The looming collective-bargaining impasse will have a huge impact on free agency in 2011. For example, will there even be a March free-agency period? And if there is, will a new CBA contain free-agency staples like franchise tags that have become part of the NFL lexicon? In a non-capped session, will players need five years to be an unrestricted free agent? If so, then players drafted in 2007 - such as Dashon Goldson - will be far easier to retain because they would be restricted free agents.
And that's not even considering all the upheaval that would come with a possible regime change in San Francisco. So for now, let's look at the 49ers pending free agents as if this was a normal year and there wasn't an avalanche of tumult ahead ...
In alphabetical order:
G/C David Baas. Until this season, Baas had been a disappointment. He hadn't been able to beat out Justin Smiley early in his career, and he was slowed by an array of injuries later in his career. Through nine games, however, he's been perhaps the 49ers most pleasant surprise. He's been the most consistent offensive lineman, someone who usually gets a nice push on inside runs and who has the wheels to get downfield as well. With Eric Heitmann knocked out for the season with a neck/back injury, the 49ers have to be wondering about the long-term situation at center and whether Baas is now the guy to fill the position. He is perhaps the 49ers biggest must-sign free agent, and that's something no one was thinking as recently as August.
DE Demetric Evans. Evans is smart and reliable, a guy who spells Justin Smith from time to time. He'd be an asset if one of the starters at defensive end were injured. But he's certainly not an impact player and he won't be a priority to re-sign.
NT Aubrayo Franklin. Franklin's bargaining position perhaps was weakened a bit by how well understudy Ricky Jean Francois played throughout the offseason. Still, the 49ers would prefer to have the savvy and steady Franklin back next season at the right price. Patrick Willis' tackle numbers have been creeping upward over the last four games, which is always indicative of how Franklin and the defensive line are playing. The team currently ranks 10th in stopping the run. Only the Chiefs have had success in that area this season. If there is a franchise tag, Franklin seems like the guy who would get it, especially if the 49ers pass on a nose tackle in the draft. (CBA or no CBA, the one thing we know is that there will be a draft. Hoo-ray!)
S Dashon Goldson. At one point, the 49ers and Goldson were close to completing an extension. But Goldson switched agents to Drew Rosenhaus and the demands went up. Goldson now wants to be one of the three or four highest-paid safeties in the league. Through nine games, Goldson hasn't lived up to those demands. He has no interceptions, and his tackling ability has been lacking in recent games. Goldson may be dealing with injuries, but - come on - what players aren't nicked up after four preseason games and half a season? Still, the 49ers already have gone with a youth movement at that position and would prefer not to have another neophyte, Reggie Smith, paired with Taylor Mays next season.
OLB Manny Lawson. Lawson has been one the defense's most consistent playmakers through the first half of the season. His turnovers against Oakland (an interception) and Denver (a forced fumble) helped propel the 49ers to two of their three wins. I've heard team officials compare Lawson to Alex Smith in that they are both very smart people who are often paralyzed by everything that's going through their heads on a given play. It appears that Lawson has been reacting more quickly and more automatically this season, hence Mike Singletary's recent comment that the "light has gone on" for Lawson. Despite all that positivity, however, Lawson is still a two-down player for the 49ers. They'd rather have Travis LaBoy or Ahmad Brooks on the field on obvious passing downs. And that limits Lawson's value in their minds.
OLB Travis LaBoy. Yes, I know that "LaBoy" comes before "Lawson" alphabetically, but LaBoy's value to the team is related to Lawson's, so it makes sense to talk about them in this order. The big question mark hanging over LaBoy's head all offseason was injuries. At first he practiced sparingly because he was coming off a serious foot injury. Then he didn't practice at all because he was dealing with a concussion. LaBoy seemed like a sure end-of-training camp roster cut at one point, but then turned a masterful preseason performance in which he showed true pass-rush skills. LaBoy is behind Justin Smith (5) and Parys Haralson (4) with three sacks. More important, he's remained healthy.
DE Ray McDonald. He's not a starter, but McDonald figures prominently on the team's third-down packages where he pairs with Justin Smith as the team's interior linemen. McDonald has rare, quick-twitch ability for a 300-plus pounder, and he nearly had a huge blocked field goal against the Saints earlier this year. He's not a top priority, but he's someone the 49ers would like to have back.
OT Barry Sims. The 12-year veteran is almost in the exact same spot he was in a year ago, assuming he fills in for Joe Staley at left tackle over the final seven games. If he plays well, he probably can expect another one-year deal. The only difference is that the 49ers have had another year to evaluate Alex Boone, who also could be their back-up tackle for the future.
QB Alex Smith. Smith bashers can take out their tambourines and snare drums, but don't start banging them quite yet. There's still an X-Wing-fighter-hits-a-small-hole-in-the-Death-Star chance the quarterback will be re-signed. It likely would involve a Troy Smith injury/collapse and a miracle finish by Alex Smith and the 49ers. That or Norv Turner is named the 49ers new head coach in January ...
QB Troy Smith. Based on the last two games, you might want to sign Smith to an extension that makes him a 49er for life. But quarterbacks are a lot like major league pitchers. They sometimes look good in their first few outings. But after a while, the scouting reports are filled in and hitters start to catch up. Luckily the 49ers have seven more research opportunities at their disposal.
LB Takeo Spikes. He's been very good and very valuable this season, especially after Michael Lewis was released. When that happened, Spikes took over Lewis' role in the team's nickel packages. He's shown pass-coverage skills that belie his age (34). Furthermore, third-round pick NaVorro Bowman hasn't progressed as quickly as the 49ers would have liked or at least as quickly as he signaled he would during an impressive training camp. Bowman certainly is fast, and the 49ers would love to pair that speed with Willis'. But Bowman's quickness hasn't been enough to make up for several mental lapses. Spikes told me in the offseason that he wasn't ready to fade into the background and that he wanted to keep playing. "I'm the author of my own book, so when I'm ready to put down the pen and quit writing my book, that's when it's over," Spikes said in August. "So it's no knock against (the young linebackers), but I ain't going to hand nothing over. I never have and I never will. If they come when my play is not up to par, then that's when I'll walk away from the game."
RB Brian Westbrook. The nine-year veteran knew he'd be Frank Gore's backup this season. But he went from being the Indispensable Man in Philadelphia to the Invisible Man in San Francisco. Through nine games, Westbrook has five carries for nine yards and is behind sixth-round pick Anthony Dixon on the depth chart. Barring a dramatic second-half increase in playing time, it's very hard to see Westbrook wanting to return.
G/C Tony Wragge. He's solid if unspectacular. Heitmann's injury might mean that the 49ers need to keep Wragge around as a back-up center. Who knew he could play tackle, too?
-- Matt Barrows