Article Title: 49ers bank vault is wide open.
Nothing could’ve prepared the average San Francisco 49er fan for what the ownership and management would do as the 2007 off-season got underway with free agency March 2nd, 2007. Two of the most sought after free agents on the board in Baltimore Ravens Linebacker Adalius Thomas and Buffalo Bills cornerback Nate Clements were on the radar for our beloved team.
It would take a great deal of cash from anyone that was interested in these two to secure either one of their elite services. These two would come into any team as the proverbial starter and make an immediate positive impact from day one of their signing. Both of these players being defensive players fit the mindset and direction Mike Nolan wanted to go to as the decision process proceeded forward on what to do.
Everyone understood that either player was an immediate upgrade to what we already had in place and would help lift the defensive rankings that has belittled this team for almost an entire decade.
Mike Nolan has been in constant search of the ideal linebacker that would help supplement the conversion to the 3-4 defensive philosophies. Adalius Thomas recorded 11 sacks last season, while the 49ers sack leader was Brandon Moore with 6.5. Certainly if he could provide as much impact as he did just last year it would make a big splash.
However the 49ers began looking at the free agent they had been interested just last year as the trading deadline came to its conclusion in Buffalo Bills elite cornerback Nate Clements. The Buffalo Bills last year though demanded a second-round draft pick and never allowed the 49ers an opportunity to negotiate a new deal with him before making a trade.
The San Francisco 49ers have accumulated over $36 million in salary cap room as they entered the free agent marathon and Mike Nolan and Vice President of Personnel in Scot McCloughan have made it abundantly clear that they’ll manage that account conservatively and stretch it as long as it will be allowed.
“We’re not one player away,” McCloughan told Media News. “We’re a handful of players away. We have to remember that when we address free agency. But you also have to get the best football players, too.”
When you look at how the 49ers spent their money last year you have to admire the frugality of both McCloughan and Nolan to deliver players that made immediate upgrades to a roster exceptionally full of rookies and second-year players and helped the team teeter on the verge of making the playoffs this past year.
The 49ers went out and acquired 2007 Pro Bowlers Larry Allen and Walt Harris during the free agent period, and also acquired wide receivers Antonio Bryant and Bryan Gilmore, fullback Moran Norris, linebacker T.J. Slaughter, safeties Mark Roman and Chad Williams and No. 3 quarterback Shaun Hill as our 2006 free agents that were signed.
All of these players made a positive impact upon the 49ers as a team as free agents signed to make a difference. In fact most have been offered contract extensions and have been rewarded for their positive service to the team other than Antonio Bryant who was released because of becoming a public malcontent and a player that emphasized only himself instead of being a team player.
“We’re not living for one year,’ McCloughan said. “We’re living for two, three, four years down the line. The overall theme is: get the best players that you can.”
Well the San Francisco 49ers did just that with a blockbuster of a deal with perennial shutdown cornerback Nate Clements who signed the richest contract for a defensive player in league history. So rich in fact that it proves without a shadow of a doubt at how committed the ownership is to getting this team into playoff contention once and for all.
Nate Clements signed an eight-year $80 million dollar contract with $22 million of it guaranteed. The 27-year old elite cornerback considered by most in the league as one of the very best right next to Champ Bailey and others was excited about becoming a 49er because he felt that this is a team on the verge of being a championship contender.
Clements is fast, big (6-foot, 209 pounds) and even more durable (has never missed a game in six NFL seasons), and he also tackles with authority. He even won the Buffalo Bills Jet Blue Fan Award for the “hardest hit” for a week 13 ladling of San Diego Chargers wide receiver Eric Parker.
His reputation is untainted and he is a player that puts the team first and foremost as required by Mike Nolan on this football team. He loves the game and all that it stands for and in the second half of last season the Bills put him on the oppositions best receiver. In that role, he was able to successfully hold Indianapolis Colts Marvin Harrison to two catches and utterly suffocated Houston Texan’s Andre Johnson.
“The 49ers not only showed me the most interest, but I felt they were moving in the right direction,” Clements said. “This is year seven for me. I’ve never even had a taste of the playoffs. I want to get a taste of that next level.”
The amount of money that was allocated to this one player is staggering. It also is a pure indication that the ownership is finally serious about winning and getting back that championship flavor the San Francisco 49ers were renowned to be. Nate Clements will be that expectation for all 49er fans in vindicating the money that was spent on him.
“I don’t allow that type of pressure to get to me,” Clements said. “I accept it as a challenge. I’m confident in my ability and what I can do. I believe I’m the best and I believe that with conviction.”
He has never missed a game due to injury as a Buffalo Bill and has started 91 consecutive games in a row. He has 23 career interceptions in his six years as a Bill and has two career punt returns for touchdowns. Last season, he had 79 tackles, three interceptions and 26 passes defended.
This is an athlete that will come in and elevate the play of our secondary that is in dire need of a complete makeover. In fact our secondary was mostly responsible for the 49ers 26th ranking against the pass. It also was responsible in giving up a league-high 412 points and 25 touchdowns passes, tied for third-most in the league.
So as you can see adding an elite shutdown corner in Nate Clements was not pure rocket science. It is in fact advanced college-prep science. Along with the Nate Clements acquisition was the signing of Philadelphia Eagles safety Michael Lewis to a six-year, $30 million dollar contract with $9.8 million of it guaranteed.
