After another down year for the San Francisco 49ers, one would think the team might be due to catch a break. And luckily, for the first time in quite a while, the salary cap, at least, won't be breathing down the team's neck, as the 49ers finally acquired about $20 million worth of separation between themselves and their most dreaded of foes. So it's finally all smooth sailing ahead, right?
Wrong. It seems that in the NFL, especially when you're the 49ers right now, you just can't win for losing. The best stocked position on the team—indeed the only position that's fair to call well-stocked—is going to need some major work to maintain this offseason.

Starting linebackers Derek Smith, Andre Carter, Julian Peterson, and versatile backup Brandon Moore are all poised to enter free agency. In fact, of the linebackers thought to have a starting future on the team, the only one under contract for 2007 at this point is Jeff Ulbrich. With all these questions about next year's linebacker corps, it's clear, then, that the Niners have some decisions to make.

And the first and most crucial answer should be resigning Andre Carter.

Carter, more than any other player on the Niners to-do list, would ensure the possibility of a solid offseason, because he gives them flexibility above all else.

Go ahead. Break down the possibilities. No solution works better than resigning Carter. With Carter, the team is poised to either remain in a 3-4 or return to the 4-3 depending on which players are available via the draft and free-agency.

Let's start with the two most valuable players who could be available when the Niners first pick either sixth or seventh overall: A. J. Hawk, a linebacker out of Ohio State, and Mario Williams, a defensive end from NC State. Both are considered to be as close to sure things as prospects can get, and both could fill definite needs for the 49ers. But each would send the team in radically different directions on defense.

If Carter is resigned, the team is effectively free to draft either, and whichever prospect falls to the team will be a welcome addition. Williams and Carter would be twin terrors off the edge with a switch back to the 4-3. The two would provide the team with a pair of DE's that could compare favorably with the best in the league. Hawk, on the other hand, would be able to admirably replace Derek Smith at the ILB position in the 3-4.

'But,' you say, 'all that is immaterial drivel. The Niners are trading down.' And there's a very strong possibility that you're right. But if that's the case, Carter is still a good first step to a solid offseason. After all, if the team does lose Julian Peterson, finding two new 3-4 OLBs would be much more difficult than only one, even in a draft that all agree is very deep at the linebacker position.

There are drawbacks to this strategy, of course. Carter has been injured over the years and there's no guarantee that he would be healthy enough to justify a new long term contract. He also didn't put up as many sacks as the team had probably hoped in his new role at rush linebacker. But he did apply good pressure, especially towards the end of the season (see the Niners win at St. Louis). With more experience in the system and better players around him, there's no reason not to expect his raw numbers to improve.

Resigning Andre Carter certainly isn't the only way to start the offseason, but it is the way that would provide the 49ers with the most flexibility in the draft and free-agency. For a team that still needs to find itself on both offense and defense, the freedom to do so that Carter provides may be too valuable to let go.


Random thoughts of the moment:

1)      I still think the 49ers most pressing need is at wide receiver, unless the team loses nearly all its linebackers. Unfortunately, this isn't a particularly strong area in the draft this year, especially if the team is looking for big playmakers. Both Norv Turner and Scot McCloughan have a history of liking bigger guys at the position, so there's no reason to think that will change now. And that brings me to my hope that the Niners could somehow acquire Eric Moulds, who would be the perfect stopgap for about three years, as Alex Smith develops into his pro role. There have been some indications of attitude problems with Moulds, but he's lasted ten years in Buffalo, so there's no reason to think that three years in SF is unreasonable.

2)      It's still early, but it sure seems like there's going to be a ton of talent in this draft. And the best place to be will be towards the end of round one and beginning of round two, where there will still be a ton of talent. Prospects selected here might have been mid first round picks had they come out in years past, and if the Niners could stockpile a few picks in this area, it should be well worth it.

3)      If you couldn't tell by my article, I'm really loving the idea of the 49ers possibly drafting Mario Williams out of NC State with their first pick. Line him up at LE, resign Andre Carter to play RE, and use the rotating group of Bryant Young, Isaac Sopoaga, Anthony Adams, and Marques Douglas at DT. Corey Smith could rotate in at DE, and suddenly you've got one heck of a defensive line. Sign Brandon Moore back if you can, and you've already got Jeff Ulbrich to play the MLB spot, so all you need is one WLB. Will Witherspoon in FA could do that nicely, or the Niners could wait until the second or third round in the draft to fill that spot.

4)      Overall, assuming the Niners manage to resign two of their free agent LBs, which seems reasonable, the team will probably be looking to replace one defensive player, add one cornerback or safety, and add some firepower to the passing game on the first day of the draft.