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Jeff Garcia smothered his remaining critics by producing another stellar, Pro Bowl year. This year he displayed a tremendous amount of toughness, with his body on the verge of breaking apart during the season’s stretch run. It’s amazing – he is the dead opposite of Montana in the pocket. While Montana was calm and technically sound, Garcia does more dancing and hopping than a ballerina on speed. Yet they both produced results. The only thing remaining for Garcia is to win some big games – against the Rams, for example. Although he hasn’t missed any time, he constantly exposes himself to big hits. At his size, the 49ers would not feel comfortable without a serious backup.
Tim Rattay could be it. In the spot duty he has been in, Rattay has looked very comfortable. The 49ers may have found a young Ty Detmer. But only serious playing time would show it. Rick Mirer is always around for emergency situations. He’s a free agent, but nobody approached him for half of this season when he was unsigned. I don’t think anyone will now. Giovanni Carmazzi is probably toast. I think the 49ers are happy with their slate of players at this position.
Needs: None. If they see a guy they really like in the late rounds of the draft, great.
Garrison Hearst’s will and effort were nothing short of inspiring. While he may not be an every-down back anymore, he can handle 75 percent of the load at a Pro Bowl level, which is pretty darn good. Unfortunately, he is also a free agent. While it is difficult to imagine Hearst leaving this team, we have to prepare for it. I have heard some grumblings that Hearst was not thrilled about redoing his contract right before the season started, and Terry Donahue has said on the record that the 49ers are ready to hand the job to Kevan Barlow if it came to that. Barlow is younger, faster, bigger, and cheaper, and the 49ers have too many needs at other positions to invest a lot of money into two good running backs. If Hearst is willing to sign another cap-friendly deal with some incentives, he should be back.
Jonas Lewis and Paul Smith play hard on special teams, but I’m not sure that either is capable of being the backup running back. Smith will probably be placed on the expansion list. Lewis will compete for the backup job, but if Hearst leaves, the 49ers may want to draft another back in the middle rounds.
Needs: If Hearst leaves, the 49ers need a backup running back.
Unfortunately, there could be some shakeup here. If you were to assess who the 49ers feel is the biggest off-season priority, it could very well be signing Fred Beasley. He will be the most sought after free agent on the 49ers roster and the best fullback on the market. Despite the ridiculous Pro Bowl voting system – which picked Mike Alstott – there are a lot of NFL people who think Beasley is the best fullback in the league. He will have suitors, and the 49ers will have to dig into the checkbook to sign him. While Lance Schulters has come out and said he wants to be back, Beasley has remained quiet.
The 49ers need to sign him, because there is no one I can see in the draft or the free agent market who can replace him. He is a key man in the 49ers running attack, which was ineffective in the three games after Beasley broke his hand late in the year. Terry Jackson is a great backup, on and off the field. But he is a restricted free agent who needs a contract, too.
Needs: MUST RE-SIGN FRED BEASLEY. Jackson should be kept as well.
Terrell Owens confirmed that he has few peers at his position in the NFL with another 1,400-yard effort and a career-high 16 touchdowns. His antics off the field were aggravating but under control. JJ Stokes has never become much of a player, but he works hard and does all the little things. Do the 49ers keep him? It may make a lot of sense to leave him in the expansion pool, because he stands a decent chance of being taken. While he’s overpaid for his numbers, his contract is not a bank-buster and it runs until 2005. The Houston Texans may like that.
Tai Streets has not stepped up, either, though he hasn’t been given as much opportunity. Both he and Stokes are fine players for the #3 receiver, but neither is talented enough to keep defenses from loading the field towards Owens. The 49ers need a #2 wideout. Although the 49ers want to use first rounders on defense, it would be hard to pass on Marquise Walker if he’s still there when they pick. Cedric Wilson is very undersized for a 49ers receiver, and I think that the 49ers selected him to return kicks, not play wideout. With Vinny Sutherland winning the return job – and becoming the first solid and reliable returner since John Taylor – Wilson could be toast.
Needs: A #2, possession wideout with more speed than Stokes who can take some pressure off Owens.
Eric Johnson was one of the best stories of the year. Taking over the starting job from the injured Greg Clark in game one, he became a big part of the 49ers passing attack. He almost never drops a pass, makes a lot of tough catches, and is generally a much more effective weapon than Clark ever was. However, Johnson was flat-out run over by defensive ends while run blocking, and he can’t match Clark’s ability there. He will bulk up and address that problem in the off-season.
So what happens to Clark? I have to think that the 49ers will place him in the expansion draft. Again, he stands a good chance of being taken, since good tight ends will be few and far between on that draft list. And Clark is a still a very good tight end when healthy. With Johnson starting, it makes little sense to keep Clark’s contract on the bench. If he’s not taken by the Texans, he may be traded for picks come draft time. Justin Swift is a mediocre backup. The 49ers may want to find a backup tight end who can block.
