On the surface it would seem that the 49ers are in an enviable position at net tackle. Even if Aubrayo Franklin walks during free agency, Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky-Jean Francois make good alternatives.
That said, neither has really played the NT position at a high level in the NFL and there would be some risk in going with either of them as the starter in 2011. The net tackle position in a 3-4 scheme is by far the most important of any of the front three positions. He anchors the line, stuffs the runs and takes on multiple blockers at one time in order to free up the ends and pass rushing linebackers. There is a reason why teams such as the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots spend high round picks at this position; because it is incredibly important.
After the jump I am going to take a look at the options for San Francisco during free agency as they relate to the defensive tackles position.
Free Agents Under Any System
Anthony Adams, Chicago Bears
2010 Stats: 16 games, 33 Tackles, 29 Solo, 2 Sacks, 1 Passes Defended, 2 Forced Fumbles
Analysis: The Chicago Bears finished 2nd in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game. Anthony Adams started all 16 games on the interior of the defensive line; that must mean he played pretty darn well right? I understand that re-treads and former 49ers aren't usually in the books when it comes to free agency, but Adams may well be the exception.
He isn't the biggest NT you would hope for in a 3-4 system. But, Adams plays much bigger than his 300 pound frame would suggest. Outside of the 49ers internal options, Adams would be a nice fit for them.
Ronald Fields, Denver Broncos
2010 Stats: 16 Games, 22 Tackles, 14 Solo
Analysis: Another former 49er draft pick, Fields fell out of favor in Denver last season. He went from starting all 16 games in a horrible defense in 2009 to not starting any games in a worse defense in 2010. That cannot say much about his future as a starting NT in the NFL.
I don't care the cost, I would stray far away from Fields when free agency starts.
Aubrayo Franklin, San Francisco 49ers
2010 Stats: 16 Starts, 39 Tackles, 38 Solo, 1 Passes Defended
Analysis: A lot has been made that Franklin has performed at his highest level during contract years and that giving him a long term deal may eventually cost the team in the long run. He really hasn't done much to answer those questions. Instead of working through the off-season last year, Franklin signed his franchise tender at the last possible moment so he could avoid the rigors of the OTA's and training camp.
That said, he has played at a high level since joining the 49ers from Baltimore following the 2006 season and anchors one of the better 3-4 defensive line groups in the NFL. If Franklin is asking for more than 3 years and 24 million I would let him walk; San Francisco has other options.
Tommie Harris, Chicago Bears
2010 Stats: 15 Games, 6 Starts 15 Tackles, 9 Solo, 1.5 Sacks, 1 Passes Defended
Analysis: His play has dropped off dramatically since the 2006 season and you are looking at a player that is going to get a bare minimum deal this off-season. There has been questions about his attitude and work ethic. Those questions were raised directly out of college and have been brought back up again recently. The 49ers have much better internal options than to bring in the enigma that is Tommie Harris.
Kris Jenkins, New York Jets
2010 Stats: 1 Game
Analysis: Jenkins' career continues to be marred by injuries. Jenkins has missed nearly 60 games due to injury in his 10 year NFL career, including most of the last two seasons. When healthy, he is one of the premier 3-4 defensive tackles in the NFL. The question is whether or not he will ever return to full strength or will he just call it quits? I believe Jenkins will want to give it one more try in 2011.
This brings me to the 49ers as they relate to Jenkins. He would be a low risk/high reward free agent signing. This means that Jenkins wouldn't cost much more than the veteran minimum and could hold the fort down until RJF is ready to play full time. I think San Francisco may take a long hard look if Jenkins decides to play in 2011.
Pat Williams, Minnesota Vikings
2010 Stats: 16 Stats, 31 Tackles, 22 Solo, 1 Forced Fumble
Analysis: Part of the Williams "brother" wall that Minnesota constructed over the last couple seasons, this dude is just a freaking house! But at 38, Williams is getting up there in age and is on his last ham hock. His performance suffered a little bit in 2010, but as a stop gap option you could do a lot worse than Williams. Another player I look for San Francisco to look at if Franklin walks and they are not prepared to have Soap or RJF take of full time.
