With free agency winding down and preparations for the 2003 NFL Draft underway the San Francisco 49ers have indicated that they will not be a big participant in the free agency pool. Due to a variety of reasons, one of the biggest reasons being that they are only $1.7 million below the mandated salary cap. Most of this money will be allocated to working deals with players on the team testing the waters of free agency.

The off-season priority has been to resign unrestricted free agent defensive end Chike Okeafor who has made no promises to anyone including the 49ers as to what he might do. He has already traveled and visited several high profile teams such as the Detroit Lions, Arizona Cardinals, Kansas City Chiefs, Jacksonville Jaguars and Denver Broncos.

Okeafor proved to be the ultimate compliment next to second-year starter Andre Carter as he totaled six sacks and 26 quarterback pressures in the 2002 season. He did so well in training camp and the pre-season last year that he unseated defensive end John Engelberger as the starter opposite Andre Carter.

In fact he was only one pressure behind the exclusive first round pick in Andre Carter, a total of nine teams have already contacted Okeafor’s agent and have inquired about his services. Many have invited him out for visits and still others are dialing as we speak.

The overall agenda in my opinion should be spent on getting Chike Okeafor to stay in San Francisco. Being the only unrestricted free agent of true worth to the 49ers should entice the team to get a deal done and done soon. We have allowed Okeafor to test the waters in evaluating just what his true worth is really to put together a package ourselves according to sources in the front office.

“He is going to test the water and compare offers between teams and ultimately decides where to go based on the financial structure of the deal and where he will be happy,” 49ers general manager Terry Donahue said. “I have no reason to believe that we won’t be in competition for Chike.”

What San Francisco is also very concerned with is that there will be many very high profile players available as unrestricted free agents after the 2003 season. So finding ways to work extensions with each and every one of these players also increases pressure for them to find additional money in which to negotiate with. Wide receivers in Terrell Owens, Tai Streets, linebacker Julian Peterson, cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster and defensive end John Engelberger.

The emphasis of course is on Terrell Owens probably without a doubt the best wide receiver in the league today. He will command record dollars that the 49ers will have to be willing to pay in order to retain his services. He proved to be the ultimate playmaker in the 49er offense and was in large part why they made the post-season on his legs and arms.

Owens in all likelihood will probably become the highest paid receiver in the NFL today as teams will be salivating over having his services next year if a contract extension is not completed soon by San Francisco. Owens has made every indication as of last season to stay in San Francisco and continue his legacy here. I for one find that as a critical first step in the negotiating process in that he likes where he is at here so let’s make that decision that cements the deal for good and soon.

“The philosophy around here is to keep as many of our players as we can for a s long as we can because we think that creates the continuity you need to be a real good football team,” Donahue said.

And you have to hand it to the management and ownership for believing in this although you’d think otherwise in their handling of Dave Fiore and Dana Stubblefield. You have to look at every angle in the decision making process and evaluate it as to its true merit.

Getting as many players currently on the team resigned to extensions just makes sense in making significant progress to advancing back into the playoffs and competing for the ultimate championship. With the 49ers committed to a new head coach and many new faces in assistants as well, they have embarked upon a new journey with many different kinds of rules.

But the future must not be overlooked either as they prepare to solidify their roster and keep it at a level that ensures continued success. Losing Owens all together would be devastating to the team because he is a leader now that helps drive this team forward. He makes the plays that keep games going and ultimately helps the team obtain victory through incredible performances on and off the field.

“We are not going to be real active in the free-agent market,” 49ers general manager Terry Donahue said one week. “We would rather spend the cash and cap room that we have on retaining our own players.”

Keeping our players is something that the 49ers demonstrated last season in retaining three out of four unrestricted free agents in Fred Beasley, Garrison Hearst and Jeremy Newberry. The only free agent that we did negotiate with and lost was safety Lance Schulters now with the Tennessee Titans, who was replaced with even a better safety in Tony Parrish.

So the spectrum must be set with Chike Okeafor and resigning him is highly recommended due to the bare necessity that there are very few quality defensive ends out there in free agency. The draft does offer a great variety of defensive ends and tackles but the fact that Okeafor is approaching his peak as a conditioned athlete and is developing invaluable experience at the position should sell itself.

