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Soon after the devastating defeat we suffered against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in the wild card playoff spectacle, the mindset of this organization suddenly shifted. It centered on the uncompromising facts that we have four unrestricted free agents up for grabs in March 2002.
The combined talent and energy that these four have generated for this team cannot be measured. They were all each and every one of them responsible for a season that was never supposed to be above .500. We were supposed to barely raise our heads above water to breathe, this team was not going anywhere soon.
Man did we break that assumption or what? We had a season that was filled with more highlights than a Mel Gibson action movie. We surpassed everyone’s belief that the San Francisco 49er’s were still in a rebuilding mode. This was a 12-4 season filled with close calls, overtime extravaganzas and crushing shutout victories.
Now they face even a tougher battle, and that is keeping their own players right here at home. Whenever free agency comes around so does the real possibilities of defection, and the realities that cash money plays an enormous part in dictating a player’s final destination.
It is a real fact of life every season for so many teams, and the 49er’s are absolutely no different. We face the real possibility of losing talent and energy that helped mold this team into what it is today.
“We know who the free agents are. We love them all,” Mariucci said. “As a coach, when you have a good team you’d love to keep it together, make it 10 percent better by keeping it together from a continuity standpoint.” “Is that possible? We’ll, not necessarily 100 percent possible in this day and age, but we’re going to try and keep as many free agents here as we possibly can. You know who they are. I’m not going to prioritize them. (But) they all have to fit in this salary cap puzzle.”
Who are these people? We have four players one already signed to a new six-year contract in Pro Bowl center Jeremy Newberry. The others are running back star Garrison Hearst, fullback Fred Beasley and strong safety Lance Schulters.
These are the individuals that mean so much to us; these are players that provide championship caliber magnitude to a team that is desperately trying to reform into that very category.
Lance Schulters right after the playoff loss indicated a willingness to listen to what San Francisco had to offer rumors were abounding that Schulters would prefer to return back to the East Coast. His decision is yet to be made but there seems to be clouds in the forecast as to his real thoughts.
Just a little over two seasons ago Schulters was involved in a contract holdout, because his agent and the team could not come to terms on an agreement. He regrets that holdout and even indicates he wished it had never happened, but will he forget what he went through with 49er management?
“That’s probably the biggest mistake I’ve made,” Schulters said about his contract squabble. “That wasn’t me. The coaches want me to be here. I love playing with these guys and I love our defense. We have a bond here. I want to come back. The coaches want me back, so that hopefully makes it a lot easier to get things done.”
The more outspoken defensive tackle Bryant Young also indicated that he hopes that the team can return fully intact. He has seen his fair share of talented players come and go out of this franchise, he believes that the real answer to glory is keeping the team going on the same level with all the original components.
“I hope to see every guy back this year but we all know this is part of the business where you’re going to see guys who won’t be able to come back,” Young said. “We hope to keep everybody intact because I think we have all the right guys to get this thing where we want to get it, and that’s to the Super Bowl.”
Also in the mix that could leave the team forever is 16-year veteran guard Ray Brown, making his first Pro Bowl he is still confident that he can play the game to the best of his capability.
Being 39-years old has not made him falter, if anything it has made him that much more intelligent, he knows the system and he knows what has to be done in order to be successful. In an age where every team strives to become younger though, the cost to older veterans can be heartbreaking.
“Yeah, I’m going to come back and hopefully everything will work out,” Brown said. “Not only on my part but also with the organization, and somehow I can fit in on this roster.”
“I’m going to stay around here and stay close to (physical development coordinator) Jerry Attaway and (strength development coordinator) Terrell Jones,” he said. “They really help me to stay in shape; they kind of push me out on the field. I’m one of those guys who has to get out on the grass, I have to put on football shoes and do football stuff to stay in shape. I’m not one of those guys who can run on the treadmill.”
Clearly the salary cap has everything to do with being able to resign these players; sacrifices from the entire team will have to be made. And those sacrifices have already begun with many players restructuring their very own contracts to make room for others.
