S.F. focused on Okeafor in free agency?

The NFL free agency period begins today, and Niners general manager Terry Donahue says, "we are not going to be real active in the free agent market." At the same time, Donahue says, "Our philosophy has always been to hang on to our own players. We would much rather spend the cash and cap room that we have on retaining our own players." You can be sure that sounds like music to the ears of Chike Okeafor, who could benefit greatly from that philosophy.

Okeafor, who came into his own in his fourth NFL season last year as the team's starting left defensive end, was second on the team with a career-high six sacks in his first season as a full-time starter.

He is the only returning starter on the team who is an unrestricted free agent, which makes Okeafor free to negotiate with any other team without the 49ers receiving compensation should he decide to depart. The Niners would like to retain Okeafor and keep their young, rising defense intact.

The Niners had several top players become unrestricted free agents last year, and they were able to retain virtually all of the players they targeted, including Pro Bowl center Jeremy Newberry and starting running backs Garrison Hearst and Fred Beasley. Newberry and Hearst both signed $20 million deals.

This year, the Niners are in better financial shape regarding the cap, but Okeafor is their only free agent who is in line for a big-money contract.

"We have had conversations with Chike's agent," Donahue said. "We have expressed with him that we would like to have Chike return to the team. He expressed to us that Chike likes it here and would like to be on this team if we can work it out."

Still, the Niners don't seem inclined to break the bank for Okeafor, who has potential and upside but still is not in the category of the proven players who got big money from the team last year.

But there are not a lot of quality defensive ends on the market this year, which means it might be a seller's market for Okeafor.

"He wants to go out and test the free-agent market," Donahue said. "It is part of the process. We understand that and he is going to test the water and compare offers between teams and ultimately decide where to go based on the financial structure of the deal and where he will be happy."

Donahue expressed the Niners will attempt to make Okeafor happy without him changing working addresses.

"I have no reason to believe that we won't be in the competition for Chike," he said. "I don't know where the market will be or where it will eventually end up. We will have to see."


Niners Digest Top Stories