Top Ten Best and Worst 49ers FA Signings

Like many 49ers fans, I too am a bit bummed that so far they've chosen to stay quiet during the free agent swap meet. I mean let's face it: If signing quarterback David Carr is the highlight of your team's March transaction wire, then it might be time to focus your attention on your upcoming NCAA Tournament brackets instead.

Of course, there is a silver lining here. If you think about it, far more bad than good comes from free agency, as history has shown us. When a team ends up making a wise free agent signing - like for example the New Orleans Saints did with QB Drew Brees in 2006 - then everyone looks like a genius. After the 2005 season ended, Brees was a castoff of the San Diego Chargers, who were ready to usher in the Philip Rivers era, and he suffered a career-threatening shoulder injury in a meaningless Week 17 game. Who didn't know back then that he would go on to become a perennial Pro-Bowler and the MVP of Super Bowl XLIV, right? Total no-brainer.

However, when a team acquires the wrong guy (like, oh, just about everyone the Washington Redskins have signed the past decade), then it sets a franchise back in multiple ways. Not only do you get a dud on the field, but you're paying said dud a ridiculous amount of money as well - money that will dent your salary cap in future years and prevent the club for making other moves. Also, some young, developing player who's ready to contribute is in all likelihood rotting away on the bench because his coach feels pressure to play the highly-compensated, non-contributing free agent "savior."

The 49ers have made quite a few smart investments in free agency over the years, especially during the nineties when they were the go-to destination for veterans looking for a final chance at a ring. Eventually, their good fortune caught up with them, and when executives such as Dwight Clark, Terry Donahue and Mike Nolan were allowed to run amuck with personnel matters, well… you know how that turned out.

Here's one man's list of the Top 10 Free Agent Signings and Top 10 Free Agent Busts:

Top 10 Free Agent Signings:

10. Roy Barker, DE 1996-1998 Lost in the fold of the Eddie Debartolo-Carmen Policy spending sprees of the mid-90s, Barker was a little-known defensive end who spent his first four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. He signed a four year, $7M contract with the 49ers and wound up playing in 45 of 48 games and recording 30 sacks and 10 forced fumbles. San Francisco even let him go at the right time as Barker was traded to the Browns after the ‘98 season for salary cap reasons and wound up playing only two more years and finishing with just two more sacks in his career.

9. Joe Nedney, K 2005- Without question, Nolan's best (only?) free agent pickup, Nedney was plucked away from the Tennessee Titans with a one year, $655,000 contract, which was quickly extended another five seasons in 2006. As a 49er he's made 118-of-136 FG (86.8%) and would've likely made a Pro Bowl or two if the offense could've given him more work.

8. Ray Brown, G 1996-2001 Brown was already 34 years old when he was lured away from the Redskins, for whom he had already played six solid but unspectacular seasons. Who would've thought that not only would he last for the duration of his five year, $10M contract with the 49ers, but that he would exceed it by a year? In all Brown started 95 of a possible 96 games for San Francisco and made his only Pro Bowl as a 39-year old in 2001. He would go on to play in the NFL until age 43 and was recently hired by the 49ers as an assistant offensive line coach.

7. Charlie Garner, RB 1999-2000 Prior to signing with the Niners, Garner was thought of as a change-of-pace back, too fragile to handle a full season workload. Signed to a modest two year, $1.44M contract, all Garner did was start all 32 games during the two seasons Garrison Hearst was on the mend and rush for 2,371 rushing yards, at 4.8 yards per carry, and 11 touchdowns, while catching 124 passes, for 1,182 yards, and five more scores. He got a well-deserved Pro Bowl nod in 2000.

6. Jeff Garcia, QB 1999-2003 The second San Jose State Spartan on this list besides Nedney, Garcia was discovered by legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh, who signed him away from the CFL when he took over the team's general manager duties. Garcia was pressed into duty sooner than anyone imagined by QB Steve Young's career-ending concussion, and overcame a rocky start to lead the team to a couple of playoff births and was named to three Pro Bowls. He ended his 49ers career with 16,408 passing yards (including a team record 4,278 in 2000), 113 touchdowns, 56 interceptions, and a 88.3 QB rating, and added another 1,571 yards and 21 touchdowns as a scrambler.