General Manager Terry Donahue has made clear that the number one priority was to try and sign all the unrestricted free agents he possibly could, but the real possibility of signing all was slim to none at best.
Comparing the 49er’s to other teams and their individual salary cap situations is one of simplicity and familiarity. We have been where so many teams are heading and we have climbed the long ladder to recovery.
Donahue has indicted though that the worst days are over in large part for San Francisco, that room will now begin to show after so much sacrifice the past two years.
“We’re no worse off than the bottom third of the league,” Donahue said. “There was a time when we were all by ourselves, clearly adrift from the rest of the league.” “You can make an argument three years ago it was a reason for us not being successful. I don’t think we can make that argument today, which is good news. We don’t need reasons why we’re not successful; we need reasons why we are successful.”
The 49er’s after being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs were projected to be about five million over the salary cap as they headed out into the off-season. While the opportunity was there to cut costs with the expansion draft in which the Houston Texans were looking to build a foundation, none of the players put on the list were selected.
In Garrison Hearst we have a running back that has overcome every kind of adversity that has been thrown his way, the only thing now is he is a free agent. Hearst made roughly $2.5 million this season after his incentives were tallied, but his history of injuries bad his age (31) are not likely to make him a hot commodity on the open market.
But that is just the opposite already there has been intense interest from several teams. Of the teams that have shown great interest are the Cleveland Browns, Atlanta Falcons, Oakland Raiders and even the Miami Dolphins.
What complicates it even more is Donahue’s take on the Hearst situation, although he does agree that Hearst is a great running back and worth keeping he honestly can anticipate the organization moving on without him. Here we have a running back we keep on the ice wagon for two and a half years to rehabilitate, and we throw him away after a Pro Bowl season recovery?
I find it hard to swallow that we go ahead and do this, not just because I am a Hearst fan, because there are plenty out there. Yes he will command more money and a reasonable salary but Hearst is right now at the peak of his performance not the decline of it. I was upset when we released Charlie Garner having lesser faith that Hearst was healed at 100%.
But I was wrong and Hearst came back in championship form, and was a strong presence on and off the field in veteran leadership and character. This is what this team needs more than ever right now as we make our transition, from rebuilding to contender.
Because rookie Kevan Barlow was so successful in this last season, it seemingly makes Hearst expendable. But would it not be wiser to let Barlow learn even more under Hearst and his tutorship for another year or two?
“If Kevan Barlow is put in that role I’m confident he’ll do very well,” Donahue said. “He played through a shoulder injury, which was impressive. He handled the ball with skill. I thought he had an outstanding rookie season.”
I am all for having Barlow be the future featured back in this offense, and I believe he will do a good job. But to fathom the thought of going it with just him and not a seasoned veteran, puts the run to the Super Bowl in jeopardy. The realization that injuries can eliminate a star running back in an instant would be enough for me to keep both.
A playoff team cannot be successful without a ground game; someone has to run with that ball that is experienced and durable. Garrison Hearst proved he could rebound from the worse, in my opinion he would be the back I would want to take me into the playoffs.
What may be a sticking point with Garrison Hearst is the fact that he was angered that he had to restructure his contract at the beginning of last season. After the final game in Green Bay he left the facility without talking about his future plans. These series of events could indicate a great possibility that Hearst is fed up.
Fullback Fred Beasley has been the silent partner to the success of the 49er ground attack, he was disgruntled as well with negotiations about his contract before last season.
Beasley has superior blocking skills to any other fullback in the league. The running game took a big hit when Beasley broke his hand late in the season, having him out certainly showed up statistically.
What went on right after the playoff loss were instant meetings and evaluations on what needed to be addressed with reining in our potential free agents to be. Donahue was precise in explaining that contracts would have to be restructured in order to meet cap implications.
“We are in the process now of talking to some guys who can help us with some restructuring stuff,” general manager Terry Donahue said. The restructuring process usually entails converting salaries to bonus money, which can be spread over the life of a deal, thus creating cap space.
