49ers free agents hitting the open market

The 49ers made sure quarterback Shaun Hill, defensive lineman Isaac Sopoaga and pass-rushing specialist Roderick Green – each potential unrestricted free agents this year – didn't hit the open market by signing each to multi-year contracts this month, but the team will let the rest of its nine unsigned veterans test the waters in free agency. Here's a look at each and their value to the team.

Just because San Francisco didn't offer new contracts to these players before they could determine their worth as free agents doesn't mean the team isn't still interested in several, at least a few which are sure to be back with the team.

"We've identified our own guys," 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan said Thursday. "We've had discussions with our own guys. The thing which you respect, and this is coming from their agents, they'd like to test the market. I don't blame them.

"But we do want those guys back. We have a value we think they are. We've kind of talked to the agents already about that value, and we'll see what happens."

With the NFL salary cap rising to $116 million this year, the 49ers will have the money to bring back virtually any of these unrestricted free agents that they want. The surely will ask some back, and should and will let others walk.

Here's a review of what these veterans did for 49ers in 2007 and a look forward at the level of interest they should receive on the open market from both other teams and the 49ers, along with SFI's recommendation what the team should do regarding each individual.

Position: Defensive end
2007: Douglas had a career season, and it wasn't just a salary drive, but also a quest for respect by an unheralded player who's not shy in saying he's one of the NFL's best 3-4 defensive ends. Douglas finished fourth on the team and led all San Francisco defensive linemen with 100 tackles, was fourth with three sacks and ranked among the NFL leaders in tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Market interest level: Moderate. While he fits well into a 3-4 scheme, not many NFL teams run that system as their base defense. But Douglas is versatile enough to play both tackle and end in a 4-3 scheme, which increases his value.
49ers' interest level: Considerable. Douglas wants to remain in San Francisco, and the 49ers aren't in a position to let one of their best defenders just walk away.
McCloughan says: "It's one of those things where we told his agent we like the guy, we know what his value is to the team, and once free agency does start, to keep us in mind, let us know where the market is going and we'll see if we want to stay in it."
The verdict: The issue here might be length of contract, since Douglas will be looking for security and the 49ers probably looking for a two-year deal since he turns 31 in March. But the 49ers should make every effort to work out an agreement that keeps Douglas with the team. Now that he's hitting the open market, he should find some takers.

Position: Offensive guard
2007: Smiley had his moments, even if he didn't quite play consistently up to his performance level of 2006. He started the first eight games before his season came to a sudden halt when he dislocated his right shoulder on the 49ers' first offensive series of their Nov. 4 game in Atlanta, an injury that required season-ending surgery.
Market interest level: High. Smiley is considered one of the top young guards available in free agency this year, but his injury history could work against him.
49ers' interest level: Moderate. The 49ers seem to be grooming David Baas and Adam Snyder as their starting guards of the future, and they'll want to pay Smiley at a discount rate if he's to return.
McCloughan says: "For the right price, we would like him to be a 49er. He will test the market, and I don't blame him. You saw what the guards got out there last year. It didn't used to be a highly-paid position, but it has turned into one where you can really take care of yourself."
The verdict: The team's philosophy is that guards can be groomed in-house and aren't big-ticket commodities, which means the 49ers won't make much of an effort to keep this four-year starter from signing with another team if a big offer comes his way, which it may.

Position: Offensive guard
2007: Named again this season by Sports Illustrated as the most intimidating offensive lineman in football, this 11-time Pro Bowler and future Hall of Famer still can clear space in the run game, but his pass blocking leaves something to be desired. He played well enough to be named a Pro Bowl alternate and looks like he could play another season or two.
Market interest level: Low. Allen will be 37 next season, and it's uncertain whether many teams will be interested in a once-great, one-dimensional guard who is reaching the end of the line.
49ers' interest level: Lukewarm
McCloughan says: "Larry is unique. It will be his call. I do not think he will make a decision until close to training camp. He has a value that we think he's worth. If he thinks he's worth more, he will not be a 49er. If he wants to come back and play for us and stick to the price we think he's worth, we'd love to have him back."
The verdict: Allen has served his purpose in San Francisco. It's time for the team to go with younger players, and even if Allen doesn't retire and decides he wants to play another season, the 49ers probably shouldn't offer him a contract for it to be with them. But if Smiley leaves, bringing back Allen could become a viable Plan B.

Position: Cornerback
2007: The fifth-year veteran surprised some by making the final roster, then worked his way onto the field in defensive sub-packages to become a guy who saw a lot of playing time and made plays while he was out there. Finished the season with 33 tackles and five passes defensed while also making significant contributions on special teams.
Market interest level: Lukewarm
49ers' interest level: Moderate
The verdict: Strickland has been a valuable role player and should be asked back on a one- or two-year deal to at least compete again for a roster berth in training camp.

Position: Offensive tackle
2007: After starting 37 consecutive games at tackle for the 49ers over the past three seasons, Harris lost his starting role at right tackle to rookie Joe Staley in training camp and became practically a forgotten man along the offensive line who hardly has played at all.
Market interest level: Moderate. Harris still has the skills to be a competent tackle in this league and there figures to be some takers out there.
49ers' interest level: Low
The verdict: The 49ers showed what they think of Harris this season. He won't be back and shouldn't be back.

Position: Running back/kick returner
2007: As in each of the past three seasons, Hicks was a versatile change-of-pace running back who provided some spark as a kickoff returner and was among the team's top performers on special teams. He was third on the team with 117 yards rushing, producing a 5.6-yard average per carry, and finished with 14 receptions. He also was third on the team with 14 tackles on special teams.
Market interest level: Moderate. Nobody wanted to touch Hicks last year as a restricted free agent because they figured the 49ers would only decide to match an offer sheet. He should get a few feelers on the open market as an unrestricted free agent this year.
49ers' interest level: Low
The verdict: The versatile Hicks can do a lot of things and has been a productive player. But the team doesn't appear inclined to bring him back as it is turning to other free-agent options at running back and kick returner.

Position: Wide receiver
2007: Gilmore lost out to Taylor Jacobs for a roster spot to begin the season, but he was brought back in Week 5 after Jacobs bombed as the team's No. 3 receiver. Like in 2006, he didn't have many receptions but hit some big plays when he did get the ball in his hands. Finished with a 15.9 average on his seven receptions and also contributed on special teams.
Market interest level: Low
49ers' interest level: Lukewarm
The verdict: Gilmore is a solid veteran role player whom the 49ers like, but the team need to get better at his position, not maintain the status quo. And besides, Gilmore likely will be available if the 49ers need to give him another emergency call later in the year.

Position: Return specialist
2007: Lewis was signed at the end of September when Brandon Williams couldn't handle the role of punt returner, but he did not approach the Pro Bowl level of earlier in his career. Finished with a 7.6-yard average on 44 punt returns and returned five kickoffs for a 17.2 average.
Market interest level: Low
49ers' interest level: Low
The verdict: Lewis is better than the player he replaced, but the 49ers need to upgrade at this position, and they appear to already have found his replacement in Allen Rossum.

Position: Quarterback
2007: Was signed to the roster on Dec. 12 because of injuries and started the season finale, completing 13 of 22 passes for 104 yards with an 86.2 passer rating in loss to the Cleveland Browns.
Market interest level: Low
49ers interest level: Low
The verdict: The 49ers should and will look at other options to be their No. 3 quarterback behind Alex Smith and Shaun Hill.

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