The 49ers' top free agent? It's not Donte Whitner or Phil Dawson, according to one list. ESPN's team of analysts, which includes former Colts general manager Bill Polian, believes cornerback Tarell Brown is the most valuable 49er likely to hit free agency next week.
Brown received a B grade from the panel, the highest for a cornerback. That's a bit of a departure from other free-agency rankings that typically place the Colts' Vontae Davis as the best at his position. He gets a B- from ESPN. Raiders free agent cornerback Tracy Porter and Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib also got Bs. Brown also is the highest-rated 49er. Whitner gets a B- grade while another cornerback, Eric Wright, gets a C.
"I think the grade speaks for itself," Polian said on a conference call this morning. "We think he's a good player. The question is ... system fit. Does he fit for what a club is looking for? Is he the kind of player that can step in and play well in your system? That's the issue. One size does not fit all. And that will determine - system fit will determine -- the market. And people are getting better at that."
Brown (5-10, 193 pounds) has been a starter with the 49ers since Vic Fangio took over as defensive coordinator in 2011. However, a rib injury late this season allowed Tramaine Brock to take over Brown's starting role, and it was Brock - not Brown - who was awarded a contract extension. Brown is expected to reach the free-agent market on Tuesday.
Brown, 29, has proven very good in coverage, and the ESPN ranking cites his instincts and ability in man coverage. Brown had four interceptions in 2011, two in 2012 but did not have one last season.
In addition to Brown and Wright, cornerback Perrish Cox also is likely to become an unrestricted free agent on Tuesday. Cox technically is a restricted free agent, but the 49ers are unlikely to tender him. Veteran Carlos Rogers' spot on the team also is tenuous given his high salary for 2014.
The 49ers are expected to take a cornerback early in the upcoming draft. The class is considered deep at that position, which Polian said could affect some free-agent cornerbacks.
"I don't think it hurts the premier free agents," he said. "It certainly hurts the middle class and below. And I'm not sure that any draft is deep. Four years from now, I'll tell you whether it was deep or not. Right now it's really just conjecture."
- Matt Barrows