Donahue even predicted with certainty that all of the free agents that were mentioned would hit the open free agent market before they could tender any serious offers.
In the wheeling and dealing end of the spectrum restructuring contracts provides a team with needed cap space to remain relatively competitive, and also provides them leverage in making offers to their own unrestricted free agents and looking outside the organization as well.
By March 1st the 49er’s had a leverage that they sorely needed, they dipped nearly $4.5 million under the cap just in time for free agency. They accomplished this task with restructuring the contracts of eight veteran players; most notably our very own quarterback Jeff Garcia. And they released veteran tight end Greg Clark at the same time, all of these make or break deals were in the process of finalizing before the free agency deadline.
What was even more interesting was that other decisions were put on hold, such as the futures of aging guard Ray Brown and wide receiver J.J. Stokes. Brown was told he would be released, but both sides felt it was in their best interests to wait on a final decision.
Brown was due a $500,000 roster bonus on March 1st, but he agreed to push that bonus back until the end of the month while he and the 49er’s remain in negotiations. “Now the 49er’s can pursue other options at that position, and Ray can pursue other options around the league,” said Brown’s agent Steve Baker.
Ray Brown, who is scheduled to make $2.4 million this season, turned down an offered pay cut. Baker was given permission to shop Brown around to other teams and possibly work out a trade.
But both Baker and 49er general manager Terry Donahue said Brown’s return has not been ruled out. The sticking question is not about the money, but it is about the youth factor, Donahue wants to get younger at that position.
I tend to believe that finding an economical way to keep Brown would be to our advantage, and at the same time finding someone younger would be a priority as well. But the real key to the puzzle would be for the younger guard to learn behind Brown for a year.
“There is an extremely high regard between Ray and the 49er’s,” Baker said. “I believe Ray will either be back playing for the 49er’s. Or when his career is over, if he wants to continue to be in football, be back with the 49er’s in some capacity. In that respect, it’s best to keep the doors as open as possible.”
Brown, who has mulled over the thought of retirement, has changed his mind and wants to continue playing. His durability has never been questioned, as he has always been a rock formation of the 49er offensive line. I am impressed that he has been such a worthy competitor and still has a burning desire to continue playing.
Brown by pushing his bonus backwards and letting the 49er’s complete deals and get further under the cap, has already signaled his greatest desire is to stay with the team he adores so much. If there is a will there is a way to keep Brown a while longer.
Terry Donahue has signaled that the 49er’s are in the market for a younger guard to replace Brown, but also mentioned that it does not mean that they can’t have both. “We have a great deal of respect and admiration for Ray Brown,” Donahue said. “I think what we needed with Ray as much as anything was just some more time.”
Of the veterans that restructured their contracts it was quarterback Jeff Garcia that sacrificed the most. Garcia’s contract was converted into bonuses from his contract that was $4.3 million.
By restructuring just his contract the 49er’s created $3.5 million in cap space. Restructuring the contracts of seven other veterans allowed the 49er’s to breathe comfortably again.
Of these that restructured were Bryant Young, Dana Stubblefield, Derek Smith, Derrick Deese, Dave Fiore, Scott Gragg and Junior Bryant. All of these veterans brought the 49er cap figure to $800,000 under the cap Donahue said. Of the four unrestricted free agents the 49er’s coveted the most it is Pro Bowl center Jeremy Newberry.
Newberry, 25, is the 49er’s youngest, and best starting offensive lineman. As the center of the line he makes all the calls for the line. Just as Newberry went on the market so did fellow Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz of the Chicago Bears. This in retrospect raises the going price for centers in the NFL.
“I think the market for those guys will be huge,” said Newberry’s agent Doug Hendrickson. “I think that everyone pretty much knows that Jeremy is the priority (for the 49er’s) to get done, along with Garrison, Lance and Fred. Jeremy’s their most versatile lineman, and at his age and his importance in the system, I think obviously he’s the main guy they’d like to get back.”