Needs: A backup, blocking tight end for running downs.
First the good news: the 49ers offensive line played superb all year and had two Pro Bowlers. The bad news: there are no good backups after center Ben Lynch, and of the two Pro Bowlers, one is 38 and the other is an unrestricted free agent. After Beasley, Jeremy Newberry will be the most appealing of the 49ers free agents. Signing him should be a top priority. If he does leave, signing Olin Kreutz of Chicago becomes an even larger priority. The ideal situation would involve signing Kreutz and Newberry, and sliding Newberry to guard. That will cost money, but think about it: Dave Fiore, whose biggest plus is his versatility anyway, could then be used as a very good backup at guard and tackle. Along with Lynch and perhaps one draft pick, the 49ers would have one of the top lines in football and quality depth for the first time in years. It all starts with the offensive line.
Derrick Deese and Scott Gragg are still performing at a very high level at tackle, but there is nobody behind them. The 49ers need some young talent at tackle – preferably in the draft.
Needs: Re-sign Jeremy Newberry and, if possible, Olin Kreutz of Chicago. Draft some depth at tackle.
This unit got off to a tough start, but as Andre Carter improved this unit really gelled. Bryant Young and Dana Stubblefield can still clog the middle, though their age has to be a concern now. When Carter finally started to get it, he was a much more disruptive player from the outside and should only get better. Both John Engelberger and Chike Okeafor are solid, not great, players. Okeafor has some pass rush in him, and should be signed (he’s an RFA) and retained. Still, there was no pass rush from anyone other than Carter, and unless he makes as many strides next year as he did this year, the pass rush is still below average. The 49ers would love to find another pass rusher, but they may need to focus their cap dollars on bigger priorities.
Then there’s Reggie McGrew. Oh, McGrew. I hate to say this, but we should keep the bust around. Unless the 49ers draft a tackle in the first round – and even with another tackle-rich draft, they’re probably picking too low to get one – McGrew might have to stay. He’s a young tackle with talent and size, and he’ll be in a contract year in 2002. Young defensive lineman are at a premium, and the 49ers will have a hard time finding quality they can afford. McGrew is the only backup we have at tackle. As an RFA, however, we have to pay him good money again.
Needs: Tender RFAs McGrew and Okeafor for next year. A pass rusher and one more quality body at tackle would be icing on the cake.
This unit finally came together in 2001 and stayed healthy all year. Derrick Smith took to the middle like a duck to water, Julian Peterson played the flanks like a pro, and Jeff Ulbrich and Jamie Winborn proved that they were worthy first-day draft picks. Even veteran Terry Killens played with fire when he was called upon. With four good backers, the 49ers have more than most teams. All four are under contract. We will see what Alex Lincoln has if he’s brought back next year.
Needs: None. Maybe another backup.
Ahmed Plummer, Jason Webster, Lance Schulters, and Zack Bronson brought stability and Pro Bowl-caliber play to the secondary. Both Plummer and Bronson picked off seven passes, and Plummer is surely a future Pro Bowl player. Bronson, Plummer, and Webster won’t be unrestricted free agents until after the 2003 season. Schulters is unrestricted, and if you had asked me a month ago whether I thought we could re-sign him, I would have said no. But in a change of heart, Schulters has said emphatically that he wants to come back and that his holdout in 2000 was the biggest mistake he ever made. While Schulters is a solid player, he will not command the same attention as some other 49er free agents. Plus, the two teams he is linked to (the hometown Jets and Giants) appear to be set at safety.
The 49ers biggest problem on defense last year was probably depth at cornerback. There is nobody after Plummer and Webster, and it cost us the Chicago game. Anthony Parker may or may not be back – he’s an RFA. The 49ers have great depth at safety with Ronnie Heard and John Keith. One of those two could be left on the expansion draft list, however.
Needs: Must acquire a quality third corner, preferably from the draft. Re-sign Schulters if possible.
Kicker / Punter
Surprise, surprise. The 49ers need a kicker. Half of Cortez’s kicks couldn’t clear a defensive line made up of smurfs. Unless he figures out how to get more under his kicks, he cannot be relied upon for anything other than extra points.
Needs: Possibly a new kicker.
What We Must Do
Re-sign Fred Beasley
Re-sign Jeremy Newberry
Draft a nickel corner
What We Probably Need to Do
Re-sign Garrison Hearst
Re-sign Lance Schulters
Draft a #2 Wideout
Draft some offensive lineman
Tender Terry Jackson, Tai Streets, Chike Okeafor, Reggie McGrew
Sign Olin Kreutz from Chicago
Draft a pass rusher