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As the month of March came into light, so did the deadline for free agents to seek their proper places throughout the NFL. Many of the free agents on the San Francisco 49er roster generated interest from all over the spectrum of the league. Many have since departed to start new careers on teams looking for renewal. Still others have been rewarded by being tendered by the 49ers to remain on a team signaling a new era to be.
Probably the greatest splash that the San Francisco 49ers made was resigning premier veteran starting inside linebacker Derek Smith, as he was generating special interest among the teams in dire need of an impact linebacker like him. Smith made it known that he was resigning for various reasons, the most influential being that he believes in Mike Nolan and what he has prescribed for this team to move forward. He also went on to state that he believes in remaining in San Francisco not only to end a stellar career, but also to find balance and stabilization for his family.
The commitment that was shown to the five-year veteran was astounding. On Mike Nolan's part, he saw Smith as the ideal tackling machine for a club on which he had been the leading tackler year in and year out. His signing brings instant greatness to a defense still trying to find its own identity, but one that will inherit consistent veteran leadership in Smith as a member of the San Francisco 49ers. Over the years he has dazzled me with his consistency and determination to locate the football at all times.
He is always in the mix of things, and can be seen applying all his skills and talents while executing fundamentals to the letter, and directing his teammates to do the same time and time again. Also, by looking forward and wanting to end his career as a 49er, I have to honor him as the best investment money can buy...so far.
The resigning of veteran kicker Joe Nedney was another interesting move that makes all the sense in the world. Lord knows that we have struggled to find a quality kicker that could be pinpoint accurate and dependable at all times. It has been a roller coaster ride for all of us fans, as we have observed some of the worst kickers on record playing like they were bargain basement acquisitions (which, when it comes right down to it, that's what this franchise was willing to spend on this particular position). In reality, it is an extremely underrated position that is leaned on heavily throughout the course of the regular season and even more so come playoff time. We just seem to think it should be there and on target no matter what.
Back in the 2003 season opener, Joe Nedney, then playing with the Tennessee Titans, tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee while attempting to make a tackle on a kickoff. That injury placed him on injured reserve. After undergoing painful rehabilitation in his knee, Nedney then tore his left hamstring during a Titans team practice the week before the start of the 2004 NFL season. And back in 1998, while then with Arizona, he tore the ACL in his left knee.
All in all, Joe Nedney has kicked in all 16 games of a season just three times in his career. However, he has been so reliable and has registered accurate placement of his kicks which made him a specialist we can't possibly live without. In fact, he was the leading offensive talent in terms of scoring offense on this team all throughout the 2005 NFL season. In 105 games, Nedney, 32, has converted 153 of 198 field goal attempts and 210 of 213 extra point attempts. He has only missed eight of his 110 field goal attempts from inside 40-yards in his career.
His contract extension makes the most sense out of anything the San Francisco 49ers have done so far. It absolutely vindicates our new approach of recognizing that extra points really do matter, and that paying top dollar for that dependability is well worth it in the long term. Joe Nedney's signing of a four-year contract, and linebacker Derek Smith's three-year contract marks an instant reinstatement of this team's determination to keep both the defense and special teams on track under Mike Nolan's direction.
Both Derek Smith and Joe Nedney received the Bill Walsh award for 2005, an honor given to the 49ers team MVP and voted on by the coaches. Resigning these accomplished playmakers makes a lot of sense in terms of the quality leadership each brings to their specialty units on the team.
"For me I have more of a personal reason," said Nedney of wanting to remain with the 49ers. "I grew up out here and I was introduced to the NFL through watching the 49ers win Super Bowls as a kid, so this means more to me than your average free agent signing a contract because I have a personal tie and emotional tie with these guys and this organization. Beyond that I have a wonderful head coach who I think is doing all the right things in trying to get this organization back to greatness, and the fact that he wants me to be a part of it means a whole lot. I am proud to sign a deal like this and it means that I am probably going to spend the rest of my career out here and I couldn't be happier."