After just one day on the open market center Jeremy Newberry became the first unrestricted free agent to sign back on with the 49er’s. He agreed to a six-year, $20 million contract that included a $5 million signing bonus.
Newberry a former California and Antioch High School star was drafted by the 49er’s in 1998. Newberry who turns 26 on March 23rd, hit the open market when his contract expired after his original four-year deal was made back then.
The very day after the 49er’s suffered their playoff loss to Green Bay Newberry said: “Obviously I’d like to play for San Francisco. But I’d like to be compensated for all my hard work. I’d love to get a deal done and play the rest of my career in San Francisco.”
Jeremy Newberry who is 6-foot-5, 304-pounds took over at center when Chris Dalman suffered a career-ending neck injury during the 2000 training camp. New berry played all but one snap that season and eventually won the team’s coveted Bobb McKittrick Award, an honor bestowed upon the offensive lineman who bests represents the courage, intensity and sacrifice displayed by the team’s former line coach.
“We got the Newberry deal done quickly because Jeremy had a strong desire to stay with us and the organization had an equally strong desire to keep him here,” said General Manager Terry Donahue.
“I was hoping the whole time everything would work out here. I’ll spend the rest of my career here hopefully,” Newberry said. “I’m definitely excited. My family is here. I’m happy here. I’m glad they thought enough of me to get this deal done.”
Jeremy was actually installing a new deck on his hideaway home on Lake Tahoe, when he got the word from his agent, Mike Sullivan. Jeremy is now solidified on this offensive line for a long time; this will enhance the running game and pass protection for a long time to come.
“I wasn’t looking forward to taking trips to other teams,” Newberry said. I’ve been a 49er’s fan since I was a kid. I’m happy here. I probably could have gotten more money if I went somewhere else, but I’m happy here and it’s not all about money.”
The way his contract will work will be broken down like this: He will receive $525,000 in base salary this season, $2 million in 2003, $2.5 million in 2004, $3 million in 2005 and $3.5 million in both 2006 and 2007 his agent said.
What will become of the other three? It seems like great interest is being factored in for Garrison Hearst and Lance Schulters. General Manager Terry Donahue has been in contact with all the free agents and he is concerned that some are visiting other team facilities and seeing what they have to offer.
“We would like our players to come to us at some juncture if they have a really interesting and entertaining offer from someone else, and say, 'Hey I got a great offer from so and so, can you match this?’ Donahue said. “Several players have indicated they’re not going to do that.”
Schulters will be hard to see go. The 49er’s left back-up strong safety John Keith unprotected in the expansion draft, indicating they don’t plan to make him their starter.
Schulters, a former Pro Bowler, is one of just a few veteran leaders on the 49er’s rapidly improving defense. And on top of that he gained immense respect when he played through the pain of a separated shoulder this season.
That is a game I will never forget, even Steve Mariucci could not believe his eyes when Schulters appeared on the sideline after being taken out with a painful separated shoulder.
He went right back into the game and helped the 49er’s gain victory that day. I was in awe when I saw him come back into the game, I said to my friend sitting next to me this is Ronnie Lott.
Schulters, who was also returning from a torn knee ligament, was voted the team’s most courageous player by all his teammates back in 2001. He has always played with great intensity, and he is a captain out on the field in this defense. To lose his direction and leadership will be detrimental to this team.
“It’s never 'all things being equal,’” said Schulters agent, Brian Levy, who added that Schulters is interested in returning to the 49er’s. “There’s always something that’s better somewhere. It just depends on how bad they want him back.”
Greg Clark the 49er tight end that was released just recently had just one year remaining on his contract. The move helped the 49er’s clear $2.67 million of salary cap space. Clark signed a three-year, $6.7 million contract in June 2000 and would have made $1.95 million this year.
He missed out on the entire 2001 season with a hamstring injury and was replaced with rookie Eric Johnson, a seventh-round pick out of Yale that made 40 receptions last season.