One of the better disputes that have erupted within the 49er organization following the releases of Dave Fiore and Dana Stubblefield has been the retaining of services of left tackle Derrick Deese. Deese has witnessed a situation where all of the players on his offensive line have been approached to restructure their contracts except for him of course.

Applying speculation that the 32-year old offensive tackle that had a spectacular season is expendable. Deese has a contract that is bearing weight on the management to reconsider his position on the team, other factors such as age and durability have come into play in these considerations. If the 49ers decided to part ways with Derrick Deese come June 1st, of this year the 49ers would save $2.3 million dollars against the salary cap.

This has created an uproar with Deese who has had a terrific year as a left offensive tackle and has always battled the stigma of being too small at the position. He in fact never allowed a sack on Jeff Garcia this past season and greatly improved his run blocking for Barlow and Hearst to take advantage of. Cutting Deese makes financial sense but not real common sense when you look at his performance and his ability to play the position at a top level for so long.

“I look at it like this, they’re planning to release me on June 1,” Deese said. “The 49ers being a model organization and a class act, you’d think with all the loyalty and hard work I’ve put in for them through the years that they owe it to me and my family for me to have the best opportunity to go out and finish my career. Obviously, they don’t want me there.”

But quarterback Jeff Garcia who has come to Derrick’s assistance in defending his honor has defended what has translated into a war of words between Derrick Deese and the management. It is Deese that protects Garcia’s blind side from would be elite pass rushers looking to put a lick on him as he studies the field for a target.

Deese has been a mainstay at the left tackle position for many years and continues to be as solid as defensive tackle Bryant Young. Both are the remnants of an era that saw Super Bowl glory and can still feel that swagger in their step wherever they go.

“Left tackle is a critical position on the field,” Garcia said. “As a quarterback, you want to feel secure about who’s playing left tackle, because he is facing the other team’s best pass rusher. I feel very confident with Derrick playing there the last three years.”

The 49ers refusal to restructure Derrick’s $2.6 million compensation leads the veteran to conjure up scenarios of his release later on in the off-season. He played with pain for most of the season last year with a series of sprained ankles, but in retrospect he never allowed a sack for the last 20-plus games. He has maintained that his performance deserves a just reward for that and that he should’ve been approached to restructure just like the rest of the line was.

“He has a young family,” Garcia said. “He wants some stability and security. (Not restructuring) has made him doubt his position with the team. He just wants a straightforward answer about whether he will be here or not. It leaves him in a cloud of uncertainty.”

Despite the picture that is being painted the real answer is still awaiting because the 49ers have no real replacement in line for Derrick’s position and the draft although having some talent at this position is severely limited once the 26th pick is finally called. Even with a $300,000 bonus that is paid to Deese plus his $2.3 million salary he still remains one of the lowest paid left tackles in the league today. The average wage for this critical position is about $3.5 million.

Derrick has done the job every time it is asked of him to do it. He has played in pain and has never said no to taking the field. He is a practical joker and has a lot of fun with his teammates even at some of their own expense. He has a young family that is close and attends the games in which Derrick is a part of. Jeff has taken on Derrick’s legal defense almost because Derrick has always been his security blanket. Jeff recognizes the importance of maintaining balance and stability at this crucial position.

“He is definitely a leader on this team,” Garcia said. “He has always been under-appreciated. Some might question his size or his strength at times, but he makes up for it with quick feet, his experience in the league and his knowledge of this offense.”

The unhappiness that has been manufactured is not a figment of Derrick’s imagination it is real folks. When you have a situation that is as shady as this you have to know that something has to be up. Certainly Derrick has every justified reason in the world to feel the way that he does. To restructure everyone on the offensive line and to be approached by Derrick’s agent Gary Uberstine and asking 49er management to restructure Derrick’s contract as well and not receive an answer sends up a red flag.

The 49ers declined the offer apparently for some reason and it is that reasoning that worries Derrick the most and justifiably so. Just so you know what restructuring does it takes a minimum salary and makes up all the additional money from its original non-guaranteed base salary with an up front signing bonus. In reality, it is bought security for a veteran player against being released.

