All 32 ESPN NFL Nation reporters participated in a survey that ran on ESPN.com Thursday. The question: What is your team’s biggest need heading into free agency?

The answers? The obvious, talking about specific positions like running back (Arizona Cardinals) left tackle (Carolina Panthers) and receiver (Cleveland Browns) to job descriptions such as pass-rusher (Cincinnati Bengals) and secondary (Philadelphia Eagles) to retaining their own top players (New England Patriots).

The San Francisco 49ers? They are about to have 14 UFAs, and I went more with a hybrid of specific position and job description -- before they agreed to terms with defensive lineman Darnell Dockett, late of the Cardinals.

You can find the entire survey here.
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Mike Nolan, the man who brought Jim Tomsula to the NFL, said his charge could command a room. Just give him a chance.

Drew Henson, who knew Bo Schembechler and played for the likes of Joe Torre and Bill Parcells, said his coach in NFL Europe with the Rhein Fire had a similar presence and impact on his players.

Timmy Chang, who set passing records at Hawaii before hanging loose halfway around the globe in Germany with Tomsula, spoke of how “real” his pro coach was, how genuine his persona was for any and all associated with the program.

And you scratched your head after watching Tomsula’s disastrous introductory news conference as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers in January and wondered what Nolan, Henson and Chang were thinking. Plus, given the time it took the Niners to fill out a coaching staff -- one that, on first impression, was on the underwhelming side -- you had to fear the worst for quality free agents wanting to come to Santa Clara, California.

But after Darnell Dockett, a three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle with the Arizona Cardinals, agreed to join the division rival Niners on Thursday, maybe Nolan, Henson and Chang knew exactly what they were talking about.

Just give Tomsula a chance in a one-on-one setting and let the chips fall where they may.

Indeed, Dockett’s arrival could be a sign to any and all quality free agents that this Tomsula cat ain’t the same guy they saw being lampooned. Because if Dockett wants to play for him … well, you get the picture.

Plus, it shows that the Niners, who usually sit out the early frenzy of free agency, are serious about reloading, rather than rebuilding. Consider: With five-time Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith still contemplating whether to retire or return for a 15th season, getting Dockett shows the 49ers are not going to sit idly by and merely hope for the best.

If Smith does come back, Dockett would ostensibly be replacing Ray McDonald as an end in the Niners’ 3-4 defense, and if everyone is healthy, imagine a front seven of Smith and Dockett at ends, Ian Williams at nose tackle and Aldon Smith and Aaron Lynch at outside linebackers with a couple of All-Pros in the middle in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Depth on the defensive line comes in the form of Quinton Dial, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Mike Purcell, Tank Carradine and Glenn Dorsey.

Not too shabby, right?

Injuries devastated the defense last season, even if the likes of Chris Borland, Michael Wilhoite and Dan Skuta were more than capable replacements for former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.

But adding Dockett gives new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini another toy with which to play. So long as he, like so many other 49ers, is healthy.

The 6-foot-4, 293-pound Dockett, who turns 34 on May 27, missed all of last season after tearing an ACL in training camp. But before that, he had missed only two games in his first 10 seasons, all of which were with the Cardinals after they chose him in the third round of the 2004 draft out of Florida State.

The Cardinals released him last week, saving $6.8 million in salary-cap space, after 158 games in which he had 462 tackles, 40.5 sacks and four interceptions.

Dockett has spoken highly of the notion of loyalty. So the Cardinals parting ways with him must cut deep. He will want payback twice a season. And that’s a good thing for the Niners, who not only strengthened themselves but also weakened a division rival in the process.

After being cut, Dockett tweeted the following:

Maybe that’s what the talk was about between Tomsula and Dockett. As Nolan said, just give him a chance.
The San Francisco 49ers have 14 potential unrestricted free agents who would hit the market when the new league year begins on March 10. We continue our countdown with a receiver who has excelled on special teams and whose roster spot grew more valuable by the week last season.

WR Kassim Osgood

Osgood
Osgood
Undrafted out of San Diego State, Osgood made his NFL debut in 2003 and became a three-time Pro Bowler as a special teamer with the San Diego Chargers. After seven years with the Chargers, he moved on to the Jacksonville Jaguars for two years and the Detroit Lions for one before coming to the 49ers in 2013. He has appeared in 179 games in his career and has caught 45 passes (one since 2012), for 766 yards and five touchdowns (one since 2004). His first career TD catch came on a Doug Flutie pass.

49ers career: Osgood was named the 49ers' special teams blue collar player of the year after racking up seven special teams tackles last season in 13 games. Twice he was cut by the 49ers to make roster room, only to be re-signed later. His season came to an end, though, when he was placed on Injured Reserve with a hand issue in December.

