We talked about how Richard Sherman has been the best free-agent signing for the San Francisco 49ers in the last five seasons. How about all-time, though? This list is only going to consist of names as far as my football watching memory can remember. At 33, that’s going to be pretty much from the 90s on, unfortunately. The good news is the 49ers have had their fair share of impact signings in free agency since then. Let’s take a look at a handful of the best.
Honorable mention: OL Larry Allen & Ray Brown. RB Charlie Garner
Dallas released Allen, then signed with San Francisco in 2006, where he was voted to his 11th career Pro Bowl, despite missing five games with a knee injury. This was the same year Frank Gore ran for a franchise-record 1,695 yards. Allen would play one more year with the Niners before retiring in 2008.
Brown was with the 49ers for six seasons, where he started 95 games and only missed one start. Brown was an All-Pro and Pro Bowler in 2001. Brown came over from Washington at age 34.
Garner played two seasons with the 49ers after coming over from the Eagles. He had an 11-year career, but only Garner’s only two 1,000 yard rushing seasons came in San Francisco. Garner gets the honorable mention nod because of a former Bengal running back that you’ll see on the list later.
McDonald signed with the Niners in ‘93 as an unrestricted free agent of the Arizona Cardinals. McDonald’s would end up playing seven seasons in San Francisco and starting 111 games. When you get that type of consistency, you’re going to make the list. The three-time Pro Bowler helped the Niners win Super Bowl XXIX, where he scored two defensive touchdowns. McDonald’s stats in 1998: four interceptions, four sacks, 15 pass breakups. Hello.
If not for injuries, Garrison Hearst’s reputation would be a lot different. Hearst was a running back that could do it all. Run you over, run right by you, catch, you name it. Hearst game to the 49ers in ‘97 and had over 1,000 yards in his first season. The next year he ran for over 1,500 yards and had over 500 yards receiving. That was the season where Hearst had the infamous 96-yard touchdown run in overtime against the Jets. Hearst would spend five seasons with San Francisco, where he was named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year and a trip to the Pro Bowl. Hearst missed the ‘99 and ‘00 seasons but would return in 2001 to run for 1,206 yards. He was one of the most talented runners I’ve seen in my life. Unfortunately, he was slowed down by injuries.
Ken Norton, Jr.
Another former Cowboy, Norton Jr., spent seven seasons with the 49ers and led the team in tackles for six consecutive seasons. A Super Bowl win, a first-team All-Pro appearance, and a whole lot of energy and attitude.
Just looking back at the names the 49ers were able to reel in during free agency in the 90s is remarkable.
Twitter would have been “fun” to see the reactions when you go from an obvious Hall of Famer in Steve Young to a no-name quarterback that played in another league. Garcia got a chance to start when Young was hit by DB Aeneas Williams and that would knock Young out for the entire season. Garcia made the Pro Bowl in three straight seasons, and in the 2002 playoffs led the second comeback victory in NFL history against the Giants. Down 28 points in the third quarter, Garcia helped storm a comeback to a 39-38 win. Garcia gets the nod over the others because of positional value.
And then there were two
I won’t argue with anyone who has Justin Smith at No. 1, or Deion Sanders at No. 1. What we can all agree on is these are two of the best free-agent signings in franchise history. Let’s start with Primetime since he only played one year.
There isn’t a year that goes by where I don’t watch Sanders’ highlights from 1994. It helps that he is my favorite player of all-time. Sanders had six interceptions, and three of those went for touchdowns. Sanders also had an interception in the Super Bowl against the Chargers. He was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. The highlight of the season came when he had his “revenge” against the Atlanta Falcons. Deion stepped in front of a Jeff George (one of the strongest arms in the NFL) pass and took it to the house 93 yards while high-stepping in front of the Falcons sideline. I wish all the players talked as much trash as Primetime.
If Smith played in this era where we chart pressures, quarterback hits, and all other non-sack stats, he’d be more appreciated. Still, “The Cowboy” was SI’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2011, where he finished with 7.5 sacks, six tackles for loss, and three forced fumbles. Smith made five consecutive Pro Bowls as well. He is one of the strongest players to play the game since I’ve been alive. Smith was a model of consistency. He only missed two games in seven seasons with San Francisco.
If not best, who were some of your favorite free agent signings over the years?