Nolan: 'For us, free agency is not a sprint'

With free agency set to begin March 2, the 49ers have the wherewithal to be a big player on the market for the first time in many years.

Coach Mike Nolan and personnel chief Scot McCloughan spent their first two seasons with the 49ers making sure to get the team's salary-cap problems under control. Now, they head into free agency in good shape to make a play for some of the league's top players.

Two players the 49ers are certain to pursue are Ravens linebacker Adalius Thomas and Bills cornerback Nate Clements.

Thomas is the kind of outside linebacker that Nolan has been looking to plug into his 3-4 defense. Thomas recorded 11 sacks last season, while the 49ers' sack leader was Brandon Moore with 6.5.

The 49ers were interested in acquiring Clements at the trade deadline last year. But the Bills were demanding a second-round draft pick and did not allow the 49ers an opportunity to negotiate a new deal with Clements before making the trade.

The 49ers have more than $36 million in cap room entering free agency, and McCloughan said he would prefer to spread that money around.

"We're not one player away," McCloughan told MediaNews. "We're a handful of players away. We have to remember that when we address free agency. But you also have to get the best football players, too."

Although the 49ers believe they have jockeyed their way into position to be a playoff contender with a strong offseason, the team also wants to avoid using the same philosophy the 49ers used in the past. They want to have a long-term view as they build the team. Therefore, they might be reluctant to pay close to $20 million of guaranteed money for a free agent.

"We're not living for one year," McCloughan said. "We're living for two, three, four years down the line. The overall theme is: get the best players that you can."

The 49ers came away with several players in free agency that contributed to the team's improvement in 2006, even though none of those players was a big-money item.

The 49ers acquired 2007 Pro Bowlers Larry Allen and Walt Harris during the free-agency process, and also acquired wide receivers Antonio Bryant and Bryan Gilmore, fullback Moran Norris, linebacker T.J. Slaughter, safeties Mark Roman and Chad Williams and No. 3 quarterback Shaun Hill as free agents.

All things considered, the 49ers did very well with the money they had to spend. They hope to do even better this time around.

"For us, free agency is not a sprint nor is it a marathon," Nolan said Saturday from the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. "Last year we were able to benefit at the beginning, in the middle, and late. Two players that we got in the middle and late were Larry Allen and Walt Harris. Both of them made it to the Pro Bowl. So whether you come out fast doesn't necessarily mean you came out good. It just means you came out fast."

But this year, with the resources they have, the 49ers wouldn't mind coming out fast. Expect San Francisco representatives to be on the phone with the agents of Clements, Thomas and several other premier names as soon as the bell rings on the open market at 9 p.m. (PST) next Friday.

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The NFL scouting combine is an invaluable event for teams because it brings together more than 300 of the top prospects for the draft. But the 49ers try not to get too carried away with how a player performs at the event.

Instead, McCloughan said the value in the event is from a medical perspective.

"The biggest thing we use the combine for is the medical portion," McCloughan said. "Every team brings their trainers and their doctors and the players are given thorough physicals.

"Any past problems a guy had will put him on the list for additional X-rays and MRIs, so that we can get a solid feel for a guy's health. You invest a lot of money, especially on your first and second-round picks and teams want to know exactly what they are buying. So for us, that's the most important element of the combine."

The 49ers use a rating system in which a player with no medical problems will be assigned a seven. A player who is considered a medical risk might get a three, and anything lower is likely to mean that the 49ers will not draft him.

Two years ago, the 49ers checked out running back Frank Gore and gave him a five. His two severe knee injuries at the University of Miami scared some teams off, but the 49ers selected him early in the third round with the No. 65 overall pick. Gore set a team record this past season with 1,695 rushing yards.

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Of course, the 49ers also get a lot out of the combine as far as gauging the physical capabilities of the top prospects.

The Niners already had a good idea about what tight end Vernon Davis could do before the combine, but he certainly accentuated his stock with his standout showing at the event.

"We thought he was a good player going into the Combine," Nolan said Saturday at this year's event. "He reinforced his athleticism, his speed, his strength, his work ethic, his passion, his competitiveness - he solidified a lot of that here."

The 49ers then used the No. 6 overall selection in the first round of the 2006 draft to select Davis, who became an immediate starter as a rookie.

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Receiver C.J. Brewer, who spent the past season on the 49ers' practice squad, was a first-round draft pick of the Rhein Fire of NFL Europa. Brewer will be joined on the Fire by three 49ers teammates who were allocated to the spring league -- offensive tackle Tavares Washington and safety Jermaine Hardy.

Safety Vickiel Vaughn, a seventh-round pick of the 49ers last year who spent the entire season on injured reserve, was a first-round pick of Frankfurt. Receiver Marcus Maxwell, a two-year practice squad player for the 49ers, was assigned to Hamburg.

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Four players who ended the season on the 49ers' roster are taking advantage of the league's NFL business management and entrepreneurial program. Linebacker Jay Foreman and fullback Chris Hetherington will attend Harvard Business School.

Cornerback Donald Strickland will attend Stanford Graduate School of Business, and tight end Eric Johnson will go to Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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