The San Francisco 49ers locked up their most prestigious football player in All Pro linebacker Julian Peterson by placing their “exclusive franchise” tag on him. Julian Peterson had a breakout career year this year as he achieved being a two-time Pro Bowler and was the winner of the Len Eshmont award in a vote by his teammates.

He is the first linebacker on the team to win the award since 1984 when Keena Turner picked up the honor. This award was established in 1957 and is given to the most inspirational and courageous player, an award that Julian earned with hard work and focused intensity.

When you think about the San Francisco 49er defense in the last few years, linebacker Julian Peterson instantly comes to my mind. He was the forefront of our defensive attack in many ways and defensive coordinator Jim Mora used Julian in a variety of formations and schemes.

In fact Jim Mora will tell you himself that he believes Julian Peterson is in the same mold as veteran superstar Ray Lewis in terms of determination and work ethic. I would have to concur with this from my own observations and let the statistics do the talking.

Julian Peterson this year was a powerhouse and proved it on the field with his intense style of play. He recorded 144 tackles, seven sacks, three forced fumbles, 14 passes defended, two interceptions and one fumble recovery on just this season. There were a few games on the season where he recorded tackle highs of 12, one against the Chicago Bears and against the former Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

I can also remember Julian vividly in games like the one against St. Louis where he displayed a series of plays in eight tackles, a forced fumble and take this two sacks on Rams quarterback Marc Bulger. In the second game against St. Louis he recorded another sack and had three passes defended and batted down a fourth-down pass on the 49er five-yard line.

These are some of the plays I can remember Julian by this last season and so many more. In all perspectives Julian outdid himself in more ways than one this year. He played his heart out in the final year of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers desiring to cash in on the big money pot at the end of the season.

Every player that enters the NFL from college wants to achieve that milestone in their careers when they reach the final year of their first contract and have budded into a superstar that equals pay dirt in the form of multi-million dollar contracts.

Right after the final game of the season against the Seattle Seahawks, General Manager Terry Donahue made a general statement that indicated the team’s intentions involving Julian Peterson. It set off a controversy throughout the off-season in regards to who deserved to be signed first Terrell Owens or Julian Peterson. Almost all 49er fans agreed that Julian should be the priority but there still remained some that continued to feel that Terrell Owens shouldn’t be allowed to get away.

“I think we’ll get a deal done,” Donahue said. “If we don’t, I’ll be proved wrong. But I expect him to be back on the team.”

What complicated the negotiation process and still continues to be that the Washington Redskins resigned their most prestigious linebacker in LaVar Arrington to an eight-year, $68 million dollar contract. This raised the bar very high for the salary- capped 49ers to formulate a reasonable offer of their own.

49ers General Manager Terry Donahue reiterated that he didn’t think Arrington’s contract should be a template for resigning Peterson, indicating that the team was not about to match the bonanza contract bestowed upon LaVar Arrington.

“LaVar Arrington is very different; it is easy to say, Well, LaVar got this, so Julian Peterson should get it,” Donahue said. “They don’t play the same position. They both play linebacker, but they don’t play the same linebacker position. One (Arrington) has been (chosen for) the Pro Bowl three times; one (Peterson) has been two. One may have more of an injury history than the other. I don’t know.”

In other words this play the war of defensive posturing based upon the size of a contract the Redskins are willing to give their top man and the fact that 49er owner Dr. John York will be very reluctant to match this sizable offer because of his belief in fiscal restraint and doing more with less.

Julian Peterson has indicated he doesn’t want to play football forever. He made this clear to several media interviews and wants to go into this next contract as being potentially his last one. He wants a six or seven year deal and that he is only interested in being treated fairly and is willing to give his all to the team that will have him. The San Francisco 49ers are the top choice in his mind as they are the suitors of choice based upon their willingness to draft him.

“I’m a pretty loyal guy,” said Peterson, drafted in the first round (16th overall) in 2000 by the 49ers. “This is obviously my first choice because they were the first team to really look at me and grab me.”

Placing the franchise tag on Julian Peterson, as the two parties remain very far apart on an extended contract was the smart choice to do. We at least have Julian through 2004 and in that time will have enough wiggle room to pursue talks again in regards to getting him an extension.

Julian’s agent has been tough to deal with because of the Washington Redskins contract deal with their own LaVar Arrington in the form of an eight-year nearly $80 million with incentive and a $20 million signing bonus to boot.

What San Francisco will be accountable for in slapping the franchise tag on Julian is paying him a projected cost of $5.8 and $7.2 million based upon the top salary for linebackers in the league at the present. Both of his teammates in linebackers Derek Smith and Jeff Ulbrich have nothing but high praises for him and hope that a long- term deal is eventually reached with Julian.

“He’s a crucial part of our defense,” 49ers linebacker Derek Smith said of Peterson. “He can change the game for you. He makes the big plays and gets the crowd behind the team. He is a fun guy to play with and a good person on and off the field. I really hope they can work things out.”

