News: The 49ers make an early big-bucks splash in free agency.
Views: The Niners promised to spend some of their salary-cap largesse to attract big-name free agents to help the cause, and that obviously wasn't idle chatter. Considering his age, NFL performance to this point and the premium position which he plays, cornerback Nate Clements arguably is the biggest catch in 2007 free agency - bar none. And that $80 million the 49ers doled out to get him over eight years - $22 million of it guaranteed - reportedly makes him the highest-paid defender in NFL history. Clements is the obvious headliner, but the 49ers also made a lot of smaller deals that also provide significant parts to the overall plan of getting back into the playoffs this season after a four-year hiatus. And as Mike Nolan says, "we plan to continue to be active." Well, they've been pretty active already, and took the initiative to lock up some big names before they had a chance to linger on the open market.
News: The 49ers buy half of a new starting secondary with Clements and safety Michael Lewis.
Views: Let's face it: In the NFL, a good secondary is hard to find. It's also extremely difficult to develop, as the Niners have been displaying vividly since to the early stages of the Steve Mariucci era. Since 1998, the 49ers have ranked 29th or worse in the NFL in passing defense four times - they were 26th last season - and never have finished in the top half of the league in that category during that period. Translation: Talent rules on the edge and deep middle, and there really is no alternative. So the 49ers went out and bought two Pro Bowl talents in Clements and Lewis, each of whom still are entering the prime of their careers. And there will be no messing around - even though Nolan has ranted about "open competition" during his first two seasons with the team, he immediately asserted that Clements and Lewis will be inserted into the starting lineup, no questions asked. As well they should be.
News: A sick position now's looking healthy on the horizon.
Views: It has been almost comical the weak collection of names that have rolled through the cornerback position for the 49ers most of the past decade, few of whom truly have been able to measure up in the NFL passing lanes. But all of a sudden, the 49ers have three starting-quality-or-better cornerbacks on their roster with Clements, 2007 Pro Bowler Walt Harris and the still-yet-to-reach-his-prime Shawntae Spencer. And, after the 49ers showed a lot of class by giving the 32-year-old Harris a two-year contract extension for a job well done in his first season with the team, the 49ers have the entire trio locked up for the next three seasons. And, in the case of Clements and Spencer, much longer. With Clements now manning the prestigious left corner - where all true lockdown corners go to work - the 49ers will have Harris and Spencer battling for the starting position on the right side, with the loser of that contest playing almost as much in nickel and dime coverage packages. That's what you call a significant upgrade, and a position that hasn't been as strong for the 49ers since Eric Davis and Marquez Pope were the regular starting corners, which seems like a long, long time ago.
News: The 49ers also secure some smaller names who could come up big.
Views: Ashlie Lelie. Aubrayo Franklin. Bryan Gilmore. And - this isn't exactly a smaller name here - Bryant Young. While the 49ers were tossing the big bucks at Clements and, to a lesser extent, Lewis, they also were getting a few guys who could help them considerably in positions of need while securing a few veteran talents who already have demonstrated they can help the team in specific roles. Young, of course, is a potential Hall of Famer who has been demonstrating his worth to the 49ers since the day he was drafted in the first round of 1994. It was no slam dunk he'd return to the team for a 14th season - the conditions had to be right. Mostly, Young had to be convinced this wasn't just going to be another treading-water season like 2003, 2004, 2005 or 2006. Young upgrades the 2007 roster by his mere presence alone. And Gilmore also has a place on it, particularly now that the team needs to fill some voids at receiver - the biggest of which was filled by the acquisition of Lelie, who has No. 1 receiver talent if the 49ers can bring it out in him. And Franklin gives the Niners another big-boy body that they need in the middle to make the 3-4 scheme work like it never did in Nolan's first two seasons. Remember that nobody was pumping up the signing of Harris too much when he signed a mid-level deal last year. And look how that turned out for the Niners. Some of these additions could work out just as well.
News: 49ers bite the bullet and release Antonio Bryant.
Views: It's called cutting your losses, so what's the point of waiting any further? The 49ers did the absolute right thing - the only thing, really - by ridding themselves of bad-boy Bryant, even considering that he clearly was the most talented wide receiver on the roster. Bryant had to go, and keeping him around would just delay the inevitable of when that ultimately would happen. It might be going too far to suggest Bryant became a cancer on this team, but - despite the good intentions in his volatile character - he clearly has some personal demons he's unable to fully control, and he did not fit into the team structure envisioned by Nolan. The 49ers couldn't release Bryant until he was reinstated in February from the NFL's reserve/suspended list, and to their credit, they did it sooner rather than later. Bryant's supreme talent will be missed, but nothing else that went along with it will, and - as difficult of a decision as it might have been - the 49ers had to move on. Simply put, they needed more from Bryant than just quality performance for 30 minutes or so on Sundays.
News: Nolan names Jim Hostler as the team's new offensive coordinator.
Views: Some people might be wondering, 'Who is Jim Hostler?' Well, it's a progressive move by Nolan to promote Hostler, the 49ers' erstwhile quarterbacks coach, to run the big show on offense over a few of San Francisco's more-established offensive assistants. We won't try and tell you here that we have a handle on how well Hostler can call a game, but he's a young up-and-comer who deserves a shot and is going to get it in 2007 in what truly will be a critical season for the direction of the San Francisco franchise. In our previous conversations with Hostler, it's evident he knows offense, and also that he knows Alex Smith, which at this stage of the game, may be the most important prerequisite for the team's offensive coordinator. Despite Hostler's youth and inexperience, we like the move, and with a strong support staff around Hostler and the continuity he provides, the San Francisco offense - after three seasons languishing near the bottom of the NFL - now finally can be set up for success.
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