In this past decade inside the NFL, there is one team that has set itself apart from all the rest and that has been the New England Patriots. This is a team that the San Francisco 49ers has idolized as of recently in making serious concessions on the part of its ownership in the way it does business.

Believe it or not Dr. John York and his wife, Denise DeBartolo, waived their suffocating influence in everyday matters to allow its head coach to operate more efficiently with a free hand.

This is the Mike Nolan era. This is where you see major changes taking place on an ever revolving schedule that allows him greater flexibility and decision making power to both build and enhance this football team on a consistent basis. When Mike brought in Vice President of Personnel Scot McCloughan from the Seattle Seahawks franchise, he landed a bigger fish in evaluating talent than we could ever imagine.

In two short years both of them have reconstructed a roster anemic in talent and purged by the sins of the salary cap that had sucked it lifeless. Now we see gradual and significant progress being made with an agenda for prosperity and an image of strength that was thought impossible from many NFL skeptics.

San Francisco 49er fans have something to hope for and can see the elements of change within the organization. They have a new sense of endearment for the ownership that has finally made good on its promises and for opening the proverbial door that has delivered to us outstanding free agent acquisitions beyond our wildest dreams.

From the New England Patriots, after four seasons and two successful Super Bowl championships, comes linebacker Tully Banta-Cain who had career highs of 40 tackles and 5.5 sacks last season. He became a starter in New England shortly after veteran Pro Bowler linebacker Junior Seau was put on the injured reserve for the season in November of last year.

Mike Nolan can see Banta-Cain as being that significant cog in the 3-4 defensive alignment wheel that spells "Oh here is a pass rush," in that he established himself in just a short period of time as being the harasser of quarterbacks. Banta-Cain would be featured exclusively as that outside linebacker/pass rushing specialist that the 49ers have been trying to identify since 2005.

Now there were other offers besides the 49ers that Tully Banta-Cain had to consider, one being from the St. Louis Rams earlier in his free agent whirlwind tour, and then simultaneously, offers of visitation from Pittsburgh and San Francisco. San Francisco won the toss of the coin because Banta-Cain's roots and legacy reside in the famous Silicon Valley.

He grew up in Mountain View, California, just a rock stone throw away from the 49er's training facility in Santa Clara, before he started playing defensive end at California. His parents and the majority of his extended family still reside in the Bay Area, which in essence became a deciding factor in his decision to visit and sign with the 49ers.

The addition of Banta-Cain to the linebacker equation is formidable in that depth has been established with Manny Lawson, Derek Smith, Brandon Moore and Jeff Ulbrich all will be jockeying for a position throughout training camp. Banta-Cain comes with plenty of experience from playing in the New England Patriots 3-4 defensive scheme right from the get go.

"I just felt like it was the right fit," Banta-Cain said. "The scheme that they run here, coming from a very similar scheme, and seeing that the defense could use some help, it just seemed like I could come here and make a big impact. It looks like they could use some help in the pass-rush department, getting to the quarterback, and that's sort of my specialty."

He agreed to a three-year $12.2 million dollar contract. On top of all that the 49ers had already signed to their defense cornerback Nate Clements, safety Michael Lewis and nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin in a concerted attempt to rectify a defense that gave up a league-high 412 points last season.

Banta-Cain had been primarily a defensive reserve linebacker and special teams player with the New England Patriots. He has appeared in 54 games before breaking out as a starting player last season when Junior Seau went down with a season-ending injury. His role on our defense will eventually be determined by his play in training camp, where he is going to be featured as the opposite outside linebacker off from Manny Lawson.

"I was raised in the 3-4 defense with the Patriots, and I learned from big-name guys, team leaders," said Banta-Cain, citing such Pro bowl players as Tedy Bruschi, Richard Seymour and Junior Seau. "Coming from a winning organization, I learned a lot."

This is where Tully Banta-Cain can help us. Banta-Cain, 26, can be an immediate impact player in the right scheme of things and Mike Nolan has very high expectations of him doing that inside training camp this year. He will be eager to compete and graduate to the starting lineup but that will be determined only late into training camp.

Banta-Cain was also attracted to the fact that the organization is spending a lot of money on acquiring the right kind of players that will help them get over the hump. He is excited to be among so many free agents who are already well-established as starters in the league and wants to be a part of this team he grew up in front of as a child, teenager and as an adult.

Other notes of interest with his signing were the re-signing of cornerback Donald Strickland that helped us out in the last stages of the 2006 season. The 49ers not content with just the Banta-Cain investment went out and signed three-year veteran linebacker Colby Buckwoldt.

