FA finds leave 49ers no longer on defensive

The 49ers approached the offseason expecting to use their $30 million-plus salary-cap cushion and their draft to upgrade the defense. After five days of free agency, the 49ers signed four potential starters on defense. Now, vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan says the 49ers do not need to be as determined to draft solely for defense.

"It doesn't change our approach, but it makes me feel better about knowing we can still take the best player, which is huge, huge, huge," McCloughan said.

The 49ers signed cornerback Nate Clements, safety Michael Lewis, nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin and linebacker Tully Banta-Cain. Each of those players should be reaching their prime as players, McCloughan said.

"We were able to add five relatively young players and all five are healthy. We feel they have three or four of their best football years ahead of them," he said.

The 49ers wanted to make a dramatic overhaul on defense. The team expected to add five to seven new starters on defense, and after free agency they are already almost there. The 49ers expect to have eight draft picks in the first four rounds, including two possible compensatory selections. McCloughan said the team could end up with anywhere from one to three defensive starters in the draft.

And the 49ers will not ignore the offensive side of the ball, either. The 49ers have put a lot of emphasis in drafting offensive players in the first two years of the McCloughan-Mike Nolan partnership. With the No. 11 overall pick, the 49ers could take a wide receiver or perhaps even go with an offensive lineman.

"We have the luxury of taking the best football player early and that will give us depth," McCloughan said. "And it doesn't put pressure on him to go out and have to start day one. Let him go out and understand how to be an NFL football player.

"If he's starting Week 1, great; Week 5, great; if it's Week 10, great. We have some veterans who are near the ends of their careers, like Bryant Young and Walt Harris, and we can't wait until they're gone before we replenish those positions. You've got to think a year or two ahead."

Young signed a one-year contract on the eve of free agency to return for a 14th NFL season. The 49ers want to reduce Young's playing time this season to make him part of a rotation as the 49ers go with a 3-4 defense. Young was forced to play more snaps in 2006 than he or the team wanted because the 49ers lacked sufficient depth.

Harris, entering his 12th season, is coming off a Pro Bowl season. The 49ers awarded him a two-year contract extension. Although he seems to be getting better, the 49ers have to continue to build depth at cornerback because Harris will turn 33 before the start of the regular season.

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Since taking over for his brother-in-law as the 49ers' top decision-maker, owner John York has had to fight the perception that he was a skinflint. That reputation might be outdated.

After two years of shrewd salary-cap management, the 49ers entered free agency more than $30 million under the cap. And with the backing of the owner, the 49ers struck big in the first five days of free agency, signing five potential starters and committing nearly $40 million in guaranteed money to acquire them.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for McCloughan, who admits that the only reason the club made such a big splash in free agency was because of a roster lacking in quality from top to bottom.

"This is the last time you'll see this many guys signed or I won't be here," McCloughan said.

Under the direction of former owner Eddie DeBartolo, the 49ers were rarely outspent. But the 49ers have generally spent in the lower half of teams in the league since York started running the team on a daily basis in 1999 after DeBartolo was forced to relinquish control due to his involvement in a Louisiana bribery scandal.

For the first time since he became actively involved in the ownership of the 49ers, York spent big bucks to attract free-agent talent.

The 49ers pinpointed 10 free-agent targets just a month into the regular season, and McCloughan said the team landed four of those players: Clements, Lewis, Franklin and Banta-Cain.

"We were approaching this offseason with the hope that we'd get five to seven new starters on defense," McCloughan said. "First of all, you never want to do it again because that mean's you're not as good on that side of the ball as you want to be. But it also means that we had some holes to fill and we feel like we're filling them."

So with four potential starters on defense to fit into the 49ers' new 3-4 scheme, McCloughan and his scouting department turn most of their attention back to the draft. McCloughan said 90 percent of the team's draft board is completed. The 49ers own the No. 11 pick, and expect to have eight selections in the first four rounds after the league announces the distribution of compensatory picks.

The 49ers expect to add a couple more starters via the draft.

The 49ers also added a need position on offense with the signing of Lelie, a player who the team envisions adding a deep element that might supply a big-play potential that makes teams reluctant to sneak their safeties up for support against running back Frank Gore.

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The 49ers did not take long to decide to match the offer sheet to retain punter Andy Lee, a restricted free agent. The Steelers signed Lee to a six-year, $7.1 million deal with $1.66 million guaranteed. The 49ers probably would've gone a little higher in signing Lee to a long-term deal.

"Andy had a nice year for us. We like the development he had," McCloughan said. "We look forward to having that type of player around. We identified guys when we got here and we see him as one of our guys."

Lee ranked seventh in the NFL with a 44.8-yard average in his third NFL season. It was the best season for a 49ers punter since the team moved to windy Candlestick Park in 1971. Lee had nine touchbacks and 22 punts inside the 20.

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When Michael Lewis stepped off the plane on his visit to meet with 49ers officials, he knew he was in the right place. On March 2, when he made his trip, the weather in the San Francisco area was around 70 degrees.

"I did my research and I knew this was going to be a great fit for me," Lewis said. "I got off the flight and it was perfect weather coming from the cold. It is T-shirt and shorts weather so I am excited about that."

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Banta-Cain, a Bay Area native, is getting a chance to return to play for the 49ers. Although he did not view much film of the 49ers prior to signing a three-year contract, he knows that he can assist a lackluster pass rush.

"I have looked at some of the statistical stuff," Banta-Cain said. "It looks like they could use some help in the pass-rush department, getting after the quarterback, and that's one of my strong suits. I felt like that's going to be a difference."

Banta-Cain recorded 5.5 sacks last season while starting five games with the Patriots. He was used for most of his four-year career in pass-rush situations. The 49ers' leader in sacks last season was Brandon Moore, who notched 6.5 sacks.


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