Teams that enter the unrestricted free-agent market at the opening bell know they’re going to have to overspend. That opening bell sounds at 9 p.m. (PT).
The 49ers have done so on several occasions, beginning in 2005, as they took dramatic measures to attempt to upgrade a roster left depleted by some poor drafts and a salary-cap purge.
I’m not editorializing that the 49ers overspent, they’ll freely admit it. In fact, GM Scot McCloughan has said in the past that eight of 10 big-money free agents signed around the league do not provide the value to match their paychecks.
The 49ers signed big-money free agents in 2005 (Jonas Jennings), 2007 (Nate Clements and Michael Lewis) and 2008 (Justin Smith).
Last year, they were relatively quiet. They signed fullback Moran Norris because of their determination to return to power football. The 49ers’ biggest free-agent signing was receiver Brandon Jones, who got injured early in camp and was never a factor.
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With an uncapped year looming, teams have the potential to overspend more than ever. There are some good restricted free agents available. But teams will have to: a) overspend to compete with other teams to sign them to offer sheets; b) overspend even more to feel confident the incumbent team does not match the contract to retain them; and c) be prepared to give up a draft pick (or two), too.
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The 49ers will undoubtedly sign some free agents. But, based on countless conversations with NFL types in Indianapolis during the scouting combine, I don’t expect the 49ers to get any “big-name players.”
Actually, I’d be mildly surprised if the 49ers emerge from free agency with any new starters, and I don’t believe they’ve targeted any free agents to entertain with visits to the Bay Area this weekend.
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Certainly, a player such as safety O.J. Atogwe of the Rams is intriguing. Reportedly, the Rams will give Atogwe a low tender as a restricted free agent. That way, the Rams will be able to match any contract Atogwe signs to retain his services. Atogwe could command a big deal. This is something the 49ers will monitor, but I would not expect them to get into a bidding war to acquire a good football player, who just happens to be a guy who is dating Mike Singletary’s daughter.
UPDATE: The Rams did put the low tender on Atogwe. Here’s more on that situation.
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Here are starters the 49ers got during the first phase of free agency the past five years (I did not include late-offseason signings who eventually became starters, such as Takeo Spikes and Dre’ Bly):
T Jonas Jennings: They needed a left tackle, and the 49ers opened their wallets for the top-rated player on the open market. In free agency, there’s generally a reason good players become available.
WR Johnnie Morton: Veteran pickup didn’t cost much; produced even less.
K Joe Nedney: He has been very consistent, so much so that he’s on his second contract with 49ers.
WR Antonio Bryant: The 49ers spent some money on him, and he was a very good player. But there were stuff off the field that prompted Mike Nolan to send him packing after one season.
CB Walt Harris: A nice pickup at a reasonable price. The 49ers pounced on him after the Redskins released him. He was very good on the field, and even better in the locker room.
G Larry Allen: The future Hall-of-Famer was signed at a reasonable contract to bring some strength and meanness to the line.
FB Moran Norris: Fit well at a reasonable price in Norv Turner’s power-running game.
CB Nate Clements: The deal was originally reported as eight years, $80 million. Of course, he won’t see half of that money. It’s essentially a four-year, $25.5 million deal that takes him through this season. With that in mind, it wasn’t such a bad deal. Clements is a very good player, and the 49ers are better for having him on the team.
S Michael Lewis: He signed a six-year, $30 million deal on the same day the club brought in Clements. More than $12.5 million of his contract comes in the final two years. He’s been a solid player who has given the 49ers what they wanted when they signed him.
NT Aubrayo Franklin: One of the rare free-agent signings in which the club got the better end of the deal. He signed a three-year, $6 million contract. As the franchise player in 2010, he is scheduled to make $7 million.
OLB Tully Banta-Cain: He was productive with the Patriots before spinning his wheels two seasons with the 49ers. Then, he returned to the Patriots and was productive again. Obviously, the Patriots used him in such a way and had a supporting cast to best utilize his skills.
DE Justin Smith: The 49ers went after him hard, as Nolan took him on a helicopter tour of the Bay area. He signed a six-year, $45 million deal on the first weekend of free agency. Through two years, it’s been a great signing.
WR Isaac Bruce: He came to the team to help in the transition to Mike Martz’s offense. He was very good that season, but was surpassed by the young players without Martz around.
WR Bryant Johnson: He signed for one season, and moved on.
QB J.T. O’Sullivan: He was signed as the No. 3 man because he knew Martz’s scheme. He ended up as the starter until Mike Singletary brought an end to that.
FB Moran Norris: He was signed as the 49ers went back to a power-running philosophy.
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