San Francisco 49ers: 10 Best Free-Agent Acquisitions in Team History
Not so long ago, the San Francisco 49ers solidified their legendary history with help from some illustrious free-agent acquisitions.
The team that now prides itself so deeply on building sustainable championship contenders through the draft actually won its last Super Bowl with major contributions from offseason additions.
Well, at least on the defensive side of the ball.
Sorry, Steve—you came around before this whole free-agency thing.
The likes of 1994 champion linebackers Ken Norton Jr. and Gary Plummer find themselves alongside players who signed with the 49ers before and after their arrival.
And these signees originate from offense, defense and special teams.
Here now are the 10 best free-agent acquisitions in 49ers history.
Note: On April 1, 1989, the NFL created “Plan B,” or the precursor to the modern form of free agency. The model that exists in the league today began in 1993. All entries on this list signed with San Francisco on or after that original date. Any player drafted or inked pre-1989 did not qualify for this top 10.
T.J. Slaughter, Linebacker (2006)
Last name, anyone?
T.J. Slaughter logged 10 games for the 49ers in 2006. He registered 16 tackles.
The former third-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars qualifies for this list based solely on the merits of his gridiron-appropriate moniker.
Cedric Killings, Defensive Tackle (2000)
This is no joke, people—we swear.
Cedric Killings compiled 15 tackles and three sacks during the 2000 season.
The even more aptly named defensive player appeared in just 14 games for the 49ers as an undrafted free agent.
Yet, they still miss him dearly.
David Akers, Kicker (2011-2012)
David Akers set an NFL record with 44 made field goals in 2011. He earned first-team All-Pro.
Yes, we can all remember when Akers plummeted to No. 30 in the league (out of 31 qualified) with a 69 percent conversion rate just one season later.
But let’s not forget that Akers saved the 49ers’ offensive bacon throughout 2011. He also converted all three field-goal attempts in Super Bowl XLVII and was 8-of-9 in five playoff games for San Francisco.
Phil Dawson, Kicker (2013)
General manager Trent Baalke sure knows his kickers.
The 49ers struck gold once again in the special teams department. Phil Dawson booted 32 field goals in the regular season, including 27 straight after missing three of his first six attempts.
The 15-year veteran has also kicked three game-winners in 2013, with the latest one sealing a wild-card triumph for San Francisco just two weeks ago.
And it’s not like it went down in the subzero Green Bay tundra or anything.
10. Ray Brown, Left Guard (1996-2001)
Talk about a large measure of stability.
Ray Brown started 95 out of a possible 96 games during his six-season run with the 49ers.
The massive 6’5’’, 318-pound left guard helped anchor the offensive line year in and year out. He was a considerable force in the trenches as both a run- and pass-blocker.
Brown earned his only career Pro Bowl nod in 2001, his final season with the Red and Gold.
9. Ahmad Brooks, Outside Linebacker (2009-Present)
From a mere supplemental draft pick to unemployment, to starting linebacker in the Pro Bowl—what a career it has been for Ahmad Brooks.
Brooks arrived in San Francisco with humble disposition in tow and has never looked back.
He has registered at least five sacks in each of his six seasons with the team, including a career-high 8.5 in 2013. His 4.5 during this year’s playoffs is tied for most by any single 49er in team postseason history (through two games).
The three-year starter has also tallied 20 pass breakups, nine forced fumbles, three interceptions and one defensive touchdown during his tenure.
Brooks remains the unheralded member of the NFL’s pre-eminent linebacker corps.
Hopefully, his two second-team All-Pro honors will turn into the more celebrated variety sooner rather than later.
8. Gary Plummer, Linebacker (1994-1997)
This list returns to the ’90s with another uncelebrated linebacker.
Despite taking a backseat to one of his positional brethren, Gary Plummer consistently produced for the 49ers over a four-year period.
Plummer started from 1994 to 1997 and averaged a then-respectable 59 tackles. He was one of those classic bulldogs that loved going head to head with opposing running backs.
Kevin Lynch of SFGate.com noted that Plummer “solidified the linebacking corps with his leadership and run-stopping ability.” He led the San Diego Chargers in a similar capacity for the previous eight seasons.
The mustache-sporting Berkeley graduate powered the 49ers with a team-high 21 tackles in their 1994 championship run.
That gives Plummer the slight nod over Ahmad Brooks.
7. Tim Harris, Outside Linebacker (1991-1992; 1994-1995)
Tim Harris entered the league as a fourth-round draft pick in 1986 for the Green Bay Packers.
He began sporting the red and gold five years later.
The fearsome 6’6”, 260-pound rush linebacker racked up 17 sacks for San Francisco in 1992. He ranked second in the NFL with that lofty total.
After a brief hiatus in Philadelphia, Harris came back to the 49ers in timely fashion.
He helped them win their fifth Lombardi Trophy with 4.5 sacks in the 1994 postseason, including teaming up with Dennis Brown for one in Super Bowl XXIX.
Plus, anyone who employs imaginary six-shooters in their celebration dance surely deserves a spot in these rankings.
6. Garrison Hearst, Running Back (1997-2003)
Let’s now pay our respects to an inspirational, tough-as-nails warrior of the gridiron.
Garrison Hearst was a three-time 1,000-yard back and two-time Pro Bowler for the 49ers.
He reached his statistical zenith in 1998 when he amassed the NFL’s fifth-best 2,105 yards from scrimmage. That included nine total touchdowns and a league-high 5.1 yards per carry and a 96-yard rushing score.
Yet, Hearst’s greatest achievement was his second NFL AP Comeback Player of the Year award in 2001.
