- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Not since the days of Eddie DeBartolo have the San Francisco 49ers been a prime destination for top free agents.
Well, that's about to change, because the 49ers are going to be big players in free agency in 2007. With $30 million of cap room by the time free agency starts at 12:01 a.m. ET Friday, the 49ers are the hot team in the offseason marketplace. When it comes to the 49ers making a big hit in free agency, it's not a question of "If." It's who and how many.
Coach Mike Nolan and vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan have been planning this assault for more than a year. They've been purging the cap problems of the Terry Donahue years. They've been building an offense through the draft and now are set to hit the defensive side of the ball hard.
Even though the wait has been a little nerve-wracking, watching a lot of potential defensive free agents re-sign with their current teams, the 49ers are ready for action, and a lot of it.
"The way I look at it is you try to get the top guys," McCloughan said. "If you get one or two, great. I would love to get four or five even if it turns out that some of the guys aren't front-line starters. If they aren't, the additions could be quality backups who have the ability to start, especially on defense."
The plan is to go after defense and make it a well-stocked 3-4 scheme for the next several years. For two drafts, the 49ers have taken mostly offensive players. In each of those years, they have been true to their draft boards. For a team that needed everything, offensive players just happened to be the top-rated players on their board when they were on the clock.
Alex Smith is developing into the mobile, athletic quarterback the 49ers hoped for when they made him the No. 1 choice in 2005. Frank Gore established himself as one of the league's top runners last season. Vernon Davis, who missed a number of games due to injury last season as a rookie, might be the most athletic tight end in the NFL. The offensive line is getting younger and stronger.
The 49ers suddenly have a lot of weapons at their disposal. They have the cap room and the commitment from ownership to spend the cash. With compensatory picks added in, they could have eight choices in the first four rounds of this year's draft. They expect to get compensatory picks in Rounds 3 and 4. Plus, they have two additional fourth-round picks from trades.
All told, the 49ers would like to get seven new starters on defense this offseason.
"That doesn't mean we are going to bypass good offensive players," McCloughan said. "It's not as if we are going to sign one guy and think he's going to make us that much better. I think we'd like to add four or five and then we can get the rest out of the draft. On defense, the worst-case scenario would be getting five new starters, but the best-case is to get seven."
From his tour of colleges and what he saw this week at the scouting combine, McCloughan feels good about the draft prospects at defensive end and at rush linebacker. The 49ers drafted their first potential star at rush linebacker last season when they grabbed Manny Lawson. That was a start.
The 49ers hope to top what the Titans did last season in free agency and the draft. Last year, the Titans were aggressive in signing center Kevin Mawae, safety Chris Hope, wide receiver David Givens and linebacker David Thornton, along with drafting quarterback Vince Young. They jumped from a 4-12 team to an 8-8 team and a potential playoff contender for 2007.
Many teams around the NFC West believed the 49ers were close to being a playoff-caliber team at the end of last season. This is the offseason that can put them over the top.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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