Yesterday we looked at the 49ers defensive free agents who are most likely to return in 2011. Today, we turn our attention to the offense, including the two players who promise to handle the ball most this season:
QB Alex Smith: Thank goodness for Alex Smith. Without him, there would have been nothing to write about during this dreary lockout. (At least until the Case of Michael Crabtree's Mysterious Left Foot). The result, however, is that by now all the suspense has been taken out of the Alex Smith story. He's going to sign a deal with the 49ers, believed to be in the neighborhood of one year for up to $5 million, likely in the proposed three-day window before the true free agency period begins. Say what you will about Smith's lack of production heretofore, but it's very hard to criticize his offseason. He not only organized, taught and coached the player-run practices, he helped arrange for the accommodations at San Jose State via a handsome donation and bought plane tickets so that rookies could throw with him. In one case, he even let a draft pick borrow his wife's wheels.
C David Baas: Behind Smith, Baas is the most crucial free agent to re-sign. The team knew that it could not count on Eric Heitmann this season, but last month's news that Heitmann had surgery on a ruptured disc crystallizes the situation: The 49ers currently don't have anyone with center experience on the roster. That Baas flew from Florida to take part in one day of the 49ers practices is a good sign. Baas said he felt comfortable that he could pick up Jim Harbaugh's system. Indeed, he's part of the 2005 draft class - along with Smith, Frank Gore and Adam Snyder - who learned a similar system under then-offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy. Said Baas last month: "Yeah, I have a feeling that they definitely, that they want me back. And like I said, I want to be back. I've got my house out here, a lot of things that I'm still hanging onto. But I'm just preparing and when the time comes, everything will work out." The question is whether Paraag Marathe and the 49ers can swing a deal with Baas before the free-agent market opens up.
OT Barry Sims: The 49ers might decide that this is the year promising Alex Boone, a one-time undrafted free agent who could end up being the steal of the 2009 class, takes over the swing tackle role from Sims. But when choosing between the proven commodity and the intriguing young player, coaches typically side with caution. That's what the 49ers did a year ago when they tapped Sims, a 13-year veteran, to take over at left tackle for injured Joe Staley. As was the case in 2009, Sims was solid at the position in 2010. Still, despite giving the starting nod to Sims, the 49ers kept Boone on the regular-season roster, an indication they have plans for him. It's not known at this point what regular-season roster sizes will look like under a new CBA. But if the 49ers kept both Sims and Boone when rosters were limited to 53 players, there's a good chance that they'll do it again when rosters are 53 men or higher.
So long, farewell ...
G/C Tony Wragge: The 49ers drafted two interior linemen, Daniel Kilgore and Mike Person, this offseason, and there's a strong likelihood that Stanford's Chase Beeler will be signed in the next week or so. Throw in the fact that Adam Snyder has handled most of the snapping duties during player-led functions this offseason, and it appears that there's no room for Wragge. One fact that suggests otherwise: None of the players listed above has started a game at center in the NFL; Wragge has, and moreover, Baas has his fair share of injuries over the last six seasons. Still, if Wragge sees a better opportunity elsewhere, he'll likely depart. Arizona, where Wragge makes his offseason home, might be a good option.
K Jeff Reed: Joe Nedney is 38 years old and has been injured in each of the last two seasons. But one of the factors working against a kicker at such an advanced age (I'm a month older than Joe) was minimized this year when the league voted to move kickoffs up five yards. Apart from the injuries, Nedney has been solid. He missed only two field goal attempts last season and has kicked a field goal of 50 yards or more in each of the six seasons he has been in San Francisco. Reed, meanwhile, set himself up nicely for free agency by going 9-10 on field goals upon joining the 49ers late last year, including some in terrible conditions. The team also appears to be grooming big-legged Fabrizio Scaccia, who is playing for the Arizona Rattlers of the Arena League. According to league stats, Scaccia is 101-113 on extra points and 2-9 on field goal attempts this season.
QB Troy Smith: When Troy Smith started on Halloween night, he appeared to be the perfect spice for Jimmy Raye's tasteless casserole of an offense. Smith was fearless, and he had a strong arm and quick feet to support his improvisational skills. But the magic that he brought that night wore off in ensuing weeks as defenses began to figure out how to contain Smith. Starting Troy Smith instead of Alex Smith in the crucial penultimate game in St. Louis was perhaps Mike Singletary's biggest mistake of the season (I concede that there would be a lengthy discussion on the topic) and was what led to him being fired later that night. Troy Smith was Singletary's guy through and through. Without Singletary, there is no Troy Smith.
RB Brian Westbrook: He's a respected veteran of the West Coast system who showed he still has plenty of life in his legs and who finished second in rushing yards for the 49ers last season. So he'll be back, right? Negative. In fact, it's hard to pick out another 49ers free agent more assured to NOT return. Not only did Westbrook receive scant carries during the first half of the season, he had to bite his lip while Singletary explained that the reason Westbrook didn't see more action was that he hadn't learned the blocking schemes. Pass blocking, in fact, is one of Westbrook's fortes. He knows pass protection like Bob Ross knows puffy little clouds. Singletary, of course, is gone. But Frank Gore is not. And Westbrook knows that for all the talk of Gore getting more rest this season, the 49ers' starting tailback will demand the lion's share of the carries.
-- Matt Barrows