Argument for keeping Osgood: He has been the 49ers’ best special teams player the past two years, and no price can really be put on such a key description, even if special teams ace is more ceremontal title than actual position. His leadership on special teams would be integral for new coach Jim Tomsula.

Argument for letting Osgood walk: He will be 35 in May, and as valuable as his contributions have been the past two seasons, he is coming off an injury. Plus, with a roster in need of a fresh scrubbing, the 49ers could use younger, fresher faces on special teams, and Osgood has only caught one pass in 27 games with the 49ers.

A bold prediction: Osgood takes his special teams talents up I-880 from Santa Clara to Oakland to join his old special teams coach with the Raiders in Brad Seely.
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Defensive end Darnell Dockett will sign with the San Francisco 49ers, his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, announced Thursday.

What it means: Adding Dockett, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL suffered in training camp, not only strengthens the Niners’ defensive line (if he's healthy) but also weakens a division rival, the Arizona Cardinals. It could also mean that the 49ers won't wait for Justin Smith to decide whether to retire or return for a 15th season.

Grade: B-plus. Dockett, a three-time Pro Bowler, is bigger and two years younger than Smith, who is a five-time Pro Bowler. Dockett will also feel a sense of urgency to prove his former team wrong in their two head-to-head matchups.

What’s next: The Niners generally sit out the early proceedings of free agency. Having addressed the defensive line, though, expect them to look at receiver, the secondary or the offensive line.

49ers sign Darnell Dockett

March, 5, 2015
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Defensive end Darnell Dockett will stay in the NFC West next season, signing with the San Francisco 49ers, his agent Drew Rosenhaus announced Thursday on Twitter.

Dockett signed a two-year, $7.5 million contract with the 49ers, with $4 million being paid in the first season and $2 million guaranteed, a league source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

Dockett's 11-year run with the Arizona Cardinals ended Friday when the team released him. The Cardinals were open to re-signing him at a lower rate than the $6.8 million he was scheduled to earn in 2015.

The 33-year-old missed all of the 2014 season after tearing his ACL during training camp in August. Before last season, Dockett had missed two games in 10 seasons.

He strengthens the 49ers' defensive line while weakening a division rival in the Cardinals. His signing also might signal that the 49ers won't wait for Justin Smith to decide whether to retire or return for a 15th season.

Dockett finished his career with the Cardinals with 459 tackles, 40.5 sacks, 12 fumble recoveries, seven forced fumbles and four interceptions.

His three sacks in Super Bowl XLIII tied Reggie White for most in a Super Bowl.

The Cardinals tweeted a thank-you to Dockett for his 11 seasons with the team on Thursday.

ESPN.com 49ers reporter Paul Gutierrez contributed to this report.


(Read full post)


The San Francisco 49ers have 14 potential unrestricted free agents who would hit the market when the new league year begins on March 10. Let’s continue our countdown with a receiver who returned to the Niners after eight years away and a year out of football.

Lloyd
Lloyd
WR Brandon Lloyd

Originally a fourth-round pick of the Niners in 2003 out of Illinois, Lloyd spent the first three years of his NFL career in San Francisco before going to Washington, the Chicago Bears, the Denver Broncos, the St. Louis Rams and the New England Patriots. Lloyd did not play in 2013 before signing with the 49ers as a free agent. He was a Pro Bowler in 2010 with the Broncos as he led the NFL in receiving yards (1,448) and catches of at least 25 yards (18) with 11 touchdowns on 77 receptions. His 18.8 yards-per-catch average ranks fourth since the 1970 merger for a single season among players with at least 75 catches.

49ers career: In his first go-round, Lloyd had 105 catches for 1,510 yards and 13 touchdowns in 45 games, with the likes of Jeff Garcia, Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey, Cody Pickett and Alex Smith under center. Last year, at age 33, Lloyd was the Niners’ most acrobatic pass catcher, averaging 21 yards per catch on 14 receptions. He also had a score, a clutch 80-yard catch-and-run at St. Louis just before halftime, but only three of his catches came after Week 9.

Argument for keeping Lloyd: Sure, he’s old by football standards. And yes, his production tailed off in the second half of the season. But he did average 21 yards per catch. His 80-yard touchdown at St. Louis on "Monday Night Football" was the team’s longest reception by a receiver since Lloyd himself had an 89-yard touchdown reception from Rattay in 2005. He also had an acrobatic sideline catch against the Kansas City Chiefs to keep a drive alive in Week 5. After a year off, he seemed re-charged, and even at 34 (his age on July 5), he could be a change-of-pace receiver for a receiving corps that might also lose Michael Crabtree and Stevie Johnson.