Michael Lewis as well comes with a pristine reputation as a hard hitter in the NFL and is now in his sixth season at age 26. He was often known to play close to the line of scrimmage to assist in run support and was very effective.
He appeared in 14 games last season, starting the first six before losing his job to Sean Considine, and finished with 43 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions, including one returned 84 yards for a touchdown; he also managed to acquire nine passes defended and forced one fumble.
“They’re both playmakers. They’ve both been to the Pro Bowl. They’re going to make us better,” Coach Mike Nolan said.
One thing is for sure and all of us 49er fans will agree it has been a long time coming to have high-caliber athletes like this in our secondary. Both will ultimately enhance the secondary right from the opening day on forward.
“I look at guys like Ronnie Lott and Merton Hanks, great safeties that played here, and I want to add to that tradition,” Michael Lewis, who comes from the Philadelphia Eagles, said. “And adding Nate as well, I feel like the secondary is going to be one of the best in the league.”
The defensive coaches of the 49ers have recognized that size really does matter now. Especially in times like we have seen this past season. Adding such bulk in Clements at 209 pounds and Lewis who is listed at 222 pounds will force the opposition to think twice as they proceed with their routes in the coming future.
For many years, the 49ers have always looked for the typical defensive back that could keep pace with the St. Louis Rams speedster wide receivers in Isaac Bruce and Tory Holt. But the real enemy now, according to team officials sees the Arizona Cardinals as the biggest threat, especially 220-plus pound wide receivers in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.
Nate Clements will now play left cornerback on the 49ers while, leaving last year’s starters, Walt Harris and Shawntae Spencer, to compete for the spot on the right. Both played well last season in 2006 but Harris was voted to his first Pro Bowl. There was very little depth beyond these two as we experienced last season.
When Shawntae Spencer injured his ankle late last season the depth was painfully revealed in that Sammy Davis, B.J. Tucker and Marcus Hudson were not the answers the 49ers wanted. Walt Harris will turn 33 this year and although he has been signed to an extension there is some concern about that being a future consideration.
Michael Lewis, meanwhile, will play strong safety, setting up a competition between Mark Roman and Keith Lewis for the free safety spot of which both were signed extensions as well. Mike Nolan has even made the comment of envisioning all three of the well-known big hitters in Michael Lewis, Keith Lewis and Mark Roman are all on the field at the same time, creating fear and havoc for the opposition.
“You might catch the ball,” Nolan said. “But you’re going to take a lick.”
A Pro Bowler in 2005, Michael Lewis lost his starting job in Philadelphia in what Lewis said had nothing to do with his play. Lewis and his brother/agent believe the Eagles demoted him to reduce his value while Lewis was in the last year of his contract. Nevertheless, Lewis played almost as much as a starter, coming in on early downs as a linebacker and also playing in the nickel defense.
Some refer to Lewis as the 6-1, 222-pounder as simply a run stuffer. “People like to place that on me, but that’s not all I do,” Lewis said. “I feel like I’m an all-around safety. You guys will see that.”
Certainly San Francisco will receive their money’s worth on these transactions in my opinion. I believe it was a brilliant and bold move by the organization to finally address a long time problem in the pass defense on this team. The combination of Clements and Lewis will spell ‘big time plays,’ in the secondary to happen on more than just an occasional basis. It will be the expectation and the standard that when you dare cross over into this domain you’ll pay and pay dearly.
This is the kind of secondary we all haven’t seen since the glory years of the San Francisco 49er dynasty. This is something that could be something really special and has me actively anticipating this coming season for sure. To assemble these types of hard-nosed players in the secondary after every careful calculation is a feather in Mike Nolan’s cap for years to come and the profit will be overwhelming.
Adding two Pro Bowlers to the secondary is a brilliant masterpiece on the part of Mike Nolan and Scot McCloughan. Both are very confident and experienced in what they can do and will carry out the dirty work with pleasure written all over their faces.
The Buffalo Bills with Clements allowed just two opposing wide receivers to reach 100 receiving yards last season (Roy Williams of Detroit and Brandon Jones of Tennessee). More often, Clements shut things down. Only five times in 16 games did an opposing receiver get 80 yards. When the Indianapolis Colts came to town, Reggie Wayne was held to 42 yards and Marvin Harrison to 21.
He protects his side of the field with tremendous closing speed, the strength to handle physical receivers and, as 49ers coach Nolan noticed, the complete confidence to take on even the best receivers one-on-one.
“He’s at ease with himself,” Nolan said. “A corner is on an island, the way a left tackle is on offense, and you have to be your own guy to handle that position.”
Nate Clements has proven he can and so has Michael Lewis. I am extremely excited about both of these players and I am very confident in their future contributions to our team. The master plan to upgrade the defense has already been a success and we haven’t even come to the draft yet where we own eight draft picks in the first four rounds.
Heck free agency isn’t even done yet as we continue to sign more free agents and look at every position that needs an injection of experienced depth. I will continue to highlight free agency as we approach this year’s draft.
I want to thank all of you that e-mailed me with prayers for my grandmother who is fighting cancer and I want to recognize that all of us as fans have such an incredible bond for one another when the going gets tough. Her cancer has been deadly and has left her a shell of her former self. I continue to pray that God will be merciful and grant her the peace she rightfully deserves.