Buckwoldt (6-2, 237) had previously played with the New Orleans Saints in 2004-2005 and with the Tennessee Titans in 2006. He has played in 48 NFL games and has accumulated 156 tackles overall. He was selected by the Saints in 2004 out of Brigham Young University, and earned the starting weak-side linebacker position with seven games remaining as a rookie in 2004.

Colby Buckwoldt went on in 2005 starting all 16 games and finishing with 93 total tackles and 11 special teams tackles. In 2006 he started out in Saints training camp but was waived prior to the start of the regular season. The Tennessee Titans claimed him off waivers and again he played in all 16 games as a reserve linebacker and special teams player, finishing with a team-high 20 special teams tackles and seven tackles on defense.

Buckwoldt is seen as being the heat to oft-injured Parys Haralson who has been nothing but a nightmarish injured element on our roster. In fact, Haralson will be tested right from the get go in a heavy alignment of linebackers with experience right from the starting line in training camp.

An even more demanding reason why Colby Buckwoldt was signed was because of his former special teams coach and our new special teams coach in Al Everest. Everest coached Buckwoldt for two seasons while he was with the New Orleans Saints before being let go with the influx of Sean Payton's new staff. Everest is confident that he will add strength and flexibility not only to our special teams unit but as a reserve linebacker to the starting lineup as well.

The San Francisco 49ers released linebacker Renauld Williams and re-signed nickel linebacker Hannibal Navies that proved more than capable late in the season when Derek Smith was suffering from an eye restriction and T.J Slaughter was placed on injured reserve with a finger injury.

Navies (6-3, 252) played in six games last season, starting three contests and notched 20 tackles total while with the 49ers. Williams spent parts of the 2005 and 2006 seasons with the 49ers both on the practice squad and briefly on the 53-man starting roster.

Navies will again be a factor in the competition for any nickel linebacker position and special teams position much in the same way Colby Buckwoldt will be as the year progresses and cuts are made later in the off-season.

Last but not least I cannot help but comment on the resigning of punter Andy Lee as being a real bonus to our special teams unit that gets little recognition for what it does out on the field on a weekly basis. Lee was almost a Pittsburgh Steeler in that the Steelers made an offer to Andy Lee as a restricted free agent.

As a restricted free agent other teams are allowed to bid for his services, but the 49ers are allowed a week to match any offer from another team. Should they not match that offer the 49ers would then receive a sixth round draft pick as compensation. The Pittsburgh Steelers offered Lee a $7.1 million dollar contract that included a $1.6 million dollar signing bonus.

It took us just two days to respond in matching that offer to Andy Lee out of appreciation and recognition for what he has done for our special teams unit. Lee has mastered the swirling winds well known to Monster Park, ranking seventh in the league with 36.8 net yards per punt. His 44.8 gross average was the team's highest since Tommy Davis averaged 45.6 in 1964.

Andy Lee even went on to improve his ability to drop punts inside the 20-yard line. In 2005, he put 15 inside the 20; Last year, he bumped it to 22 by using a different drop on his shorter kicks.

The key to this is slightly angling the ball downward, which results in him dropping the ball almost straight down, which causes the punt to go higher but shorter. Andy Lee established his best season last season after defeating veteran Tom Rouen in training camp, posting the highest average by a 49er punter in 41 seasons.

An NFL punter gets little to no recognition in the highlights of a game, but let it be assured they certainly have an impact on the final outcome of any game without question from the perspective of ideal field position. Andy Lee has been a superstar in helping us with that and it is just another indication that the organization is rewarding their own with keeping players like this within the fold.

The San Francisco 49ers on paper are becoming more formidable and lethal as free agency winds down and the 2007 NFL draft approaches. We are definitely in the driver's seat on this up and coming draft weekend that is the most exciting weekend in the NFL off-season you can be a part of.

Nothing could have pleased me more than to see these free agent signings materialize into something special. We will definitely reap big rewards for these key acquisitions I can guarantee it. A linebacker need becomes less of a need as we approach this draft and opens the door for other possibilities.

Still we will take the best possible player available with our first choice at No. #11 overall. From there the orchestra of success will continue with a scouting team and coaches that have done a masterful job at preparing for this weekend. All fellow 49er fans need to be thankful and rejoice for our time is growing near.

I encourage all of you to ask for time off from work and sit back and enjoy this draft. It is a time of great expectation and excitement from the agenda that is the road to the Super Bowl for every NFL fan. Our reflections and prayers are evident on these days with a renewed call for repeating the glory that once was from Joe Montana to Jerry Rice we all want the same thing.