Some wonder exactly how Julian Peterson will be used this next season under a new defensive coordinator in Wily Robinson, a former Pittsburgh assistant and long time associate of coach Dennis Erickson. He comes to the 49ers with a lot of experience and with a proven track record in formulating a great defense like the one present in Pittsburgh. Julian Peterson is looking forward to getting in the trenches and working with his new boss.

“All I’ve known for four years is Jim Mora, but it was a great opportunity for him,” Peterson said. “I think (Robinson) will probably do a great job, once he looks at our personnel and the things we can do.”

“I would like to see what his thought process is. I’m pretty sure when he knows the talent of the linebackers we’ve got, he’ll use a lot of linebacker sets and stuff like we’ve been doing. I’m looking forward to sitting down and talking with him.”

What the 49ers did with Julian Peterson was unbelievable in some ways. With injuries riddling the secondary as they have for two straight years, Julian was used in almost every conceivable position and he executed that game plan with great precision every time he was called upon to do so.

He was used over the course of his four years with the 49ers in almost every position on defense. In one game last season, he lined up as a linebacker, a defensive end, a cornerback and a safety. It has been out of necessity sometimes and out of confusing their opponents on many others.

“Jim didn’t want me to be just an everyday linebacker,” Peterson said. “He wanted me to be an every-down player, one of the best players in the league. By him letting me play all these different positions in all these different ways, I just feel like I can’t ever be counted out.”

So as you can see we set the bar high for Julian Peterson and what was so remarkable about it is that he achieved everything we set out for him. The franchise tag almost is like a badge of honor in some ways as it recognizes the team’s best player and that the team will be committed to reaching an agreement in the future.

To other athletes it is a disgrace and a nuisance as it prohibits an individual from obtaining the fast cash they know they can get by going into free agency and landing a big money contract right away. Reasons the 49ers can’t reach an agreement with Peterson’s agent Kevin Poston, is that he is asking for guaranteed money in excess of $20 million, which is far more than the 49ers are willing to pay.

With the franchise tag they lock up Peterson and pay him the equivalent of what the top linebackers make in salary terms for the 2004 season. Under the rules of the franchise tag, the 49ers can match any offer from another team, and if Peterson still leaves, they in turn receive two first round draft choices in compensation.

The signing bonus is something that has been indicated as a sticking point with the negotiations between Poston and the 49ers. Poston also represents Washington Redskin linebacker LaVar Arrington and is in the running for obtaining Peterson a contract as close to Arrington’s numbers as possible.

When you look at what Arrington accomplished in 2003 he made 88 tackles, six sacks and zero interceptions. Julian Peterson’s statistics far exceeded Arrington’s this year so reasonably you’d ask yourself he deserves a similar contract for accomplishing more. But the Poston brothers (Kevin and Carl) are notorious for seeking big money contracts for their clients.

Several of their clients have even refused to report to training camp pending contract resolution. Julian Peterson represented by Kevin Poston poises a big problem for the 49ers front office in these heated negotiations.

Meanwhile the negotiations will continue with Julian Peterson’s agent Kevin Poston. Terry Donahue has made it known that they want a deal to be done but won’t hesitate to remain with the franchise tag and follow its rules for the season. In return Peterson will be paid a salary based upon the five highest paid linebackers in the NFL today and that will be averaged to determine his annual salary should a contract not be stricken.

“We made that decision over a long period of time trying to negotiate with his agents,” Donahue said. “We feel like we’ve made him a very competitive offer that puts him in a linebacker category with Brian Urlacher, Derrick Brooks and LaVar Arrington. We’re very hopeful that we can get a long term deal done and we’ll keep working towards that.”

Saving the franchise tag for Julian Peterson was a no brain decision. Had we been able to get a deal done we might have been able to use the tag on someone else such as Terrell Owens. But all indications point to Owens leaving and wanting to leave by his own accord sooner rather than later, because he has displayed displeasure for all that San Francisco is.

I feel Terrell Owens is a tremendously gifted athlete one that wants to win and has an edge over so many others. Facing him as an opponent will be a scary proposition, as we have no one in our secondary that can cover him effectively one on one. I do not regret his services over the eight years he’s been with us, only the insults and camera incidents that isolated him as being the sole reason for the team winning and unaccountable in losing.

The San Francisco 49ers took further positive steps in working out a long-term deal with restricted free agent running back Kevan Barlow. Kevan Barlow came to terms with the 49ers on a five-year, $20 million dollar contract that includes $8 million in guaranteed money, league sources indicate. His contract includes a $1.5 million signing bonus, with $6.5 million option bonus. He will earn $10 million over the first two years of the deal.

Before this deal was disclosed the most the 49ers were expected to do for Barlow as a restricted free agent was to tender him an offer at $1.8 million for the 2004 season to ensure that they would receive first and third round draft picks as compensation if he went to another team.