This was a wise move I believe, although I liked Clark when he first came on the scene after Brent Jones retired. I came to the realization that injuries would be the reoccurring question to his longevity with this team. His ability to be durable and injury free were impossible to define; Eric Johnson seems to be the perfect fit for our system.
Clark started 15 games in 2000, catching a career high 38 passes for 342-yards and two touchdowns. The 49er’s drafted him in the third round in 1997 from Stanford. Clark has started 39 of 55 games, catching 92 passes for 909-yards and four scores.
The unfortunate condition of Clark spells opportunity for Eric Johnson to excel and for him to be a prominent figure in this offense. He played so well last season that Clark’s absence was never really felt, thus he was deemed expendable. Should Clark fully recover from his hamstring injuries he should be a great acquisition for some team that needs a quality tight end.
In the meantime the San Francisco 49er’s made a big splash by signing free safety Zack Bronson to a four-year contract extension. The move was a peculiar one considering that they are attempting to rein in strong safety Lance Schulters who is an unrestricted free agent. Even though Donahue has been in lengthy discussions with Schulters agent no headway has been made so far.
“We are happy to report that Zack has agreed to a four-year contract extension,” San Francisco General Manager Terry Donahue said. “He has been a very productive player for us and we are excited that he is going to be with us for awhile.”
Zack Bronson was a great contributor this season beating out John Keith back in training camp, he finished third on the team with 76 tackles. He also added a career-high and team leading seven interceptions, including a 97-yard return for a touchdown at Chicago and a 48-yard touchdown return at Indianapolis.
The resigning of Zack Bronson is significant because it could signal a change in direction with Lance Schulters, Schulters is already scheduled to visit the Tennessee Titans and the Atlanta Falcons. Discussions have been made between Schulters agent Brian Levy and Donahue but nothing has been formulated yet.
“I think they suspect there’s a possibility that they could lose Lance, so they wanted to solidify the other half of their safety position,” said Brian Levy, Schulter’s agent.
Both sides dispute the intentions of the other, as Levy says no real deal has been even proposed as of yet, just meaningless discussions. The fact that no progress has been made by Donahue indicates unwillingness by one side to make a serious pitch.
Lance Schulters has always had a difficult time getting a long-term contract out of the 49er’s. He has held out at training camp for six days before in 2000 and accumulated $30,000 in fines while the 49er’s refused to renegotiate his deal. That is what probably will be the nail in the coffin in keeping Lance in my opinion.
The flashback to that time and the fines that were imposed have no doubt effected Lance to some point where he is seriously considering playing somewhere else. And on top of that he was a restricted free agent last season but failed to reach a deal with the 49er’s before signing a one-year tender of $1.488 million.
Our inability to sign him to a much larger deal last year may have ended any hope of landing him again. He is a playmaker and he plays with toughness that in my opinion is contagious to others around him, I feel that Bronson is a direct product of his presence.
As far as Hearst and Beasley no significant progress has been made on either, they have the same agent so the war of words will have familiarity in the negotiation process. But it clearly seems the 49er’s are complacent to the fact of going on without Garrison Hearst and Lance Schulters, as far as Fred Beasley that is yet to be seen.
League sources say the 49er’s are looking around at safeties on the free agent market, and it seems like Donahue is prepared from his statements that life after Hearst will continue. So what do we expect to happen? The answers are still cloudy at best, I find all of these players to be significant, and I would do everything to try and retain them.
However the reality is they will not all be retained, someone or one’s will sign with a different team, that will be a sad day but we will move on. Consequences for our decisions could be felt; finding talent to replace these will be far fetched. What we must understand is that others will need to develop and prosper.
What we must concentrate on long term is to become fiscally sound again, that is a priority with General Manager Terry Donahue. We cannot commit past sins and outspend what we cannot afford; sincerely this is what put us in the hole to begin with.
At the same time we cannot afford to let quality talent walk out the door without giving them a sound quality offer. These athletes all deserve careful consideration, and I am sure that we will. Can we survive without them? Yes we can. But in order to make a run at the Super Bowl, we must have playmakers as well.