5. Deion Sanders, CB 1994 The ‘94 Niners were obviously loaded with talented players, but Sanders, signed to a one year, 1.3M contract (plus $750K in incentives), was the final piece of Policy's free agent bonanza who gave the team that much-need swagger to beat the back-to-back defending champion Dallas Cowboys. "Prime Time" had six interceptions in 14 games, and returned three of them to the house. He added two more picks during the playoffs for good measure and was named a consensus All-Pro. He only played one season with the Niners before taking the show to Dallas - where he promptly swung the balance of power back in their favor, helping the Cowboys win another Super Bowl in 1995.

4. Ken Norton Jr., LB 1994-2000 The 49ers and Cowboys kept giving each other star defenders left and right. First the Cowboys got DE Charles Haley from San Francisco, then the Niners nabbed Norton from Dallas, and then Dallas got the last laugh with Sanders. Norton started all 112 games in his seven seasons with the 49ers, totaling 695 tackles, 5.5 sacks, and four interceptions. He was named to two Pro Bowls and was an All-Pro in 1995. Not bad for a guy signed to a five year, $8M contract.

3. Chris Doleman, DE 1996-1998 Most defensive ends aren't even in the league at 35 years of age, but that's how old Doleman was when the 49ers signed him away from the Atlanta Falcons with a five year, $12.5M deal. All Doleman did was start all 48 games in three seasons, notching 38 sacks, 11 forced fumbles and even two interceptions. He made the Pro Bowl in 1997, bud oddly not in 1998, despite finishing with 15 sacks that year and adding two more in the playoffs.

2. Garrison Hearst, RB 1997-2003 After spending a miserable 1996 with the doormat Cincinnati Bengals, the 49ers signed Hearst off the scrapheap with a two year, incentive-laden $3.35 contract. He rewarded them with consecutive Pro Bowl years, including a 1998 campaign where he had 1,570 rushing yards (a franchise best until Frank Gore broke it with 1,695 yards in 2006), 39 receptions, 535 receiving yards, and nine touchdowns. A horrific broken ankle in the playoffs that season sidelined him for two years, but Hearst came back to give the Niners two more good years in 2002 and 2003. He finished his 49ers career with 5,535 rushing yards, and 26 touchdowns, with 174 receptions for 1,604 yards and seven more scores.

1. Tim McDonald, SS 1993-1999 The 49ers first major free agent signing was also the best. Tired of playing for a loser in Arizona, McDonald was signed to a five year, $12.5M deal by Policy and wound up starting 111 of 112 games over the next seven seasons, with 20 interceptions and seven sacks. He was named to Pro Bowls from 1993-95 and teamed with fellow safety Merton Hanks, Sanders, and corner Eric Davis to form one of the all-time best secondaries during the 1994 championship season.

Honorable mentions: Kevin Gogan, G, 1997-1998, Bart Oates, C, 1994-1995, Gary Plummer LB 1994-1997, Rickey Jackson DE/LB 1994-1995, Tony Parrish SS 2002-2006

You've seen the Gallants. Here are the Goofuses (Goofi?)…

Top Ten Free Agent Busts:

10. Winfred Tubbs, LB, 1998-2000 A classic example of the perils of free agency. Tubbs made his only Pro Bowl with the Saints in 1997 during his contract year and never approached that level of play again. Signed by Clark to replace an aging Norton in 1998 with a five year, $14.25M deal including a $4M signing bonus, Tubbs was outplayed by Norton and finished with 86, 86, and 82 tackles over the next three seasons, which are pedestrian totals for a starting middle linebacker. Worse, he hardly made any plays, finishing with five sacks and three interceptions before being released in the 2000 off-season.

9. Mark McMillian, CB 1999 Coming off two good seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, the diminutive-yet-plucky McMillian seemed to be a good signing for San Francisco. Said then head coach Steve Mariucci of his new 5'7 corner, "He knows how to play against these receivers and don't let the size fool you." However, McMillian ended up being burnt to a crisp by receivers big and small and was waived six games into a three year contract. To say that Mariucci's opinion of him soured quickly would be an understatement.

