Niners need to pay the price to keep Sopoaga

The status of Isaac Sopoaga presents an interesting situation for the 49ers. He's no star. Some might even say, since joining the team in 2004, he has been a disappointment. But not last year. The Samoan strongman blossomed in 2007 as a force in the defensive interior, which will make him a hot commodity on the open market this year, if he gets there. Should the 49ers pay to make sure he doesn't?

The team has a few more days to decide before Sopoaga might distance himself from San Francisco's price range. That's right. Sopoaga - who has all of eight career starts in four NFL seasons - is headed for an attractive payday, possibly by the end of this week, because he can become an unrestricted free agent when the clock strikes midnight Feb. 29 in a year where quality defensive tackles are few and far between on the open market.

Two of the best already have been taken off the market. Tennessee's Albert Haynesworth and Green Bay's Corey Williams already have been slapped with the franchise tag by their respective teams. The 49ers ostensibly would have been interested in either, but now they are untouchable.

That leaves Sopoaga, whose best NFL days surely are ahead of him, as one of the most attractive options for a team needing a big, beefy roadblock along its defensive interior to clog traffic and occasionally push up the street at opposing quarterbacks.

The 49ers, most definitely, are one of those teams. But they have to consider: Is the still-developing Sopoaga worth a handsome payday? Or would the money that would go to him be better spent elsewhere? It's a dilemma the team must clear up quickly.

Sopoaga makes it clear where he'd like to be in 2008.

"I don't know about free agency, but I feel like I definitely want to be back here with the 49ers," he said. "I would love to be back. With that situation, I'll just leave it up to my agent and we'll go from there."

Sopoaga's agent, Ken Zuckerman, said earlier this week the 49ers have yet to submit a formal offer to his client, but he's expecting activity to pick up significantly in that regard over the next few days. In fact, those negotiations could be going on this very moment.

But Zuckerman knows he has leverage. If the 49ers don't come up with a reasonable offer - at least from the Zuckerman/Sopoaga vantage point - the agent could have his client on an airplane Friday to seek new riches elsewhere.

That is to say, Sopoaga has options. And he will get offers.

Sopoaga is rated as one of the top defensive tackles available this year among a tepid group on the open market, and at age 26, he's the youngest of the top candidates. He also might be among those with the most potential. Or do names such as Darwin Walker, Chuck Darby, Brian Young, Ian Scott and William Joseph get you excited?

After a slow start to his career, Sopoaga in 2007 displayed that he could be a force in the defensive trenches as the light finally went on as far as him following his assignments and performing his role within the scheme.

The guy is an ox. At 6-foot-2 and 325 pounds, Sopoaga is one of the strongest players in the NFL. Nobody is going to push him around. And now that he knows where to be when opponents are attempting to push, he can be a formidable cog in the trenches.

But by paying Sopoaga like a starter - which is the kind of payday he has coming to him - the 49ers are essentially betting on the come and the hope that Sopoaga will continue to progress and become a productive cog in their defensive interior.

But as it stands today - at this very moment - Sopoaga isn't even a starter. He is second on the team's depth chart at nose tackle behind Aubrayo Franklin, who doesn't possess some of Sopoaga's assets but is a more experienced player who also was a more consistent player at the position in 2007.

The intriguing thing about Sopoaga is that he has enough athleticism to move out to end in the team's 3-4 scheme, which may be a place where he could thrive and give the team a dimension - size- and strength-wise, at least - that it hasn't had at the position since Mike Nolan arrived in 2005.

Nose tackle or end? "It doesn't matter to me," Sopoaga said. "I'm more comfortable at either one, the nose or the end. It's just a matter of how I play it, and which is more better for me, so that I can have more (playing time). I can play both."

But where does he think his future lies? "I really think nose," Sopoaga said. "It's just that I love that hard work and taking on those double-teams and triple teams. That's nothing new to me."

And so, finally, it isn't. Sopoaga - as raw a prospect as you can get when he arrived in 2004 - finally is getting it. The 49ers have put time and effort into developing Sopoaga over the years, and it would be a sorry sight to see him leave and then flourish for another team elsewhere.

But that's not the bottom line, which is this: The 49ers - especially after losing stalwart Bryant Young to retirement and potentially losing Marques Douglas on the open market too in the upcoming month - have a big need for a player just like Sopoaga.

They still have him for the next few days. That's an arrangement the team needs to extend during that time frame, because the price for Sopoaga's services certainly is going up - possibly way up - after that.


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