SANTA CLARA When free agency began last year, cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha was the player every 49ers fan wanted, needed, absolutely had to have on their team.
This year, the must-have free agent is a wide receiver, Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace.
He's only 25, he's fast, he's explosive, he's experienced, and, the argument goes, he'd be the perfect complement to Michael Crabtree.
It's a solid proposal. Wallace, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds in 2009, theoretically would stretch defenses, he'd attract a safety wherever he roamed and Crabtree would have more breathing room. The acquisition not only would give the 49ers a deep threat with good hands who made the Pro Bowl in 2011, Wallace's mere presence would make Crabtree, who thus far has not played to his 10th overall draft status in 2009, that much better, as well.
Reports out of Pittsburgh on Thursday said the Steelers would not put the franchise tag on Wallace, a soon-to-be restricted free agent who will hit the market March 13. Instead, they'll give him a first-round tender.
That means any team that signs Wallace would have to if the salary cap-strapped Steelers can't match the offer give Pittsburgh a first-round draft pick.
That's not a tremendous sacrifice for the 49ers, who have the 30th overall pick.
There's no guarantee a top receiver would still be available when the 49ers pick in the first round. And it's hard to imagine any wideout they did select there would be more effective than Wallace, at least initially.
The good news for the pro-Wallace crowd is that the 49ers are likely to be interested when free agency starts, just as they threw their name into the ring with Asomugha last year.
But as was the case with Asomugha and other high-end cornerbacks in 2011, the 49ers are likely to drop out once the price gets too steep. While giving up the 30th overall pick for a young but proven commodity like Wallace is justifiable, giving up that pick and signing Wallace to a pricey, long-term deal goes against the 49ers' philosophy.
Last year, the team dipped its toe in the Asomugha pool before moving on to another excellent cornerback, Jonathan Joseph, and then on to Chris Carr and on down the line until there were no more buyers in the cornerback market.
But there was still a very good player available at that point, Carlos Rogers. The 49ers signed him to a one-year deal and Rogers was voted to the Pro Bowl.
The team is likely to take the same modest and measured approach with receivers this year. Yes, there are a number of teams in need of pass catchers, but there also promises to be a heaping of commodities, as well.
The Eagles on Thursday placed the franchise tag on DeSean Jackson, and Kansas City and New England likely will do the same with Dwayne Bowe and Wes Welker, respectively. Other receivers such as San Diego's Vincent Jackson, New Orleans' Marques Colston and Buffalo's Stevie Johnson are bound to become free agents.
In fact, the list of potential free-agent wide receivers has more than 50 names, including two 49ers, Joshua Morgan and Ted Ginn. As was the case with cornerback last year, once the top names are gone, wide receiver promises to be a buyer's market.
The position also is deep in the draft.
As the Steelers found Wallace in the third round in 2009, the 49ers likely believe they can find their own Mike Wallace in this year's draft.