8. Nate Clements, CB 2007- It may seem unfair to label a guy who's still on the team as a free agent bust, but Clements was signed by Nolan to an eight year, $80M contract with $22M in guarantees, making him the highest-paid defender in NFL history at the time. For money like that the 49ers didn't expect merely a good corner but a Deion-esque difference-maker. Clements has played in 38 of 48 games since he cashed in and has totaled seven interceptions in that time, with no Pro Bowl trips. Even worse, his play slumped so dramatically last season that he was benched before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. Clements still has time to remove his name from this list, but it's likelier that he'll just sink lower and lower as the years go by.

7. Tully Banta-Cain, LB 2007-2008 The Cal-Berkeley alum was drafted by the New England Patriots and showed some potential as a young pass rusher, but was deemed expendable when they signed free agent LB Adalius Thomas. Nolan swooped on him with a three year, $12.2M deal and quickly grew disenchanted. Banta-Cain registered four sacks total in 28 games over the next two seasons, including just a half sack in 2008. The Patriots re-acquired him after the Niners said good riddance and Banta-Cain got ten sacks in 2009. Of course he did.

6. Ashley Lelie, WR 2007 I'm sensing a theme to this list. Desperate for receiving help, Nolan signed Lelie, a guy who had burned bridges with the Denver Broncos and Falcons already, to a two year, $4.3M bonus. Lelie rewarded his faith with ten receptions for 115 yards and zero touchdowns before being unceremoniously waived. Looking back on it, 2007 was a bit of a rough off-season for the red and gold. At least they drafted Patrick Willis.

5. Antonio Bryant, WR 2006 I'm not trying to dump on Nolan, I swear. He was just, really, really bad at this. Bryant, a receiver with a checkered past, had a thousand yard season for the Cleveland Browns in 2005 and parlayed it into a four year, $14M contract from the Niners. Everything started well, as he had two straight 100-yard games, but he wouldn't repeat the feat the rest of the year. Worse, Bryant clashed with both Nolan and QB Alex Smith and he got arrested for reckless driving, driving under the influence and resisting arrest, earning himself a four game suspension and forcing him to miss the final two games of the season. Bryant finished with 40 grabs for 733 yards and three touchdowns, and the Niners washed their hands of him in the off-season.

4. Jonas Jennings, T 2005-2008 Of all of Nolan's personnel blunders, his first free agent splash was also his biggest failure, kind of like the McDonald signing, but the complete opposite. Jennings was given a seven year, $36M contract with $12M in guarantees. He played in just 23 games over the next four seasons, as chronic shoulder and ankle injuries forced him to the sidelines. The man signed to protect Smith's blind side couldn't be relied on and as a consequence Smith too hurt his shoulder.

3. Lawrence Phillips, RB 1999 The sixth overall pick of the 1996 by the St. Louis Rams, Phillips quickly showed that he was too immature and unstable to last in the NFL. He cleaned up his act for a bit over in Barcelona and was signed as a reclamation project by Walsh. Bad idea. Phillips ran for 102 of his 144 rushing yards on the season in one game, a Monday nighter at Arizona, and it was during that same game that his missed blocking assignment directly resulted in a career-ending concussion of Young. Phillips showed little remorse afterward, laughing the incident off, and was suspended by the team after eight games. His post-NFL activities are well documented.

2. Antonio Langham, CB 1998 Give Clark this much: When he does something, he goes all out. The best play of his NFL career? Maybe your heard about it. Unfortunately, as a GM, he lived on the other end of the spectrum. For some reason he signed Langham, a nondescript corner with the Baltimore Ravens, to a five year, $17M contract with a $3.5M signing bonus. Langham was torched so consistently that the team gave up on him after 11 games, exposing him to the Browns in the expansion draft – where Clark gladly took him on as the Browns new general manager.

1. Gabe Wilkins, DE 1998-1999 Remarkably, Langham was only Clark's second worst signing that year. He gave Wilkins, a man who'd been a starter for just one season since being drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 1994, to a mind-boggling five year, $20M contract with a $4.5M signing bonus. He might as well have set DeBartolo's house on fire. Wilkins played in 20 games over two seasons, finishing with one sack for every 20 million dollars the Niners paid him. It's okay Dwight, we'll always have "The Catch." Nolan never caught anything, except well-deserved grief from the fans and media.

Dishonorable mentions: Adrian Cooper TE 1996, Richard Dent DE 1994, Charles Mann DE 1994, Marquez Pope CB 1995-1998, Rod Woodson CB 1997.


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