Is the writing on the wall for Derrick? Just the same way with Dave and Dana that were let go without being approached to restructure. It seems Derrick is the one that must die a slow and agonizing death, as he must wait till June to find out his destiny. Deep down inside Derrick loves what he does and cares for those he plays for and represents, it simply makes sense to keep a veteran like this if his performance is still where it is supposed to be.

“This is the first year we offered to restructure and they decided not to do it,” Deese said. “I see the handwriting on the wall.” “I’d love to finish my career as a 49er,” he said. “I’d love to finish here for the fans. I’ve played here 11 years. I’ve done everything I can for this team, but obviously they don’t feel the same about me.”

The simple truth is yet to be really told although management maintains it has no plans of cutting Derrick after June 1st. Simply stated they would not divulge that information anyways knowing the repercussions it presents to all parties involved. The 49ers have tip toed and side stepped the situation hoping that Derrick goes on about his business quietly but that was never to be the case if you knew what Derrick was like.

“We never, ever told Derrick Deese that we’re going to cut him,” Donahue said. “He’s a highly competitive guy and he’s always looking for a fight that’s what we love about him. We’re paying him a $300,000 roster bonus. How does that say we want to get rid of him? We expect Derrick to come in and perform like he’s always performed.”

Derrick however continues to maintain that Donahue is side stepping and is avoiding the real question when it comes to his immediate future with the 49ers. In an ever-changing league where loyalty and longevity are no more in the NFL, it is hard not to believe that the 49ers won’t cut Deese loose regardless of not having an immediate replacement.

Should the 49ers draft one and rush one into service or should they pick up a mid-level one on the free agent wire they very well could send Deese packing. Despite conversations with Donahue Deese still comes away with a empty feeling in his stomach and relegates that to being a cut throat business through and through.

“It doesn’t justify what he said to me,” Deese said. “What he said to me is that he could not release me right now. Then he went on to say that I’d be fighting for my position and that he might be able to work a trade for another player or he could release me at a later date.” “He said, 'I couldn’t release you right now based on the team’. That tells me he can’t release me because they don’t have a replacement for me right now.”

The only player capable right now of stepping in for Deese would be Matt Willig an 11th year veteran that is also unrestricted. Willig has been a steady force when he is called upon to do spot duty along the offensive line, but the 49ers don’t see keeping the aging veteran around because they want to rebuild the line with youth.

Also on the unrestricted free agent list are Ben Lynch the back-up center and Duane Hawthorne the four-year cornerback acquired from the Dallas Cowboys to help beef up a depleted secondary last season towards the tail end of that season. With Ben he was left on the bubble last year until well into training camp, the same can be expected again as the market out there will be explored. I am a big Ben supporter after meeting his family and himself last year.

Ben can be a dominating force and should be retained regardless of a veteran’s minimum salary cost. Having a quality center to back-up is crucial and Ben can be groomed to do spot duty along the line if given the opportunity.

With Duane he was simple insurance for the team and never really played until the final playoff loss at Tampa Bay. However with quality corners not around on the free agent market the 49ers could be inclined to bring him to training camp anyways.

Linebacker Terry Killens and former Eagles safety Tim Hauck are also unrestricted free agents and both will likely be cut loose because they were just simple insurance at a time of need. Killens is a great special teams ace and in my opinion should get consideration, but with depth they way it is at linebacker I can understand this cut. With Hauck I see little room for his placement based on the depth and healthiness of that depth, his 13-years as a professional will carry little weight.

Safeties Ronnie Heard and John Keith will both battle to stay on the team, but more likely than not one will be let go as injuries devastated this unit right from the get go this last season. Probably the one with the best record medically will be the one that is finally retained and that does not bode well for Keith, a practice squad job is likely for the other.

Tight end Justin Swift, linebacker Quincy Stewart and wide receiver/return specialist Vinny Sutherland are others left in the unrestricted free agent pool and almost all of these will be gone. Swift played well in Johnson’s place during his back ailments but never became the superstar in the middle as was expected with Johnson out. Stewart is a great addition to special teams and may be invited to camp. But Sutherland was only a quick fix for the return game with Jimmy Williams out but now back he is fully expendable.