Argument for letting Lloyd walk: He’s old by football standards. And since we’re talking football here, that’s the most important thing. He petered out in the second half of the season and while his experience -- he has played 11 seasons and has 399 career catches for 5,989 yards and 36 touchdowns – is impressive, he is no longer a game-changer. And with the Niners receiver corps in flux, the team needs to start fresh.

A bold prediction: Lloyd takes the decision out of the Niners’ hands and retires. Again.
Michael Wilhoite started 16 games for an injury-wracked San Francisco 49ers linebacker corps last season, contributing 87 tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble playing inside the Niners’ 3-4 defense.

But with All-Pros Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman expected to make full recoveries from their toe and knee injuries, and Chris Borland also returning from an ankle injury, Wilhoite is also now deemed expendable.

Wilhoite is on the trading block, according to the Sacramento Bee, and the Niners are looking for a sixth- or seventh-round draft pick for him.

Undrafted out of Division II Washburn, where he played safety, he began his professional football career with the UFL’s Omaha Nighthawks. He was signed to the Niners’ practice squad in December of 2011. He made his NFL debut by playing in five games in 2012 and appeared in all 16 games in 2013.

Last season, with Bowman still recuperating from his knee injury suffered in the previous January’s NFC title game loss at the Seattle Seahawks, Wilhoite stepped in as the starter at “jack” linebacker.

His interceptions came in 49ers wins against the New York Giants' Eli Manning in Week 11 and against the Arizona Cardinals' Ryan Lindley in Week 17.
With the new league year beginning Tuesday at 1 p.m. PT, ESPN.com Insider has put together a free-agency guide for all 32 teams.

The San Francisco 49ers guide is here Insider.

The guide addresses biggest needs, top targets and predictions for the offseason, with Football Outsiders’ Vince Verhei, scouting guru Matt Williamson and yours truly offering respective thoughts.

But because it is Insider, I can only give a preview of the subject matter.

Some positions and names to contemplate, then: cornerback, running back Frank Gore, receiver Michael Crabtree, linebacker Ahmad Brooks, receiver Cecil Shorts III and defensive line.

What do you think is the biggest need for the Niners, who their top targets should be in free agency, and what about a prediction, or two? Have at it.
All 32 ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters participated in a survey that ran on our website Wednesday. The question: Which free agent on your team needs to be re-signed?

The answers? Varied, from the usual suspects such as running back DeMarco Murray (Dallas Cowboys), defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (Detroit Lions) and cornerback Darrelle Revis (New England Patriots) to unlikely candidates such as tight end Niles Paul (Washington), long-snapper Cullen Loeffler (Minnesota Vikings) and None of the Above, which has more to do with the New Orleans Saints than Richard Pryor's Monty Brewster (Go ahead, IMDB it).

The 49ers are scheduled to have 14 unrestricted free agents come Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT after safety/special teamer Bubba Ventrone retired and joined the New England Patriots' staff as an assistant special teams coach this week.

So who fits the bill as the most-needed re-up of the 14 Niners? It may seem obvious (rhymes with Grank Fore) but I went outside the box (think secondary). And the entire survey can be found here.
The San Francisco 49ers have 14 potential unrestricted free agents who would hit the market when the new league year begins on March 10. Let's continue our countdown with a running back/special teamer who joined the Niners late last season.

RB Phillip Tanner

Tanner
An undrafted free agent who initially broke into the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys in 2011 out of Middle Tennessee State, Tanner spent three years with the Cowboys before going to Buffalo last October and then coming to the Niners on Dec. 17. He has appeared in 41 games in his career and has 56 carries for 149 yards and two touchdowns with nine receptiopns for 93 yards in 42 career games.

49ers career: After signing with the Niners on Dec. 17, he appeared in their final two games on special teams while adding practice depth at running back.

Argument for keeping Tanner: Who? Play nice. Tanner was only around for two weeks so he made no real impression but every team needs a grinder for depth, and Tanner was seen as a "physical playmaker" by the team, per his season-ending bio. He's relatively inexpensive and fits the description of a role player for a team that insists it's reloading, rather than rebuilding.

Argument for letting Tanner walk: Who? Exactly. The 49ers are "believers" in analytics, meaning lower-tier players are especially seen as so many widgets that are easily replaced by whatever comes up next off the assembly line. For what Tanner gave the Niners for two games, they can find in an undrafted rookie free agent.

A bold prediction: Tanner's brief two-game stay with the Niners and vagabond existence made enough of an intriguing impression on new coach Jim Tomsula that he is brought back for depth and special teams work.

Can Jim Tomsula recruit free agents?