The next big acquisition that the San Francisco 49ers made was the unexpected signing of free agent wide receiver Antonio Bryant to a four-year deal worth $15 million, with close to $6 million in guaranteed money. They worked this blockbuster deal after careful scrutiny by both Mike Nolan and Vice President of Personnel Scot McCloughan.
Following the mega-trade deal involving veteran wide receiver Brandon Lloyd to the Washington Redskins for a third round draft pick this year and a fourth round draft pick in 2007, the 49ers felt the pressure and immediate need to land a veteran presence on their wide receiving unit. The Cleveland Brown Antonio Bryant stood out to our coaching staff and front office personnel among all the premium free agent wide receivers. What interests me the most about Antonio Bryant is his ability to play in a similar role to that in which Brandon Lloyd played last season.
Antonio, like Brandon, played while there was an unsettled atmosphere at the quarterback position, yet Bryant hauled in 69 passes for 1,009-yards and four touchdowns in 2005. This of course compares most favorably with Lloyd, who led the 49ers in receiving with 48 receptions for 733-yards and five touchdowns.
Some question the mindset of acquiring Antonio Bryant, who had an unsettled past that pitted him against his old head coach at one point. That situation was much like Brandon Lloyd's reaction following a game against the Chicago Bears in which he was accused by teammates of backing away from a catchable pass from quarterback Cody Pickett. Before becoming a Cleveland Brown, Bryant was a Dallas Cowboy who was considered then (and still assumed now by some) to be very young and immature. Antonio is a talent to be reckoned with nonetheless, especially since he is all but at the age of 25.
He had a career year while with the Cleveland Browns last season, but was considered expendable because Braylon Edwards is considered Cleveland's #1 wide receiver of the future.
Antonio Bryant averaged 14.8 yards per catch on his 210 career receptions since coming into the NFL in 2002 as a second-round selection with the Dallas Cowboys. In Dallas, he started 15 games and caught six touchdown passes as a rookie.
The greatest blemish that he inherited was while in Dallas was a large chip on his shoulder. Antonio Bryant was named the winner of the Biletnikoff award in 2000 as a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh; an award presented annually to the nation's top collegiate receiver. He became just the second sophomore to win the award, joining Randy Moss, who won the award in 1998. He was, however, also suspended twice for conduct related issues. Later, in a well publicized incident in Dallas, he was irritated after a team that he threw a jersey that struck then Head Coach Bill Parcells in the face. He was then promptly ordered to undergo required anger management classes and just two months later was traded to the Cleveland Browns.
But as the negotiations took place in meetings face to face with Mike Nolan, Nolan came away impressed with his deep convictions to change, the effort to learn from his mistakes, and his willingness to put the past behind him. Those closed session discussions involving Antonio Bryant, Mike Nolan and Scot McCloughan brought about the 49er decision to make this athlete our new #1 wide receiving threat to compliment Alex Smith.
After cutting veteran wide receiver Johnnie Morton, and then working a trade with Washington for Brandon Lloyd, Antonio Bryant came into the picture as a breath of fresh air to a receiving unit literally laying on the ropes gasping for air. Antonio Bryant provides not only veteran experience but also a higher upgrade of talent (in most instances) in comparison to Brandon Lloyd.
Nolan described Bryant as a "complete player," a competitor who is fleet, physical and most willing to block downfield.
"I get the feeling this is going to be a very positive for him and for our football team," Nolan said. "He's wiser than he has been in the past. And the structure we've put in place and the accountability everybody has to one another, I believe he'll fit into that structure."
Looking for a new start to his career (and a golden opportunity to boot), Antonio Bryant sees the San Francisco 49ers as an entity and a place that he can make a well-known name for himself. He understands that 'team' is the word of order now in this organization under Mike Nolan, and understands the repercussions from not adhering to it.
"I understand that the team is young and I'm one of those guys who is young and looking for the opportunity to come out here and blossom with something new and fresh," said Bryant. "I figure if I was going to start over, this was the perfect opportunity. I was sold when I first got here and saw the roster of coaches, and the history of some of these coaches and some of the previous players that they've dealt with and the history of the teams they've come from and were involved with; that just sold me right there."
