After spending so much time in limbo, free agents around the league will actually become ... well, free. They haven't been with any team during this lockout period, and for some of them, it has to be a rather disconcerting feeling. What's probably going to be a fast and intense negotiating period for a lot of these guys will be a far cry from their comfort zone, but it is what it is. At the very least, under the current rules, teams can begin negotiating with free agents of their own or other teams on Tuesday at 7:00 a.m. pacific. At 3:00 p.m. pacific on Friday, July 29th, free agency opens and teams can sign the players with which they've been talking.
The 49ers will immediately turn their attention to key guys that were with the team last season. They currently have 14 players on expiring contracts, and because of the nature of this year's rules, four-year players entering free agency are unrestricted free agents, so any tenders placed on them by the team are void. This means that Dashon Goldson and Ray McDonald, two players the 49ers would probably like to keep around for next season, are going to be (theoretically) harder to keep. Now, a full list of the free agents:
QB: Alex Smith, Troy Smith
RB Brian Westbrook
OL: David Baas, Barry Sims, Tony Wragge
DL: Aubrayo Franklin, Ray McDonald, Demetric Evans
LB: Manny Lawson, Takeo Spikes
DB: William James, Dashon Goldson
K: Jeff Reed
The first name on that list, Alex Smith, is likely going to be the first guy to put pen to paper. It almost feels like Jim Harbaugh and Smith have a handshake deal in place, as Smith has been leading practices for the team and has a playbook already in hand. Harbaugh probably signed the thing like a yearbook "XOXO Harbaugh + Smith 2011 XOXO". That is essentially a done deal. The only question is money.
Troy Smith, on the other hand, is a wild card. Most believe that there's not much chance of him returning, but you never know at this point. San Francisco will consider their options, but they've likely already made their decision regarding him. You can also cross off Brian Westbrook from the list because he doesn't intend to sign with the team, and it's doubtful that the team would have made him an offer after drafting Kendall Hunter.
One of those offensive linemen is not like the other. Can you guess which? David Baas - because the other two are expendable. Barry Sims was good in relief at left tackle and not much else, while Tony Wragge has never been able to impress, but Baas turned his career around at the best possible moment, going from something not entirely unlike dead weight at left guard to a stellar starter at center. The 49ers will focus a lot of attention on Baas to keep him on the team, despite bringing in two interior linemen in the draft. Baas, with Eric Heitmann's injury, is essential.
Jeff Reed probably isn't in the discussion at placekcker and William James was probably too banged up last season to warrant an offer, but the 49ers are hurting for a corner right now, so anything is possible. Takeo Spikes is a leader on and off the field and everybody wants him back. Harbaugh expressed admiration for Spikes in the past and he could be one of the first to re-sign if the 49ers make an effort to do so.
We're left with three big names: Goldson, Franklin and Lawson. Conventional wisdom is that drafting Aldon Smith makes Lawson expendable, and while this isn't a 1:1 truth, it certainly gives the 49ers some leeway on the matter. Lawson just seems like one of those guys that is going to get a lot of money, perhaps from a 4-3 team, or maybe even back to the 3-4 with Greg Manusky in San Diego. Who knows at this point? But the consensus seems to be that he won't be returning to San Francisco.
Ray McDonald and Aubrayo Franklin's destinies are intertwined. That is to say, if the team decides that they're going to move Isaac Sopoaga over to nose tackle and let Franklin walk, then McDonald becomes a guy they'd like to get under contract sooner rather than later to slot him in Sopoaga's spot at left defensive end. If they do keep Franklin, that doesn't necessarily mean no more McDonald, it just means he won't be as valued.
Finally, we get to Goldson, who the team really should be bringing back. His 2010 was less-than stellar, but he had nagging injuries and still has a very high ceiling. Goldson is not a top tier player yet and does not deserve top tier money, but the 49ers are young and inexperienced at the safety position and sorely hurting at the cornerback position. Goldson might just be their most sought-after free agent if you consider Alex Smith a done deal. He wanted top five safety money a season ago and didn't play like he deserved it. It's up in the air in regards to what he's expecting.