March, 4, 2015
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ESPN San Francisco 49ers reporter Paul Gutierrez talks about how coach Jim Tomsula will play with free agents looking to come to San Francisco.
The San Francisco 49ers have 14 potential unrestricted free agents who will hit the market when the new league year begins March 10. Let’s continue our countdown with a receiver who was supposed to be a game-changer.

Crabtree
WR Michael Crabtree

The No. 10 overall pick out of Texas Tech in 2010 was drafted as damaged goods, injuring his foot after becoming the first two-time winner of the Biletnikoff Award as college football’s best receiver. Physical maladies have continued to slow him in recent years.

49ers career: Crabtree might not have been the game-changer the Niners envisioned when they selected him, but he has caught a pass in all 79 games in which he has played, accumulating 347 receptions for 4,327 yards and 26 TDs. His best season was in 2012, when he caught 85 passes for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns, becoming the first 1,000-yard receiver for the Niners since Terrell Owens in 2003. He had a pair of 100-yard receiving games in the 2012 postseason as the Niners advanced to Super Bowl XLVII. With that game on the line, he targeted three times from the Baltimore Ravens’ 5-yard line, with no success. He missed all but five games in 2013 with an Achilles’ injury and suffered a down season last year, averaging a career-low 10.3 yards per catch.

Argument for keeping Crabtree: Is there a better option for a veteran receiver on the free-agent market? Still thinking? Then the answer should be to re-up Crabtree. Yes, he had an extremely down season, but he was dealing with a foot issue and still gutted his way through 16 games. He is still only 27 years old and still someone defenses have to focus on. While he is not a burner, he complements Anquan Boldin well. He still has something to prove to the 49ers, even after Niners QBs had a 91.1 passer rating when throwing to him last season.

Argument for letting Crabtree walk: Crabtree has already left mentally. He removed all references to the 49ers from his Twitter page. And even when he did have a key play this past year -- his 51-yard catch on 4th-and-10 at New Orleans saved the game for the Niners -- he was not content, calling himself a “third-down receiver” and a “fourth option” pass catcher. If he is not happy to return -- he was very non-committal at the end of the season -- why would the Niners want Colin Kaepernick's former favorite receiver potentially distrupting that locker room?

A bold prediction: Crabtree packs up his Imelda Marcos-like shoe collection and heads off for what he believes are greener pastures. Dallas or Arizona, perhaps?
The San Francisco 49ers have 15 potential unrestricted free agents who would hit the market when the new league year begins on March 10. Let’s continue our countdown with a running back who joined the Niners midseason last year.

Smith
RB Alfonso Smith

Smith spent the first four years of his NFL career with the Arizona Cardinals as an undrafted free agent out of Kentucky. He has appeared in 48 games in his career, though has not started one. Smith, who has also been a special teams player, has rushed for 175 yards on 55 rushes with two TDs and has caught 18 passes for 121 yards in his career.

49ers career: Smith joined the 49ers on Nov. 11 as a free agent and played in six games. He rushed for 19 yards on six carries, including 14 yards on two rushes in Week 16 against the San Diego Chargers, and caught three passes for 11 yards.

Argument for keeping Smith: Look, no one believes that Smith is going to supplant Frank Gore should he, as expected, leave via free agency. But Smith is a hard runner who could spell Carlos Hyde, especially if Kendall Hunter is not 100 percent recovered from his knee injury. Plus, Smith’s special teams contributions should not be overlooked.

Argument for letting Smith walk: The 49ers could find a similar player in the later rounds of the draft. And for a cheaper price.

A bold prediction: Gore leaves, the Niners like a veteran presence behind Hyde and re-sign Smith.
Take one of San Francisco's pending 15 unrestricted free agents off its "to-consider" list.

Special teams ace/safety Bubba Ventrone, 32, has retired and is returning to his original NFL team as a special teams assistant, the New England Patriots announced on Tuesday.

Ventrone, who first signed with New England as a rookie free agent out of Villanova in 2005, was also with the New York Jets in 2007, and played for the Cleveland Browns from 2009 through 2012, before coming to San Francisco in 2013.

With the Niners in 2013, he was second in special-teams tackles with 15. He returned to Santa Clara on Oct. 8, 2014, played in eight games and had three special teams tackles before a groin injury ended his season in December.

Ventrone retires with 54 special teams tackles, two special teams fumble recoveries and four kick returns.

Following are the Niners' pending UFAs:

QB Blaine Gabbert

QB Josh Johnson

RB Frank Gore

RB Alfonso Smith

RB Phillip Tanner

WR Michael Crabtree

WR Brandon Lloyd

WR Kassim Osgood

LG Mike Iupati

LB Dan Skuta

LB Desmond Bishop

CB Chris Culliver

CB Perrish Cox

CB Chris Cook

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