San Francisco 49ers

Lance Briggs among free agents on 49ers’ radar as replacement for Patrick Willis

Chicago Bears outside linebacker Lance Briggs (55) walks the sidelines in the second half of the 49ers home opener last September at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.
Chicago Bears outside linebacker Lance Briggs (55) walks the sidelines in the second half of the 49ers home opener last September at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

Lance Briggs, who once envisioned himself playing next to a young Patrick Willis at inside linebacker with the 49ers, now is one of several free agents the team is considering as a possible replacement for Willis.

A source close to Briggs said Monday the 49ers have discussed the 12-year veteran and Elk Grove native and that he is interested in playing for what is essentially his hometown team.

The 49ers have been considering several scenarios since Willis announced his retirement this month and his would-be replacement, Chris Borland, made his own stunning decision to retire a week later.

They have looked at free agents, a group that includes Briggs, Buccaneers free agent Mason Foster and perhaps Bills free agent Brandon Spikes. Reports on Monday also linked them to troubled linebacker Erin Henderson.

His background is similar to that of receiver Jerome Simpson, whom the 49ers signed to a free-agent deal earlier this month. Henderson sat out the 2014 season after two DUI arrests within six weeks prompted the Vikings to release him. Henderson also was suspended for four games in 2009 for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.

Prior to his release, Henderson, 28, started 12 of 14 games during the 2013 season and finished with a team-high 112 tackles, two interceptions, three pass defenses and a forced fumble. Like Simpson, his background would make him an inexpensive acquisition, and it also would not count against the 49ers in the formula that determines compensatory draft picks for 2016.

General manager Trent Baalke said the team did plenty of research before signing Simpson and presumably would do the same before adding Henderson, who is expected to visit team headquarters.

“Every situation is different, and we felt good about the information we gathered on Jerome,” Baalke said earlier this month. “We not only spoke with a lot of people that worked with him, we spoke with people that played with him. And we also brought him in here and met with him for a full day before we made that decision.”

The 49ers also have been spending time with inside linebackers who will be part of the upcoming draft. They met with Clemson’s Stephone Anthony at that school’s pro day this month and reportedly have set up a visit with Mississippi State’s Benardrick McKinney.

There also are options already on the squad.

One would-be starter, NaVorro Bowman, who is returning from an ACL injury suffered in January 2014. The team also has Michael Wilhoite, the only inside linebacker on the team who started all 16 games last year, as well as Nick Moody and Shayne Skov.

Briggs, 34, was The Bee’s prep football player of the year in 1998. He played 12 years for Chicago and was named to seven Pro Bowls. However, he’s been injured in each of the past two seasons, playing in only 17 games during that span.

Earlier in his career, the 49ers were eager – perhaps too eager – to sign him as a free agent.

In 2008, they were found guilty of tampering while Briggs was still under contract with the Bears and were docked a fifth-round pick. The 49ers also were forced to swap third rounders with the Bears that year. The conversations were so involved around the time of the 2007 trade deadline that Briggs, a free agent the following offseason, figured he’d be wearing a 49ers uniform in 2008 and had a conversation about the possibility at the Pro Bowl with Willis, who was coming off his eye-opening rookie season.

“I thought it was a done deal,” Briggs said in 2009. “... I didn’t think I’d be back in a Chicago Bears uniform.”

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