The 49ers have a realistic chance to return to the playoffs this fall because coach Mike Nolan and personnel chief Scot McCloughan know how to put a team together. This year, the 49ers were well under the salary cap, and owner John York was willing to commit money to improve the team. Nolan put the club’s money where it could do the most good.
In their preparation, Nolan and McCloughan saw fourbasic needs: A shutdown cornerback, a pass- rushing outside linebacker, a nose tackle and a wide receiver, after Antonio Bryant was released.
The first two were critical because they couldn’t get them through the draft. Quality players in those categories typically go in the top five overall picks. Nor could they get both of them because they’re too expensive in free agency.
Nolan and McCloughan decided to go for cornerback Nate Clements, leaving Walt Harris and Shawntae Spencer to compete for the other starting corner spot and giving them a depth at the position they haven’t had for many years. They also added safety Michael Lewis, so the defensive backfield should be a real strength.
In making Clements their first choice, the Niners passed on Adalius Thomas, the pass-rushing linebacker who was rated as the second-best free agent, behind Clements. Thomas went to New England.
But they picked up an intriguing player, Tully Banta-Cain, a former defensive end for the Cal Bears who grew up in Mountian View. Banta-Cain had been used primarily as a special teams player for the Patriots, but when he started the final games as a replacement for the injured Junior Seau last season, he recorded 5 ½ sacks — and another two in the playoffs.
Because Nolan is committed to the 3-4, he needed a sturdy nose tackle to plug up the middle and he got him in Aubrayo Franklin, whom Nolan had coached when he was the defensive coordinator at Baltimore.
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The last need was a wide receiver, and the Niners went for Ashley Lelie, a gamble because his last two years have not been productive. But Lelie has great speed and, with second-year tight end Vernon Davis, could provide the deep threat quarterback Alex Smith needs. And, because wide receiver is the easiest position to fill in the draft, the 49ers could add another one that way.
Meanwhile, the 49ers’ biggest loss in free agency was Eric Johnson, a backup tight end.
Nolan has been putting his type of team together for three years. The individual moves have sometimes been puzzling, but now the picture is coming into focus.
From the start, he knew that not all players are created equal. When he had the No. 1 overall pick that first year, he chose a quarterback. Smith took his lumps in his rookie season, but he showed substantial improvement last year. So, Nolan didn’t need to waste money in free agency on a quarterback. Any 49ers fans want to see Jeff Garcia back?
The 49ers have still another chance to improve with eight picks in the first four rounds of the draft.
But this offseason, the free agent market was even more important for the Niners. Nolan and McCloughan had prepared well and jumped on their choices quickly. For the first time in years, the 49ers will be a legitimate contender for a playoff spot this fall.