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Free Agency Run Down - By Bryan Hersh March 2 2008

THIS CONTENT IS COPYWRITED, REDISTRIBUTION OF IT (including copy/pasting it to a message board, forum or bbs) IS PROHIBITED AND COULD RESULT IN LEGAL ACTIONS - feel free to quote up to 1 paragraph providing a source link to http://www.49ersparadise.com is included

Regular readers will know that I've been stretched a little thin lately trying to fix some email difficulties (only about 5000 more emails to salvage), and with producing the NEW 49ers Paradise WIDGET (see here http://www.49ersparadise.com/widget/widget.shtml) which I wanted to make available prior to free agency and the draft for obvious reasons. And so keeping track of all that while looking forward to the free agency period has been trying to say the least. Nevertheless, I couldnÕt help but take a few moments to offer my thoughts on the first day of free agency.

Sometimes itÕs hard to remember that free agency is both a marathon and a sprint. Yes, signing the key one or two free agents that are block busters can make or break an offseason (and sometimes have salary cap repercussions that can break a dynasty) but itÕs often the second tier of free agents that play the pivotal role in providing the depth and stability that are needed throughout the season. Last season the 49ers attacked both parts of free agency, the marathon and the sprint, but they needed more than that. Coaching was an issue, and drafted players didnÕt materialize quick enough, as such when players like Nate Clements and Michael Lewis materialized, the supporting cast still was not good enough to have an effective dynamic on the team. At the end of the day, the team under achieved, and I believe that was largely due to this discrepancy. Though the team worked both free agency periods, they were not as successful as they had hoped, particularly in assembling the right supporting cast.

We see it time and time again. A group of young unknowns come together and over-achieve. This was the case just two seasons ago, and often under Steve MariucciÕs tenure with the 49ers. The adversity pulls the team together, and something magical happens. There is a chemical in balance though when just a few star players are added to this mix, and after considerable refection, I believe it is that, more than anything, which plagued the 49ers last season. Too much reliance on too few star players, and the supporting cast never was pushed into a situation where they materialized. It is possible to strike an ideal balance, it is also possible to have a team loaded with superstars that achieves, the problem occurs when, like last season, the team is neither a young group of underdogs, a balanced group of veterans and youngsters, nor a team of superstars.

This diatribe is not for nothing, I do have a point, and that is simply that I believe the objective this offseason is to find the ideal balance. With that in mind, I reflect on the signings leading up to, and at the start of free agency.

Isaac Bruce - I start here, mainly because I find this the most exciting move the 49ers have made so far. There are so many reasons to like this move: The Martz connection, BruceÕs historic productivity, the length of the contract, the ability to still play at a high level while mentoring a young receiver for the future. It is all very good news - and after all the 49ers needed a first tier receiver really badly this offseason . But there are much deeper levels why I like this move.

Instant Credibility - Even at BruceÕs age, defensive coordinators will have to account for him on the field. Like Jerry Rice, Bruce has been able to transform his game as he aged in order to be effective on the field. I donÕt know what Bruce will be able to contribute next year (aside from helping to install MartzÕs offense) but I do know that he will be a real contributing factor in whatever role he is used, even if itÕs on the sidelines. Bruce is an expert at his position, and not in the way Trent Dilfer is, Bruce is actually an expert, and he will be able to use this expertise to make the 49ers better, and give their receiving core instant credibility.

Chemistry Lesson: Balancing The Equation - Bruce is the type of veteran and superstar you want when you are trying to find the ideal ingredients for on field success. He can perform, mentor, inspire and most of all know what is like to win and how to win. He fits extremely well both as a superstar and a supporting cast member and should help create a locker room, and teach this team exactly what it takes to compete in the NFL.

Almost the G.O.A.T. - Letting Jerry Rice leave the 49ers, and then not bringing him back in the true twilight of his career was among the more painful moments of watching the 49ers disintegrate in this losing era. Bruce is not Rice, and in fact, he isnÕt quite a fit for an argument of Òalmost the Greatest of All TimeÓ, but he is an expert, he is a future Hall of Fame candidate, and he now has an opportunity to do the job, that Terrell Owens stole from Jerry Rice, and the job that Jerry was never allowed to try again. That is, passing the torch of legendary receivers in San Francisco to a new player. This represents a changing of the guard in the 49ers hierarchy and or a change in methodology. Perhaps the team realized it erred in not bringing Rice back to the club, or perhaps Mike NolanÕs ego is no longer in the way of putting the right players in place to build a winning team. Regardless, this move speaks volumes about the state of the franchise. Quite frankly, itÕs not Jerry Rice, but I suppose itÕs as close as we can get in todayÕs NFL, and I like the ÔbaggageÕ that comes along with this move.

Justin Smith - Smith probably represents the only other really big name free agent the 49ers are seeking in the sprint start of free agency. Sure, Javon WalkerÕs name has been tossed around at receiver, but nothing has indicated the 49ers are looking his way, especially with the Bruce signing. Smith is a player fans can get excited about (for the right money). He would help fill the gap of losing Bryant Young (that still hurts to write) to retirement, and the possible loss of Marques Douglas. When he was drafted by the Bengals a few years ago, I told my brother (whoÕs a Bengals fan) that they got a really good player in Smith. I still think that. Even still there is risk of moving Smith into a 3-4 system. The 49ers need to shore up their defensive line, and improve their pass rush. Smith seems like the best choice on the market to fill that role. Of course, there is considerable interest in him, and if he leaves San Francisco without a contract the 49ers may have missed their opportunity.