He overcame a devastating broken ankle in the ’98 playoffs and two years away from the game filled with endless rehabilitation. He capped off his return with a top-10 rushing aggregate of 1,206 yards, fourth-best 4.8-yard average and five total touchdowns.
Hearst was a true iron man in every sense of the word.
We must briefly acknowledge that free-agent signee Charlie Garner filled in admirably between 1999-2000.
He accumulated 2,371 yards rushing and 16 total touchdowns, ranking top-six both years in yards from scrimmage.
Garner was a perfect all-around replacement to the dual-threat Hearst during his hiatus.
5. Justin Smith, Defensive End (2009-Present)
Giddy up, Cowboy.
Justin Smith—affectionately known by the above moniker—is the ultimate man’s man.
The country-strong 6’4”, 285-pound defensive end is the heart and soul of this 49ers defense.He sets the tone by handling the blue-collar dirty work in the trenches.
Smith occupies multiple blockers up front and allows for the complete functionality of San Francisco’s 3-4 based contingent. Linebackers Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman and fellow team leader Patrick Willis can better make plays because of No. 94.
Smith has received Pro Bowl honors for five straight years after missing out during his first season in San Francisco in 1998. He also boasts first-team All-Pro credibility as both a defensive end and tackle in 2011.
He’s also been known to accomplish such feats with just one arm (see: video).
It’s only a matter of time until Smith ascends this free-agent hierarchy.
4. Tim McDonald, Strong Safety (1993-1999)
Tim McDonald’s importance reaches both on and off the gridiron.
Per Kevin Lynch of SFGate.com:
McDonald was one of the defendants in the case against the NFL to open up free agency. He was also the first unrestricted free agent the team signed, and he lead the defense during his eight years in San Francisco.
Modern-day players—49ers free-agent strong safety Donte Whitner included—owe much of their freedom to the influential work done by McDonald.
As for his contributions on the field, McDonald ranked top-three in tackles for the 49ers during each of his seven years with the team. He added 71 pass breakups, 20 interceptions, nine fumble recoveries and four defensive scores.
He also led the NFL with two interception return touchdowns in 1995.
McDonald earned two second-team All-Pros and three Pro Bowl invitations while playing in San Francisco. He missed just one game out of a possible 112.
What a gamer—and a Super Bowl champion to boot.
3. Jeff Garcia, Quarterback (1999-2003)
So, how do you follow in the footsteps of two Super Bowl-winning, Hall of Fame quarterbacks?
Aside from massive quantities of Wild Turkey and cognitive therapy, big numbers and an unprecedented comeback are good bets.
Jeff Garcia came to San Francisco in 1999 and thoroughly shocked the league just one season later.
The former CFL unknown established a 49ers single-season record with 4,278 yards passing in 2000. He ranked second in the NFL for that impressive total.
Garcia qualified in the top three for touchdown passes for that year and next (31, 32), and was a Pro Bowl invitee from 2000 to 2002.
The tough, but forever underrated 6’1”, 195-pound Garcia also rushed for 1,571 yards and 21 touchdowns while manning quarterback for the 49ers.
Those dual-threat abilities helped produce the second-greatest comeback in NFL postseason history. Garcia led San Francisco back from a 24-point deficit against the New York Giants for a 39-38 thriller in the 2002 divisional round.
Was he Joe Montana or Steve Young? Certainly not.
But let’s please stop the Jeff Garcia hate for just a bit. The man was really good.
Credit the late Bill Walsh for discovering this overlooked talent who helped keep the franchise afloat in the early 2000s.
2. Ken Norton Jr., Middle Linebacker (1994-2000)
These next two selections might not sit entirely well with the 49ers faithful.
Ken Norton Jr. served as the quarterback for San Francisco’s top-10 quality defense for his first four years and seven seasons in total.
The sure-tackling middle linebacker led the team in that category from 1994 to 2000. He also forced seven fumbles and notched another seven fumble recoveries.
Norton evolved into Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro form in 1995. He totaled 96 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, five pass breakups and three interceptions.
An NFL-high two touchdowns off interception returns cemented his award-winning status.
Norton played—and started—in an unreal 112 consecutive games for the 49ers during his tenure. He was a gridiron leader in every way imaginable.
The potential issue here is that Norton spent his first six NFL campaigns with the rival Dallas Cowboys. Some might deem him an enemy castoff.
But from our perspective, winning a Super Bowl and logging more time in San Francisco makes him fully worthy of high standing in 49ers history.
1. Deion Sanders, Cornerback (1994)
If Norton can be labeled as a rival castoff, then this next selection is a straight-up enemy of the state.
We’ll get to that in just a moment.
Deion Sanders’ one-year production with the 49ers is nothing short of outstanding absurdity.
In concert with his furiously ostentatious persona, Sanders’ raging field-level presence produced remarkable numbers.
He netted the 1994 NFL AP Defensive Player of the Year with six interceptions and a league-leading three return touchdowns. The Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro defender was a certifiable shutdown corner—perhaps the best in NFL history.
Sanders added two more interceptions in the playoffs, including one in the fourth quarter of San Francisco’s Super Bowl XXIX championship.
Regrettably, Sanders disregarded any allegiance to the 49ers by signing with Dallas and helping the Cowboys win the very next Super Bowl.
Yet, in a seeming paradox, that is precisely why he earns the top spot in these rankings.
The fact that Sanders legitimately pushed two different teams over the top into champion status in two consecutive years is extraordinary.
And the fact that he did so for the 49ers after they had fallen short to those Cowboys in the conference title game the previous two years, well, you get the picture.
Deion Sanders...Neon Deion...Prime Time...best free-agent acquisition in 49ers history?
Follow Joe Levitt on Twitter @jlevitt16 while he hides safely away in Witness Protection.