Niners sign Clements to 8-year, $80 million deal; also add S Lewis

Updated: March 3, 2007, 12:27 AM ET
Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO -- The San Francisco 49ers signed cornerback Nate Clements and safety Michael Lewis on Friday, making two bold moves in the opening hours of free agency.

Clements, the star cornerback from the Buffalo Bills, agreed to an eight-year, $80 million contract. The six-year veteran was considered one of the top prizes in free agency, and the up-and-coming 49ers rewarded him accordingly with what's believed to be the richest contract for a defensive back in NFL history.

Clements said the 49ers "not only showed the most interest, but I felt that they were moving in the right direction.

"This is Year Seven for me, and I've never even had a taste of the playoffs," he said. "I'm a competitor by nature, and I just want to get a taste at that next level."

Terms of Clements' deal were confirmed by a person familiar with the negotiations. The person spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because contract terms aren't usually released by NFL teams.

After four straight losing seasons, the 49ers had more than $30 million in cap room to spend on free agents -- and a good chunk of it immediately went to Clements, a two-time Pro Bowl selection who spent his first six NFL seasons with Buffalo.

He became a free agent after completing a one-year contract, saying he hoped to better Champ Bailey's seven-year, $63 million deal with Denver in 2004.

"I feel that we can definitely make a difference," Clements said of his arrival with Lewis. "We bring a lot of intangibles with our game to the table. We can both run, cover, aren't afraid to hit, and we just go out there and make plays."

Lewis, a safety from Philadelphia, got a six-year contract and a fresh start after a rough finish to his career with the Eagles. He will become an immediate starter in the 49ers' inconsistent defensive secondary alongside Clements, coach Mike Nolan said.

Lewis, who excels as a run-stopper, started in the Pro Bowl following the Eagles' trip to the Super Bowl in the 2004 season, but was expected to leave town after losing his starting job in Philadelphia last season.

"A lot of things that went on in Philadelphia weren't football-related," Lewis said. "That is the nature of the business, but I have something to prove. I want to get back to where my name needs to be as one of the top safeties in the league, as I feel I am."

Clements and Lewis both visited the 49ers' training complex Friday, and wasted no time sewing up deals to bolster a secondary that struggled with injuries and mistakes last season despite cornerback Walt Harris' Pro Bowl play. Lewis cited the San Francisco tradition of Ronnie Lott and Merton Hanks in the defensive secondary as another reason for signing.

Both of the 49ers' opening-day safeties lost their jobs during the year, and cornerback Shawntae Spencer struggled at times. San Francisco's defense yielded a league-worst 412 points and lost games by 41, 31 and 29 points during a midseason collapse, prompting Nolan to fire defensive coordinator Billy Davis.

"Free agency is about adding good players with character to our team," Nolan said. "I am confident that Nate and Michael will help make us better. Players have a choice in free agency. It is a compliment to our players and fans that Nate and Michael wanted to be with the 49ers."

Spencer, who got a lucrative contract extension last season, might be reduced to a nickel back with Clements and Harris in starting spots, though Harris will be 33 next season. Lewis has been a strong safety with the Eagles, and he is likely to replace Mark Roman as the 49ers' starter at that position, though both safety spots are interchangeable in Nolan's defense.

Both of the 49ers' new players are exceptionally durable as well. Clements has never missed a game due to injury, started the last 91 consecutive games for Buffalo after cracking the starting lineup in his rookie season.

The 49ers already have made a significant upgrade to a club that went 7-9 last season in Nolan's second year -- and they probably aren't done shopping, either. They have long held strong interest in Pro Bowl linebacker Adalius Thomas, who played for Nolan with the Baltimore Ravens -- as did nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, who's also spoken to the 49ers about a deal.

Clements is coming off a strong season in which he had three interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown, and recovered two fumbles. In six seasons, he has 23 interceptions, including five returned for touchdowns -- and has also returned two punts for scores, though Nolan doesn't intend to put Clements in that high-risk position.

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AP Sports Writer John Wawrow in Buffalo contributed to this report.


Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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