Alex Smith - The 49ers gave Alex Smith a shot of confidence by initiating the buy back in his contract. The two year extension gives Smith what he needs, proof to the locker room that he and the team are in this together. The question is still out on Smith, but with no verdict, this seems like the right move to put the most united team on the field.

Isaac Sopoaga - The 49ers couldnÕt afford to lose Sopoaga who can play NT as well as defensive end. The loss of Bryant Young made keeping Sopoaga absolutely crucial. That, and of course a lack of NT in the free agent market. Sopoaga is a versatile player, and will be relied on heavily this year. Superstar, he may not be, but someone has to do the dirty work, and heÕs proven capable to date.

Shaun Hill - The 49ers want competition at quarterback, they also wanted insurance for Alex Smith, and an ability to part ways with Trent Dilfer. They seem to have got that with Hill. This was an important signing, but perhaps not as crucial as some fans think. At the end of the day, there is a reason hill sat on the bench for six years. We will see if Mike Martz can work some magic on Hill, and how the recent signing of JT OÕSullivan who already knows MartzÕs system (having played under him with the Lions) will impact Hill and the QB competition.

Michael Robinson - I continue to attest that Robinson should have the ball in his hands. His contract extension is particularly important given that Maurice Hicks will likely command more than the 49ers are willing to pay on the free agent market. Robinson is capable and can offer a good change of pace to Gore. He also catches the ball well out of the backfield which could prove powerful in the Martz offense. Robinson is also an example of the type of youthful football player you want when building a team. Nobody had to push Robinson to give his all, he was always game ready. The chemistry class continues.

Dontarrious Thomas - The 49ers parted ways with Derek Smith this offseason. Say what you will about Smith, who immediately signed on with the Charges, but he never blew assignments, and was like a coach on the field. Thomas is not a top tier linebacker, but he will help fill out the supporting cast that is ever important in establishing the balance the 49ers are seeking. He may also surprise a few people if he can beat out Brandon Moore for a a starting position.

J.T. OÕSullivan - OÕSullivan servers as a second insurance policy for the team. I also effectively sends a message to Trent Dilfer. Having worked with Mike Martz with the Lions OÕSullivan is already up to speed on the 49ers offense. He will be helpful in installing the offense, and gives Martz a contingency plan if Smith and Hill donÕt pan out. Some people are not enamored with OÕSullivan, and IÕm not convinced the 49ers will take Smith, Hill, and OÕSullivan into the regular season (a rookie could sneak in to the top three) but the competition is tighter than it has been since Smith arrived, the 49ers are clearly no longer complacent, someone may materialize, the team may have redundancy between Hill and OÕSullivan. This move makes quite a bit of sense for a team trying to find their way at QB.

DeShaun Foster - A further indication of how the team is preparing for the loss of Maurice Hicks. Foster provides a good change of pace for Frank Gore and could take on the starting load if Gore gets badly hurt. That being said, the two will likely split time to help keep Gore fresh (for better or for worse), and this move may take time away from guys like Michael Robinson. IÕm not sure I like the idea of over crowding the running back position, but the team seems to do it year after year. Perhaps they will go a little lighter at fullback this year.

Allen Rossum - As a return specialist, RossumÕs numbers were very similar to HicksÕs last year. Rossum is the final piece in the Òwe no longer need Hicks puzzleÓ and the team may have gone over-kill distributing this role to essentially three players. A young player, rookie, or perhaps a training camp surprise may prevent Rossum from sticking with the club into next season.

The Losses (or Potential Losses):

Justin Smiley - I like Smiley, and losing him hurt. But the money he was thrown was not realistic for what the 49ers were trying to do. Smiley is still largely unproven. ItÕs possible the 49ers missed the mark here. But itÕs just as likely they will plug in a player who will be equal or better in production.

Kwame Harris - The money Harris is demanding virtually guarantees he wonÕt return to the 49ers next year. The only real question is why he couldnÕt have been traded if teams were so willing to throw money his way. Nevertheless, Harris has provided the 49ers with semi-decent performance and reliable insurance since he joined the club. I expect the team to find a replacement in the draft where OL may become a priority.

Maurice Hicks - The 49ers have their basis covered with Foster, Robinson and Rossum, but it may be over kill. I always felt Hicks was just ÔadequateÕ but his versatility has proven valuable. I was looking forward to seeing some of the younger blood like Robinson on the field a bit more, given that Hicks was a known commodity. Unfortunately, I still may not get that opportunity. Hicks is a valuable player, but I think it is in both parties interests to move on.

Donald Strickland - Strickland has not left the 49ers yet, but he is testing the waters. He is the type of player I think the 49ers should make an effort to re-sign unless they were impressed with some of the young CBs that joined the team last year. Strickland steps up to the challenge, and while he blows some plays, he usually makes up for it. It will be interesting to see if he is the type of player the 49ers will more heavily rely on as they try and find the right chemical balance for the club next year.

Marques Douglas - Like Strickland, Douglas will test the free agent waters. Losing him will hurt a defensive line that has seen considerable change in the past two years. The 49ers will make an effort to sign Douglas, but the money will most likely not be what keeps him in San Francisco if he decides to stay. In all likelihood he will get a bigger contract elsewhere, and the 49ers will have to hope some of the young defensive linemen on the team are ready to step up.

Now that the sprint is winding down, and the marathon has begun, it remains equally important to find the ideal balance with the right supporting cast. Stay tuned.

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