Just got off a pre-free agency conference call with Scot McCloughan, who began the session by managing expectations. The 49ers, of course, made a huge splash last year with the first-day signing of Nate Clements, Michael Lewis and Aubrayo Franklin. McCloughan seemed to suggest that this year won’t be as flashy. “We want to do most of our damage through the draft,” McCloughan said. He did say that the team’s philosophy is to use free agency to target certain positions of need so that the 49ers can pick the best player available in the draft. The team’s neediest positions, according to McCloughan: defensive line and offensive line depth. He said that wide receiver, another position of need, was one that was better served through the draft. “The market’s not really that deep (for receivers),” he said.. “… In free agency, you’re always going to overspend. Certain positions, you’re going to pay more.” What does all that mean? It means it looks good for the 49ers acquiring Justin Smith; not so good for them acquiring Bernard Berrian.
Other McCloughan tidbits:
* The 49ers exercised a “buy-back” option in Alex Smith’s contract that will keep the quarterback around for three more seasons. If they hadn’t done so, Smith could have become a free agent after this year. (Eli Manning and the Giants went through a similar process last year). “It just goes to show that we have faith in him,” McCloughan said. “He’s our guy.” Smith is recovering well from his December shoulder surgery. He will see Dr. James Andrews next week at which time he is expected to be cleared for some light tossing.
* I asked whether the 49ers were interested in trading tackle Jonas Jennings, whose relationship with Mike Nolan has been a tad rocky. McCloughan’s response: Absolutely not. “He’s a 49er. He’s under contract. He’ll come in and compete for a starting job.” He might, however, compete for the starting job at right, not left, tackle.
* McCloughan said the 49ers are interested in re-signing G Larry Allen, DE Marques Douglas, G Justin Smiley and CB Donald Strickland, but they have a certain price in mind. Those players will reach the free-agent market hoping for a deal that surpasses the 49ers’ offer. McCloughan did say that he’s asked Douglas’ agent to give the 49ers an opportunity to see if they can match any offers he receives on the open market. The Saints are one of the teams interested in Douglas.
* McCloughan has spoken with Trent Dilfer about retiring. However, Dilfer has not yet spoken with Mike Nolan on the matter. The three will sit down in coming weeks to discuss Dilfer’s future with the team.
* Newly signed defensive end Isaac Sopoaga can play all three positions along the line, McCloughan said. Which spot he ends up playing will depend on whom the 49ers add in free agency or the draft.
* McCloughan said there was “nothing to respond to” regarding allegations by the Bears that the 49ers had tampered with linebacker Lance Briggs. McCloughan explained it as “maneuvering by an organization (the Bears) trying to find the best way to keep their guys.”
* McCloughan came back from the annual scouting combine thinking that this year’s draft class is “much better” than he and other evaluators had anticipated. Last year, the 49ers gave 20 players first-round grades. McCloughan declined to give a number this season, but the number is higher than 20.
-- Matt Barrows