There was at some point some speculation that the New England Patriots were seriously considering Kevan Barlow for their ground attack that features no clear definitive leader as a main running back. Barlow’s agent Mike Sullivan noticed the level of sincerity that the 49ers were showing in keeping Kevan around and asked Kevan point blank if he desired to remain in San Francisco. Kevan quickly responded with a yes and entrusted Sullivan to begin the negotiations process on an extension.

In actuality the deal for five years saves the 49ers almost $1 million towards the 2004 salary cap. His contract also doesn’t call for any voidable years, which are relevant considering contracts of some other 49er players. Barlow rushed for 1,024 yards last season despite only making four starts.

In fact he rushed for 433-yards and four touchdowns in the last four games of the season. Barlow averaged 109-yards per game with a 5.4-yard average per rush. He also honed in on his receiving abilities with 18 receptions for 160-yards and one touchdown. When I remember Kevan Barlow last season one game comes to mind in the revenge game against the Arizona Cardinals.

In that game he rushed for a career-high 154-yards on 18 attempts, including a 46-yard touchdown run. Kevan Barlow now will be the featured back in our running game as desired by head coach Dennis Erickson. He accomplished his durability and fumbling questions by starting all four games that Garrison Hearst remained out due to injury.

For the 11-year veteran in Garrison Hearst it spells the end of the road unless he’s willing to restructure a contract that he’ll make $2.5 million on this year. The 49ers are not expected to pay that for a back-up running back even though it is Garrison Hearst.

Discussions with Hearst’s agent Pat Dye Jr. are still under way on restructuring his contract. It is something that will be another bitter pill for Hearst to swallow. It is rumored that former head coach Steve Mariucci would be very interested in obtaining Garrison Hearst’s running abilities for the Detroit Lions. His options are many at this point and he’ll have to do some soul searching on where he chooses to end his career.

“We’re hopeful that there’s a possibility that we can get to where we’re comfortable and Garrison’s comfortable, and he’ll remain with the team,” Donahue said. 'Obviously we’ve made a long-term commitment to Kevan, but we have high regard for Garrison and what he means to this team.”

I cannot say enough of what Garrison Hearst has brought to this team and of course what the team has done for him during his long battle against all odds in returning to the field because of a rare ankle condition.

Garrison has been a real factor in many years in being the explosive running back this team needed to carry the offense. He also realizes that the team has been patient and kind enough to allow him to heal and make the comeback he always had on his mind and made it a reality.

I hope he can come to the conclusion that being a back up in this part of his career is not necessarily a bad thing, but I also can understand that he still has two to three good years left in him as a featured back. His leaving would be a real loss that the team would all feel in one form or another, mainly because of what he brings to the locker room and what he does out on that field.

Meanwhile we know that Kevan Barlow is the future and that embracing that with this contract extension was the right thing to do. He has proven to be reliable and durable enough to withstand the rigors of an NFL season. Sure there are comparisons to Hearst we can still see he’s flawed in and we can see that fumbling the ball still gives us worry.

But the point is made that improvements have been made on all these fronts in regards to Kevan Barlow. He publicly stated his desire to stay in San Francisco and for that honesty and sincerity I must say I’m proud we could accommodate that for him.

“We certainly see him as a very integral part of our future and certainly see him as a young ascending player. He started four games last year and rushed for over 1,000-yards and is a player who we think can be an extremely productive player throughout the next five years of his NFL career,” Donahue said. “We definitely see him as part of the core of the team that we want to put together to try and win a world championship with and we think that he is a very talented player and can become one of the top 10 running backs in this league.”

What is very well known is Kevan Barlow’s itching for more playing time. He saw the injury to Garrison Hearst late in the season as an opportunity to prove him as the future starter and he impressed enough people to land this contract.

He remains obligated to Garrison Hearst for all that he has learned over the last two years and attributes his success to Garrison Hearst and his teachings and watching his remarkable performances on and off the field.

“I’m ready for that. I think I’ve shown what I can do,” he said. 'I’m ready to come in and dedicate myself to working out. My first two years I was in a comfort zone knowing I was splitting time with Garrison. Now I’m ready for more.”

Still there remains many a free agent on the list that seem to be eyeing the door. I cannot say I’m happy with the state that the team is in. Obviously this will be a tough year to recover from should we not be able to convince more of our 14 free agents to stay. One thing is for certain this team will have a major facelift in personnel and new coaches.

Putting this all together and getting it to work will be difficult and daunting in my opinion. We will have to examine every angle for us to make the correct decisions come draft weekend. We will also have to handle the real scenario of struggling to reach .500 again considering that so much of what was drafted since 1999 will be gone and keeping veterans will be an expensive thought Dr. John York will want to forget.

I applaud the decisions on Kevan Barlow and Julian Peterson, not everything with our organization is all bad. If we can become fiscally responsible and get things in order in cleaning out the cobwebs of dead money players, we will be able to move ahead and stockpile the talent and energy that can propel us to the post-season again.