In 2001 the 49ers have a great chance at being a playoff caliber team. There will be many changes, as in the past, with the exit of some old players and the entrance of new players. As usual the 49ers are over the salary cap and will have to make some hard decisions on which players to keep and release.

I think that this year the 49ers need to concentrate on keeping some of their own free agents. I also believe that the time has come for the 49ers to release some of the players that have proven unproductive to free up the money needed to sign the players that are pivotal to their success.

Players that are free agents or soon to be free agents the 49ers need to try and keep include Charlie Garner, Scott Gragg, Jeff Garcia, Fred Beasley, Lance Shulters, Brentson Buckner, Zack Bronson and Jeff Posey. These players were all big contributors to the 49ers over the last few years.

The Charlie Garner situation is a difficult one as he is looking for more money than the 49ers can afford. The 49ers are without another proven running back except for Garrison Hearst. Hearst’s future is in jeopardy after several surgeries and his salary has also increased. Garner is the better option here as he has proven his worth over the last two years. This situation leaves the 49ers with a very difficult decision to make.

Some people believe that Charlie Garner showed signs of slowing down towards the end of the season. If the 49ers were to incorporate a third down back into their system it would limit some of the wear and tear that Garner takes. The 49ers are in a position to do this by utilizing the skills of Fred Beasley more or incorporating Terry Jackson and Paul Smith into the offense. By spelling Garner with Jackson or Smith the 49ers would be able to keep Garner fresh for the whole game. As seen with the Giants and Raiders always having a fresh running back to go into the game can be very effective.

Scott Gragg has proved to be very valuable to an offensive line that has become one of the best in the league. Until the end of the season when some injuries depleted the offensive line the 49ers were among the league leaders in sacks allowed. In bringing Gragg to the 49ers, they bucked tradition as he is the largest lineman they have ever had. His size proved to be a very valuable asset in stopping some of the best defensive lineman from getting to the Quarterback. I believe that it is essential for the 49ers to keep Gragg because they do not have much depth on the line with the retirement of Chris Dalman.

Jeff Garcia earned the right to a contract extension with his terrific year. By throwing for the most yards in a season in team history and becoming the obvious leader of the offense Jeff has proved to be a player the 49ers need to keep around for a long time. With Garcia at the helm for a few more seasons the 49ers will be able to further develop their two young Quarterbacks, Tim Rattay and Giovanni Carmazzi.

In his first season as the 49ers starting Quarterback Jeff Garcia showed that he possesses a combination of the skills that made the two Hall of Fame Quarterbacks to hold his position before him such great competitors. He is like Joe Montana in his ability to find the open receiver and to always play his best in the 4th quarter when the game is on the line. He is similar to Steve Young by being as dangerous running the ball as he is throwing it down field. I believe that it is the combination of all these skills that will make him the next Quarterback to take the 49ers to a Super Bowl.

Fred Beasley does not get near the amount of credit he deserves for his contribution to the success of the 49er’s offense. It is his excellent blocking ability that has helped open the holes for Charlie Garner to run through in back to back thousand yard seasons. Beasley also showed a nose for the end zone early this season by scoring three times in the first game against Atlanta. His versatility in blocking, rushing and receiving reminds me of another great full back that played for the 49ers, Tom Rathman. Rathman is now the running backs coach for the 49ers and I am sure he will push for the 49ers to sign Beasley to a long-term contract.

Lance Shulters has become the proven leader of the young 49er defense. Bill Walsh has said that he is the best strong safety to play for the 49ers since Ronnie Lott. Lance has shown that he has a nose for the ball whether it means covering a receiver down field or putting a big hit on a running back coming out of the back field. It is essential for the 49ers to keep Lance, not only for his abilities on the field, but for his excellent leadership skills and his ability to rally the team in the locker room. With such a young secondary and the continued rebuilding of the defense it would be detrimental to the 49ers to lose Lance Shulters.

