Banta-Cain & Lewis: Why they're gone

Keith Lewis gave the 49ers some uplifting moments

The 49ers began their pre-spring roster cleaning with the release of linebacker Tully Banta-Cain and safety Keith Lewis, two veterans who were going to be hard-pressed to make the team again in 2009. Here's a look at why the 49ers decided to part ways with the two players, each of whom had one season remaining on their deals with the team.

As they begin planning for the start of NFL free agency on Feb. 27, the 49ers created an immediate savings of more than $2 million against their 2009 salary cap.

Banta-Cain was scheduled to earn a base salary of $1.275 million in the final season of the three-year deal he signed with the 49ers as a free agent in 2007. Banta-Cain had to take a salary reduction before the 2008 season began just to remain on the roster, or else the team probably would have released him before the season started. Lewis was scheduled to receive $850,000 in the final year of the two-year contract extension he signed in 2007.

Dumping Banta-Cain was not much of a surprise. A San Francisco Bay Area native who grew up in Mountain View and played in college at Cal, Banta-Cain turned out to be a disappointment for the 49ers after they brought him back to his former stomping grounds with a three-year, $8.9 million deal that included a $2.9 million signing bonus in March of 2007.

Banta Cain was coming off a career season the year before in New England, where he entered the starting lineup in December during the Patriots' 2006 playoff push and registered a career-high 5.5 sacks to go along with 43 tackles.

The 49ers projected him as a key part in their 3-4 defensive scheme as a edge rusher at right outside linebacker who would be expected to be one of the team's top pass-rushing threats. But it never quite worked out that way.

What he brought to the team: Banta Cain made an immediate impression with the 49ers and was one of the team's stars of training camp in 2007. But the pass-rushing promise he exhibited then never materialized during the season and left the team lacking in that area. Banta-Cain started a career-high 10 games at outside linebacker and finished with 59 tackles but just 3.5 sacks. His big play of the season was when he recovered a fumble in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown in a November overtime victory at Arizona. In 2008, he was relegated to a backup role in training camp but expressed to coaches a willingness to play on special teams to stay on the roster and get on the field. Inactive for the first four games, Banta-Cain played in San Francisco's final 12 games as a reserve and on special teams, recording seven tackles and 0.5 sacks and seven quarterback pressures on defense and a team-high 19 tackles on special teams as he became a force on those units.

Why he's expendable: The 49ers already have Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson on the roster ahead of Banta-Cain at outside linebacker and plan to upgrade at the position during the offseason.

Why he's gone: Banta-Cain simply didn't live up to expectations, and he had his chances. Though he proved his mettle this year by selling out on special teams, Banta-Cain never developed into the pass-rushing edge force the team was looking for when it signed him in 2007. The 49ers intend to get better in that area this year, and Banta-Cain no longer fit into those plans.

Lewis has been a good 49er since the team selected him out of Oregon with the second of its two sixth-round draft picks in 2004. He made an immediate impression during training that year with his aggressive, hard-hitting style and easily made the team as a rookie. He didn't play much on defense that season but became an immediate leading contributor on special teams.

What he brought to the team: At a well-packaged 220 pounds, Lewis plays with a rock-and-sock mentality and his lower-the-boom style made an impact on both defense and special teams during his five years with the 49ers. Lewis ranked second on the team with a career-high 24 tackles on special teams in 2007 after recording a combined 44 tackles on those units during his first three seasons as a 49er. Lewis had 10 tackles and forced a fumble on those units in 2008, when he contributed 16 tackles defensively as a backup safety. After starting four games at safety in 2005, Lewis was moved into the starting lineup at free safety at midseason in 2006 and became a factor in a defensive resurgence that led the 49ers to a 7-9 finish that season. Lewis finished the year with a career-high 72 tackles to go along with two interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. In five seasons with the 49ers, Lewis finished with 116 tackles, three interceptions and nine passes defensed.

Why he's expendable: The 49ers are set at strong safety with starter Michael Lewis, and other young players have emerged in lead roles on special teams, where Lewis once was a team captain for those units.

Why he's gone: The 49ers got a good, solid five seasons from Lewis, who gave them a premium of production for a sixth-round draft pick. But his role on the team had run its course, and the 49ers can go both cheaper and younger this year to get what Lewis was giving them in 2008, when Lewis wasn't quite the same disruptive force on special teams that he was previously. While he got the most out of his ability as a safety, coverage was not his strength, and that's an area where the 49ers both want and need to get better in 2009, which is why Lewis is now looking for a job elsewhere.

In other 49ers news, the team attempted to claim quarterback Bruce Gradkowski off waivers when he was waived by the Cleveland Browns on Monday. But the Oakland Raiders, who finished with a worse record than the 49ers in 2008, were assigned Gradkowski instead.

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