Franchised: Compensation would be two 1st round picks. Safe to say neither players is going anywhere else soon.
Haloti Ngata, Baltimore Ravens
2010 Stats: 16 Games, 15 Starts, 63 Tackles, 47 Solo, 5.5 Sacks, 4 Passes Defended
Contract Situation: Signed Baltimore's franchise tender and is no longer on the free agent market.
Analysis: Well, he is off the table so you can stop with your "pipe dreams". Ngata is one of the best 3-4 defensive linemen in the NFL and will assuredly be a hall-of-fame candidate if he keeps it up.
Paul Soliai, Miami Dolphins
2010 Stats: 16 Games, 14 Starts, 33 Tackles, 33 Solo, 2 Sacks, 3 Passes Defended
Contract Situation: Would cost any team two 1st round picks to sign Soliai, which means he will be with the Fins in 2011.
Analysis: What was Miami thinking when they gave Soliai the franchise tender? Is he worth a top five payday? I seriously doubt that. I understand that Miami improved dramatically against the rush in 2010 and he was a major part of that. But, for a player who has only played at a high level for less than a season, it makes no sense that they will guarantee him 7-10 million in 2011.
Either way, no team is going to give up two 1st round picks to acquire Soliai's services.
Possible Free Agents Under New 2011 Free Agent Rules: Each player will have accrued enough NFL experience to hit the open market if a new CBA is agreed to. I will indicate tender offers as they relate to each player below. Tender offers mean that their current team offered some sort of restricted free agent tender. This tender means that the team signing each player would have to give up what was tendered.
Barry Cofield, New York Giants
Contract Situation: Offered 2nd round tender by the Giants. Has stated that he will not play the 2011 season under a one year tender and would demand a trade. It probably doesn't matter, if a new CBA is reached Cofield will be an unrestricted free agent, which would void the tender offer.
Analysis: With the additions of Linvel Joseph and Marvin Austin over the last two drafts, the Giants are prepared to move on, as is Cofield. It looks like he will be an unrestricted free agent, so signing him wouldn't require and compensation.
I think Cofield fits perfectly into the 3-4 system and is a great alternative to Aubrayo Franklin. In fact, I would rather have him starting in the middle for the 49ers in 2010 than Aubrayo. The problem is that he will demand a 5-6 year contract at between 7-9 million a year. Not really worth it if you ask me.
Brandon Mebane, Seattle Seahawks
2010 Stats: 12 Games, 12 Starts, 31 Tackles, 19 Solo, 1 Sack, 2 Passes Defended
Contract Situation: Was given a 3rd round tender by the Seahawks. Will be an unrestricted free agent if a new CBA is signed. All indications is that Seattle wants him back and he wants to remain in the Pacific Northwest.
Analysis: This would be an ideal option for San Francisco. They would be getting a player with tremendous upside that has contributed a great deal during his brief NFL career. Additionally, they would be nabbing from a division rival.
Seattle will not let Mebane walk without a fight and the price tag could shoot up because of competition for his services on the market. Mebane would be one of the few players outside of corner that I would be happy with the 49ers offering a lucrative long term deal to. Still, I am not sure the 49ers have a need to spend 50 million plus on a NT.
Overview: Free agent options is they relate to the NT position are few and far between. It would seem that the 49ers have better internal options with Soap and RJF. To me it doesn't make much sense to take a flyer on another player that we may not be sure fits the 49ers 3-4 system.
The questions you have to ask yourself: Are you willing to go into the 2011 season with Soap or RJF as the full time starter? I am not incredibly sold on that idea. Personally, I think the 49ers make a solid offer to Aubrayo Franklin and if he turns it down they should turn their sights somewhere else in the FA market.
Barry Cofield and Brandon Mebane make the most sense. Both would cost between 6-8 million a year, but would be fillers in the interior of the defensive line. Another option is to go for a short term fix until RJF is ready to take over full time.