Zack Bronson also has proven to be a nice addition to the 49ers secondary. Whenever Zack has been called upon to step in he has done a very good job. He has shown the ability to play both safety positions effectively. Unfortunately for Bronson, the 49ers added two players in John Keith and Ronnie Heard who have also shown great ability to play the safety positions. With the addition of these two players and the salary cap position the 49ers may find it very difficult to hold on to him. The depth at this position may make Bronson expendable where as the depth at other positions is not as deep.

Jeff Posey is a player who has benefited greatly from a change in position. This year the 49ers switched Posey to line backer where he improved his play immensely. It was Jeff’s improved play and the addition of Julian Peterson that had the 49ers experimenting with a 3-4 defense during the season. This proved to be effective for the 49ers because they were able to use the extra speed at the line backing position to better cover tight ends and put extra pressure on opposing Quarterbacks. With the possibility of Ken Norton leaving it would be very wise of the 49ers to try and keep Posey  

In order to keep all or any of the players above the 49ers will need to free up some money under the salary cap. One way the 49ers could free up some room under the salary cap is to cut some players that have proven unproductive. Players such as Reggie McGrew, Chike Okeafor, Anthony Pleasant, Monty Montgomery, Travis Jervey and Kevin Williams.

Both McGrew and Okeafor were drafted as pass rushing specialists to help a defensive line that has struggled to put pressure on opposing Quarterbacks. In their two years with the team both players have suffered from injuries and have not shown the skills necessary to get them on the field. Releasing both of them would only help the 49ers as they are in a rebuilding stage and need players that can step in immediately, not players that are projects and take a long time to develop.

Anthony Pleasant is a veteran and started every game for the 49ers this season. The problem is that as a veteran he commands a high salary and even though he started every game he did not prove to be a productive pass rusher. Pleasant was brought in to provide the 49ers with more sacks and he did not contribute in the way the 49ers had hoped he would. With the addition of younger players like John Millem, John Engelberger and Cedric Killings it would make sense to release Anthony Pleasant and his salary.

Monty Montgomery was brought in to play cornerback for the 49ers but was beat out by rookies Jason Webster and Ahmed Plummer. Monty showed that he actually plays better at the safety position. The depth at the safety position is very strong and has basically made Montgomery expendable. He is another player in a long list that has become a casualty of the salary cap.

Travis Jervey and Kevin Williams were brought in basically as special team’s players. Both were expected to help in the return game for the 49ers. Jervey has spent most of his time with the 49ers on injured reserve. Williams did return most of the kicks this year but he was not one of the league leaders. With the 49ers being in a rebuilding situation and under the restraints of the salary cap they can not afford to keep players for only the return game. They will be more effective using Tai Streets, Paul Smith and Jonas Lewis who will also contribute to the offense, not just special teams.

Although it hurts me deeply to see great players like Jerry Rice and Ken Norton leaving the 49ers I am very much looking forward to an exciting 2001 season. I can’t wait to see Jeff Garcia spreading the ball around to all the talented players on the offense and the emergence of the young defense. With Jerry Rice gone, Jeff Garcia will be involving two very exciting receivers, in JJ Stokes and Tai Streets, more into the offense. On defense I look forward to watching the development of the two young corners, the revamped defensive line and the new look linebacking core.

I also look forward to the new additions that Bill Walsh and Terry Donahue will bring to the team during the April NFL Draft. Bill Walsh has a great feel for young players that will contribute especially in the late rounds. I am hoping for a draft like the one in 1986 when Walsh drafted Steve Wallace, Tom Rathman, Charles Haley, Tim McKyer, John Taylor, Don Griffin, Kevin Fagan and Larry Roberts. Last year’s draft also proved to be very effective with most players either starting or contributing to the team. Walsh is training Donahue as his eventual successor. With their combined knowledge I am sure that this draft will be another successful one. Hopefully this off-season will be the one that allows the 49ers to make the right decisions on whom to let go, who to draft and who else to bring in to get them back to the playoffs and maybe even the Super Bowl.