On the restricted free agent market you have wide receiver Tai Streets, quarterback Tim Rattay and long snapper Brian Jennings. Streets has already been tendered an offer by the 49ers and he has made many visits to several clubs seeking a deal with his agent. It seems as of now that Streets will be ours at least for one more season, expect him to bolt though next year as he has clearly indicated he does not want to stay with San Francisco.

With Tim Rattay a proven back-up quarterback he has also been tendered yet got some looks from some clubs none the same. He is insurance behind Jeff Garcia in case he goes down but the 49ers will give Cade McNown every opportunity to unseat him. And Brian Jennings has proven to be one of the best snappers in the league the 49ers wasted no time in tendering him a qualifying offer.

Again the contract extension that will be sought for Terrell Owens will take place just shortly after the NFL Draft according to team officials. The desire is to lock Owens in for a number of years that will prove beneficial for both parties. One thing is for certain though and that is Owens will command big money in order to stay a signing bonus well within the $20 million dollar range is not out of the question.

In fact to compare Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss received an $18 million dollar signing bonus and an eight-year contract worth $75 million in 2001. So when you think about that math two years ago you can see that Owens will command more giving that he is a step up above Moss in talent and performance.

Of course San Francisco has completely shaken the team upside down with all of the changes that have taken place, therefore the talks have not been mentioned a lot due to the other issues at hand and getting a coaching staff in place before the draft. Contract discussions will become the priority just shortly after the draft, as the 49ers know that they must jump on this opportunity then or not at all.

“They’ve had a lot of issues to deal with: Hiring a coach, now the draft and free agency” said David Joseph, Owens’ agent. “I haven’t talked to them since the season ended. If they’re ready to talk, we’re ready. And when they’re ready, they’ll call me.”

When you look at the options that appear before the 49ers in regards to Owens there really is none that don’t equal up to paying out a lot of cash. They could slap Owens with a franchise tag but that would be counterproductive to an athlete that is just starting to heal from wounds he felt just two seasons ago with a former head coach.

For one with a tag Owens unamortized signing bonus money (approximately $5 million) would count against the team’s 2004 salary cap, in addition to that a one-year franchise salary (more than $5 million). So the 49ers must really concentrate on getting Owens signed right before training camp begins, because Owens has already made clear that he doesn’t want to be in any negotiations regarding his contract during training camp, so the emphasis will be on management to get a deal done right away.

The releasing of left guard Dave Fiore and defensive tackle veteran Dana Stubblefield really rocked the franchise to the bone when it was done at the end of February. The team has made no regrets about doing the deed either even though they never approached either to restructure. The mood of the two players regarding this is obvious bitter and ugly at the thought that through their hard work and sweat that they weren’t at the very least offered a restructured deal.

Since they have been released both players have found new homes almost instantly and for good money as well as Dave Fiore will now take up his old position on the Washington Redskins and Dana Stubblefield will be just across the Bay with the Oakland Raiders. The fact that Dana has made his exodus to Oakland is a little bitter.

One thing that 49er faithful fans despise is seeing a player leave and go across the Bay to the so-called enemy. And many a former 49er has made that transition across the bridge. Great names like Terry Kirby, Charlie Garner and Jerry Rice all come to mind in the present day, Dana made known that he wanted to keep his family in the Bay Area so his decision was based a lot on that notion.

“There area number of really good defensive linemen in the draft,” Donahue said. “We like (second-year pro) Josh Shaw, too, and we’ve got Jim Flanigan under contract. There are also a number of good tackles out there on the free agent market.”

So right from this quote you can see that the 49ers will take a defensive tackle and or a defensive end right from this year’s draft. The fact that Chike Okeafor is not signed and that Dana has been released leaves voids in this area, so they will be handled appropriately by management and in priority. One thing is for sure and that is both Flanigan and Shaw play a lot differently then Dana as Dana always used size and power while Flanigan and Shaw use their smaller size in being quick and elusive.

Dave Fiore who has suffered injury after injury was looked at by the 49ers as being a liability to the team regardless of his versatility in being able to play any position on the offensive line. Five major knee operations were the main factor in conjunction with his contract that saved money on the salary cap.