Wide Receivers Coach Jerry Sullivan is well respected and widely sought inside the NFL. He commanded a great deal of interest from Antonio Bryant in coming to the San Francisco 49ers based upon his ability to make wide receivers even more talented and electrifying with his coaching techniques and the fundamentals that he teaches. Sullivan is considered one of the best to work with in the league without a doubt.
"Look at the rap sheet, that just speaks for itself," said Bryant. "I was very aware of some of the guys that he worked with; a guy like Anquan Boldin coming in as a rookie to the NFL and doing what he did, I'm sure he had great influence from Coach Sullivan."
The greatest act to see though will be the comfort level he'll need to set up with second-year starting quarterback Alex Smith. Both will have to know each other inside and out and find common ground on the playing field with one another as the off-season turns to mini-camps and training camp in July and August. Smith and Bryant will have to work on their timing, become familiar with each other's tendencies and favorite go routes, and develop a comfort level that is expected between any receiver and quarterback. (If only Jerry Rice could be brought in as a consultant...that would be so nice. I would love to see an attempt made on the part of this organization to bring in either Jerry Rice or a Steve Young in a consulting type role for both Antonio Bryant and Alex Smith.)
Finally, I must make reference to the San Francisco 49ers signing fullback Chris Hetherington (6-3, 245) who is entering his 11th NFL season and second year as a 49er after supplanting veteran Pro Bowler fullback Fred Beasley in the early stages of the 2005 NFL season. He was originally signed with the Cincinnati Bengals as an un-drafted free agent out of Yale in 1996. He was waived in training camp and signed to the Bengals practice squad before being snatched up by the Indianapolis Colts on their 53-man roster.
Following three seasons with the Colts (1996-1998), Hetherington played for Carolina (1999-2001), St. Louis (2002) and Oakland (2003-2004). He was waived by the Raiders right after training camp last season and signed by the 49ers. He has played in all 16 games and started six times for the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers seemed to make that choice over Fred Beasley be known mid-way through the 2005 season, as Fred saw less and less playing time despite his requests for more playing time with running backs coach Bishop Harris.
The 2003 Pro Bowl fullback and, in my eyes, the very best fullback in a San Francisco 49er uniform, was at odds with Bishop Harris about a variety of subjects that landed him in the "doghouse," and paved the way for Chris Hetherington to flourish.
The feud that took place between running backs coach Bishop Harris and Fred Beasley was brought to the media's attention and Fred did make an apology to Bishop Harris, but to no avail. Unfortunately being an unrestricted free agent and playing the second fiddle to someone else sealed the deal on Fred's career as a 49er.
I find this move to be the most troubling one out of this free agency period. Fred Beasley, in my opinion, deserves instant recognition based upon his veteran experience, leadership abilities and his playmaking abilities as defined on the field from his days acting as a battering ram for both Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow. I don't consider Chris Hetherington an upgrade over Fred Beasley. In fact, it is just the opposite. I am appalled that the organization chose to move beyond working a deal with Fred Beasley because I feel that the running game could only be better in the long term with him pushing the bar ahead of both Kevan Barlow and Frank Gore.
I salute you Fred Beasley and I am proud of all the service you have provided. I can still recall the ability and talent on the field and Garrison Hearst publicly giving you the credit for his career season of 1,500+ yards as a San Francisco 49er. This organization's fans will sorely miss you as the seasons go by and we wish an honest attempt could've been made to retain you here for the rest of your career.
Fred was an instrumental tool in terms of motivation to other players both on the sidelines and in the locker room. He won great favor with his teammates for his offensive capabilities and the very notion that all of his hard work was for others to shine and receive the glory. He was a selfless person and despite my positive acknowledgement of Mike Nolan, and my belief he is the real deal in breathing new life into this team, I am puzzled and troubled at the fact he didn't see what so many of us did in Fred Beasley over the course of his career here in San Francisco.