan regime is looking to build around.

The problem is that Adams isn't exactly the optimum-sized building block the 49ers have in mind for the middle of their rebuilding defense, an area of the team that perhaps needs the most work and offseason attention.

At 5-foot-11 and 297 pounds, Adams offers a unique type of interior lineman with his compact built and quickness off the ball. Those attributes allowed the 2003 second-round draft pick to take over as a regular starting defensive tackle for the 49ers in his second season despite his size limitations. He started all 16 games at nose tackle in 2005 - also occasionally shifting outside to end in San Francisco's defensive-line rotation - using leverage and technique to hold his own in the trenches and finishing with a career-high 2.5 sacks.

But if Adams didn't shoot his gap just right, he could be taken out of plays and blown off the ball. Even with the 49ers playing more standard 4-3 sets than 3-4, Adams just did not possess the bulk needed to play on the nose in the schemes preferred by defensive guru Nolan. Despite his quickness and ability to beat slower offensive linemen off the ball, Adams has difficulty absorbing blockers and he was in on only 34 tackles in 2005 despite starting the entire season - the lowest figure among the team's starting defensive linemen.

After starting 21 consecutive games for the 49ers, Adams finally lost his starting role in the middle during October to second-year player Ronnie Fields, who at 6-2 and 310 pounds was much more stout in the middle and better suited to take on blockers. Fields held down the starting role the remainder of the season until breaking his arm during practice in late December and missing the final two games.

In a somewhat telling move, the 49ers opted to replace Fields not with Adams, but with bulky but inconsistent 332-pounder Isaac Sopoaga, the heaviest man on the team. Sopoaga's play is characterized by its up-and-down fluctuations, but his size alone made him a better fit for the system the 49ers want to play.

Still, even though Adams was a reserve the remainder of the season and also was inactive two games in December due to injury, he remained a contributor in San Francisco's defensive line rotation and will have some value as a free-agent-to-be on the open market. His versatility to slide out to end will be attractive to some teams and, as former NFL scout Russ Lande told SFI during last season, Adams has the capability to start for teams that run a defensive scheme to which his skills are better suited.

Here's what Lande, now a draft analyst and author of the annual publication "GM Jr's Guide to the NFL Draft," had to say about Adams

"Anthony Adams is talented, athletic and competitive - he has what you want in those areas, but the problem is that he's a short guy at 5-foot-11 and change," Lande said. "And no matter how well you play, if you are short, offensive linemen can wrap you up - they can literally engulf you - and I think that is part of the problem he's run into.

"For an athlete," Lande continued, "he is phenomenal, but I just wonder if he is best suited in a defense where his job is just to shoot gaps, get into the backfield and disrupt plays, not as a fireplug where he has to hold the point of attack. He is small already, and then when you ask him to stay home and take on and hold the point of attack, that's hard for a guy like him. I think he is better running to the ball. He could be a starter in the right scheme, but he is not a guy that every team that plays the right scheme would be pounding down his door to sign him. He is a guy who would probably be overlooked, sign somewhere and all of a sudden he's starting."

We couldn't have said it better about Adams, who is the kind of veteran still in his prime that the 49ers wouldn't mind keeping around in a reserve role.

THE VERDICT: But all things considered, the 49ers should decline to make Adams an offer, even though he probably would return to San Francisco relatively cheaply. Adams wants to remain a 49er, but the Niners simply wouldn't be getting better along the defensive line if they bring him back, and that's something San Francisco really needs to do. Despite his attributes, Adams is limited by his size in the scheme the 49ers want to play, and he simply doesn't fit into the team's defensive plans as San Francisco moves closer to a true 3-4 scheme this year and in the future. The 49ers are likely to draft a bigger defensive lineman who can immediately take Adams' place in the D-line rotation, and there also are more than a dozen veterans who will be available as free agents in March who could fit the system the 49ers intend to use better than Adams. AA, as he's affectionately known around the locker room, is a great guy and good 49er, but he'd probably be better off continuing his career elsewhere, and it doesn't make much sense for San Francisco to make him an offer to remain with the team.


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