Since taking over as 49ers head coach, Mike Singletary has embraced center stage. The perception is that the future of the franchise hinges on his personality, style and vision, as evidenced by his thundering sound bites on the late-night highlight shows.

But a sliver of spotlight must remain on general manager Scot McCloughan, who quietly enters his fifth season still searching for a winning roster. Since McCloughan arrived with coach Mike Nolan in 2005, the 49ers are 23-41.

McCloughan's quest for a playoff-caliber combination resumes at 9 p.m. today when the free-agency period kicks off. The 49ers have oodles of money to spend, with an estimated $25 million of salary cap room.

They also have plenty of needs to meet, with McCloughan having publicly identified a desire to bolster the pass rush, offensive line, defensive backfield and receiving corps.

There are some pricey options on the market that fit those descriptions, including Tennessee All-Pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, Tampa Bay safety Jermaine Phillips, Cincinnati tackle Stacy Andrews and Cincinnati receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

But indications are that McCloughan is going to change course from recent seasons and, rather than make a big splash, aim for a few well-placed ripples.

"We're going to be in the top six or seven in the league in cap space. But that doesn't mean we're going to blow it on two or three guys and just to do it," McCloughan said. "We're going to identify what makes us better. And then we're going to take care of our own."

The cautious talk is a shift from past seasons, when the 49ers came firing out of the chute in free agency. In 2005, they pounced on left tackle Jonas Jennings with $12 million in bonuses. In '07, cornerback Nate Clements got $22 million in guarantees. In '08, defensive lineman Justin Smith got $20 million guaranteed.

Jennings proved to be an injury-prone disappointment. Clements and Smith have been strong but not Pro Bowl starters.

Now, the 49ers are placing an emphasis on building through the draft. McCloughan didn't specifically mention the Steelers as a model, but the reigning Super Bowl champions have enjoyed sustained success without lavish free-agent spending.

At the 49ers' recent "State of the Franchise" address for season-ticket holders, McCloughan said that free agency is a useful tool when it comes to filling a handful of needs. But he indicated that the 49ers' money would be better invested in securing rising standouts such as linebacker Patrick Willis and tackle Joe Staley to long-term deals.

"You always overspend through free agency," McCloughan said. "What we need to do is draft well and then spend on our own guys. We bring in new 49ers and teach them what a 49er is supposed to be like."

For example, McCloughan recently told reporters that the upgrade to Mark Roman at free safety might already be on the roster. That means Dashon Goldson, who has shown promise as a reserve player, could step into a starter's role.

And rather than sign a veteran such as Jeff Garcia to compete for the quarterback job, the 49ers indicated that they would use a mid-to-late round draft pick on a passer and then spend time grooming him to the 49ers' system.

"We have to build our own," McCloughan said.

The 49ers insist that their resistance to a mega-money free agent this year has nothing to do with the economic downturn.

"No. I mean, even when you look at the guys that are out there, there's not a lot of big names," owner Jed York said. "When you look at the philosophy that (Singletary) has, that Scot has, they want to build through the draft."

York agreed with McCloughan's assessment that the foundation of the roster should come from the draft.

"If we're going to spend a lot of money," York said, "it's going to be on re-signing our own players and getting the right guys to come in as opposed to the big flashy names."

Contact Daniel Brown at dbrown@mercurynews.com.

Free agents
A position-by-position look at the 49ers slated to become free agents at 9 p.m. today unless they are re-signed (years experience in parentheses):
UNRESTRICTED
QB -- Jamie Martin (14), J.T. O'Sullivan (6)
RB -- DeShaun Foster (7)
WR -- Bryant Johnson (6)
TE -- Billy Bajema (4), Sean Ryan (5)
DT -- Damane Duckett (4), Ronald Fields (4)
LB -- Roderick Green (5), Takeo Spikes (11)
KR/PR -- Allen Rossum (11)
CB -- Donald Strickland 6
RESTRICTED
None
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS
FB -- Zak Keasey (2)