His replacement became all too real when rookie Eric Heitmann picked up the pieces when Fiore went down and performed at an excellent level to keep the job. Fiore weighing 290-pounds gave way to Heitmann at 305-pounds as the 49ers are beginning to shift away from the undersized linemen to a more bulky line of beef.

In another great development the San Francisco 49ers have made a commitment to tight end Mark Anelli as they signed him to a one-year contract. Anelli was a sixth-round draft selection by the 49ers in last year’s draft out of the University of Wisconsin. He has been making a traveling habit of bouncing between the regular roster and the teams practice squad throughout last season. Anelli never saw any real game day action last year as the team went with Eric Johnson, Justin Swift and emergency long snapper/tight end Brian Jennings throughout the season.

Mark earned All Big Ten honors as a senior when he caught 35 passes for 357-yards and three touchdowns. I had the honor of meeting Anelli and his family at a pre-season game and training camp last year, they are all wonderful people and they are very excited to have their son as part of the San Francisco 49ers.

Back across the Bay one can not forget about 16-year veteran Jerry Rice and his performance with the Oakland Raiders. Jerry who is determined to continue on with professional football and looking as great as ever signed a six-year contract worth $30 million dollars with the Raiders. The deal is salary cap friendly and could keep the ageless veteran in Oakland until he is 46 years old.

Jerry continues to defy father time in the NFL, as he has made all that know him shake their heads in disbelief that he can be so on top of the world at his age. Jerry had 92 catches for 1,211 total yards and seven touchdowns last year in his 18th NFL season.

This is yet another true perspective of what Jerry has been able to do over his course of time as a player with his very strict regimen and conditioning program. He continues to defy the imagination and I still hold such high regard of his abilities and talents. In my heart as a 49er fan I will always consider him a 49er through and through, there are some out there that might disagree but that is just my opinion.

Jerry upon signing the new contract joked that he just might play until he is 45-years old so that all could see that it could be done. In 2002, Rice became the first player in NFL history to score 200 touchdowns; he broke the most playoff yards in a career, and on top of that he tied a record for most career playoff touchdowns. He was once again selected for his 13th Pro Bowl, his first in four years at that.

Some may still wonder what would have happened had Jerry remained a 49er? I would bet his production would’ve held firm and that these same records would’ve continued in tradition right here in San Francisco. If we had really analyzed everything in regards to Jerry we could’ve brought him back to be the second wide receiver alongside Terrell Owens.

Look at what we have now since he has gone, a J.J. Stokes that has failed miserably to amount to anything next to Terrell Owens as he has made durability a issue throughout his career as a 49er. His production has never been on par with our expectations and he even lost his status and position to third string wide receiver Tai Streets just this past season.

On the other hand you have Tai Streets who stunned the 49er audience with his great performances and agility as he proved that he does have speed and separation ability when it is called upon. The question is however is that now he shows no dedication or willingness to stay in San Francisco. If not for being a restricted free agent he would’ve bolted to possibly the New York Jets or even the Detroit Lions where Steve Mariucci would’ve consumed his services in a heartbeat.

So Jerry looks good right now folks, unfortunately he is a Raider for the remaining years of his career. Youth is always the attribute you want to bring to your team but Jerry Rice my friends is the one exception. He is the best darn wide receiver in the business today and that can’t even be disputed with so many records he holds today.

“We’re happy with the deal,” said Steiner, who has reworked Rice’s contract almost every season. “Jerry’s happy with the deal. They appreciate Jerry’s contributions. Since he left the 49ers, it has worked out perfectly well.”

The free agent market although talented as it is will not be a playground for the 49ers this year. As indicated and agreed with I support the resigning of Chike Okeafor as a priority, certainly down the stretch we once again lacked the pass rush we so coveted from the years of 1997-98. We have lost that edge that makes this defense a fear factor in the league.

At the same time we must hold together our offense that has always been a symbol of strength for this franchise. Keeping Derrick Deese is a recommended aspect in keeping stability and continuity on the team, drafting an offensive tackle is also a course of action I feel we must make and making Ben Lynch more versatile would be another option I would explore. Whatever transpires you can rest assured it will be a ride for us fans to wait it out, the changes call for a reversal of where we have been and dictate a bolder and better future forecast for us as 49ers.