The free-agent market is like a mirage - the closer you get, the more quickly it evaporates. All those big-name players on the list right now? Over the next two months, most will sign long-terms deals with, or get franchised by, their current employers. The 49er are a little different. None of their potential free agents is a big name, and the team seems content to let most of them test their worth on the open market. They are:
Tight end Billy Bajema - This is a common theme for the 49ers this free-agency period - they like Bajema, but they will not break the bank for him. Bajema is a tough blocker and he never gets injured, which is an under appreciated trait in the NFL. But he's caught exactly one pass in the last three seasons, and a pure-blocking tight end doesn't fetch much on the open market.
Defensive lineman Ronald Fields - Look for the defensive lineman to hit the open market where he'll have value as both a 4-3 tackle and a 3-4 nose guard. (You're welcome, Drew Rosenhaus) The 49ers are fond of Fields, and he's very popular in the locker room. But they have several players who are of the same caliber and won't get into a bidding war with a defensive-tackle desperate team.
Running back DeShaun Foster -The seven-year veteran has played well in Frank Gore's place late in the season. However, the 49ers want to inject youth into the position. They'll certainly take a look at re-signing Foster if the youth movement fails to materialize. But they won't be in a rush to re-sign him come late February.
Linebacker Roderick Green - He'll likely be in camp again, but the 49ers feel confident they can release and re-sign him with no risk that he'll be picked up by another squad. That is, Green is expendable, and the 49ers certainly could stand to add another pass rusher in free agency or the draft.
Receiver Bryant Johnson - This was supposed to be Johnson's grand audition. Instead he's never become a big part of the offense, mainly because of a nagging hamstring injury and because of the potential of rookie Josh Morgan. Johnson is another guy the 49ers will take back if he comes cheap. But he would have to come back knowing he'd be behind both Morgan and Jason Hill in the pecking order, and Johnson will likely find better opportunities elsewhere.
Quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan - O'Sullivan's future in San Francisco depends on whether Mike Martz stays put. The offensive coordinator not only brought him to the 49ers but also gave him his starring role. O'Sullivan certainly showed he had more than a few qualities. But if Martz leaves - and, by the way, it's looking likely that he will -- the powers that be would prefer Alex Smith in the no. 2 role and a rookie as No. 3.
Fullback Zak Keasey - Keasey is another Martz-specific player. If Martz goes, the 49ers will bring in a Moran Norris-type thumper to be Frank Gore's lead blocker. Still, Keasey has excellent value as a special teams player. Unless Martz goes to another team and snags Keasey, Keasey at least will have the opportunity to keep his job next summer.
Returner Allen Rossum - Here's another player the 49ers say they'd like to have back but don't really need next season. That, however, is likely a bit of posturing. Special teams coach Al Everest loves Rossum, and why not? He is sure-handed and is a threat to break both punt and kickoff returns. The only drawback to Rossum is his age, 33, and the fact that he's been nicked up despite not being a full-time player at any other position. The 49ers certainly could make Rossum obsolete through the draft (See: Harvin, Percy) but that would be a long shot.
Linebacker Takeo Spikes - Spikes is almost a must-have. First of all, the 49ers have failed to develop any young players at "Ted" linebacker despite their best efforts. Dontarrious Thomas, Larry Grant and Ahmad Brooks all were given a tryout there, but none worked. Secondly, Spikes has been a better and more durable player than the 49ers predicted. He's also an excellent addition to the locker room and a perfect compliment to Patrick Willis. Being the savvy veteran that he is, Spikes will likely take a while to decide whether he'll play in 2009. Look for him to copy what he did this season by waiting until mid August or later to make a decision. As far as the 49ers are concerned, Spikes is holding all the cards.
Cornerback Donald Strickland - The 49ers love Strickland's toughness and intelligence, and he played well in a pinch against the Jets this season. Tarell Brown is definitely the team's best young cornerback and the 49ers need to groom third-round pick Reggie Smith, who got almost zero on-the-job training this season. But you can never be too thin, too rich or have too many cornerbacks. Other teams know that, too. The question is whether Strickland's audition tape is good enough to spark a feeding frenzy for him. The 49ers will not attempt to re-sign him before free agency begins.
-- Matt Barrows