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Part Two: San Francisco lands big in free agency Bonanza

Apr 26, 2002 at 12:00 AM

Back in the waning days of March the San Francisco 49er’s were dealing with the imminent possibility of parting with one of their own. Almost every professional football team in the league today must deal with the ever-present danger of losing a coveted player.

The 49er’s were no different, having lost many veterans to salary cap purgatory the team found itself faced with the same prospect in losing strong safety Lance Schulters. The front office under General Manager Terry Donahue had made whirlwind deals with center Jeremy Newberry, fullback Fred Beasley and star running back Garrison Hearst. Donahue even went as far as signing teammate free safety Zack Bronson to an extension.

The two sides couldn’t find common ground as Schulters bargaining agent Brian Levy, continued to throw dollar figures in his sight range. I credit Donahue in a lot of ways for holding the line on costs and drawing a firm line on overall spending. It is this same spending that drove the 49er’s into humiliating submission in both 1999 and 2000.

After signing four prominent stars on the team the 49er’s had limited funds to sign Lance Schulters. Basically because his agent and himself believed it was time to find pay dirt once and for all. Offers were made on behalf of Terry Donahue and those offers were categorically denied. Schulters continued to pursue the possibility of a salary range that would average around $3.7 million a year.

Lance Schulters made arrangements in conjunction with his agent to visit other football franchises and negotiate his future somewhere else. The four-year strong safety looked with strong interest to New York in the Giants, but right before his assigned visit they resigned strong safety Shaun Williams to a record deal. A deal that was five-years, and worth $20 million with a $6 million dollar bonus.

Schulters than turned his attention to both Atlanta and Tennessee, but Atlanta made clear they would not be interested until after June 1st. Tennessee then became the logical broker in bidding for Schulters. At the time of the offers by the 49er’s to Schulters agent Brian Levy, they had roughly $2 million dollars under the cap in which to sign a free agent starter. This after signing Newberry, Beasley and Hearst. They remained locked at odds with another.

“We have not given up in our quest and our desire to bring Lance Schulters back to the 49er’s,” Donahue said. “But we have to be realistic that at any moment other teams can make an offer that will take him away from us. We believe as an n organization right now that there is considerable difference between our position and Lance’s representative’s position. They know full well that we want Lance back if we can work it out. At the same time, we feel we need to develop a contingency plan if we are unable to bridge that difference between us.”

So that contingency plan was put into action in the form of free agent visits to the 49er headquarters and training facilities. Some of the best known in the league in safeties Chad Cota and Tony Parrish, both considered as the top free agents at their position on the market.

Cota, an eighth--year veteran, started for the Indianapolis Colts the past three seasons and had started 63 consecutive with the Colts and Carolina Panthers entering last season. Tony Parrish has started every season for the past four seasons after being drafted by the Chicago Bears in the second round of the 1998 NFL Draft, two rounds ahead of Lance Schulters.

I want to go on record as saying that Lance Schulters was a rival to the Ronnie Lott of old. That he had some of the same qualities and aspirations as he did in many ways, I know for a fact that he respected the aura of Ronnie Lott and that he idolized him himself.

I also want to make known that Lance was a voice in the locker room a motivator to others when they were down and out, he helped pick players up emotionally and encouraged them to turn the corner. He had a great comfort zone with most of the players and was brash with other teams as a game drew near. He was very self-confidant in his abilities and played through immense pain.

“Until Lance either re-signs here or signs with another team, you just don’t know what’s going to happen,” Donahue said. “But we’re still optimistic. We’re continuing to have dialogue with Lance’s representatives. We’re continuing to explore ways we can bridge the gap between them and us.”

This quote was said in early March, as days passed so did the likelihood of his return to the 49er’s diminish immensely. Schulters continued to insist on making more money than what the 49er’s been willing to put up front. The price was too steep and the sides showed little compromise on anything.

“We had a conversation (with Schulter’s agent, Brian Levy) and we continue to be far apart,” general manager Terry Donahue said. “I don’t know if there is much hope of bridging the gap; but we are not giving up.”

Schulters indicated to the 49er’s that he is worth somewhere in the averages of $3.5 to $4 million per year, this the 49er’s thought ridiculous and quite frankly so do I. Donahue is supposedly had offered Schulters up to $2.3 million a year, but this was not enough and in my opinion more than fair.

With this the 49er’s faced the reality that they would have to part with one of their own again after four years. Brian Levy Schulters agent continued to imply that the Tennessee Titans would pay him up to $3 million a year for his services. But the negative effect it would have on the 49er’s in such a deal is the ramifications. The 49er’s would find little bargaining power with all that money tied up in Schulters. Especially with contracts like Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster’s coming up soon.

“It’s not a personal thing at all, it’s philosophical,” Donahue said. “We believe we have to slot salaries within structures. If we don’t, yeah, we’ll solve a problem for today, but we’ll create three problems for tomorrow.”

Another factor in Schulters mindset was that he wanted to play closer to home, his home being in Brooklyn, New York, this is where he was raised and lives in the off-season. This was also a driving force that darkened the clouds so to speak in his willingness to depart from San Francisco.

On April 10th, 2002 the deal was done between the Tennessee Titans and Lance Schulters, this after many intense negotiations and endless compromises and hearings with the 49er’s. Schulters is a former Hofstra star, and was selected by the 49er’s in the fourth round of the 1998 draft, he is a three-year starter. For his career, he has 256 tackles, including a career-best 90 in 2000, nine interceptions, and 23 passes deflected and 1.5 sacks. He has played in 56 games and started in 41 of them.

The deal was made after the San Francisco 49er’s exercised their option to sign former Chicago Bear’s strong safety Tony Parrish on April 2nd, 2002. Donahue accepted the hard reality that the two sides would never draw closer to than what they were; therefore he pulled the trigger and signed a quality star safety in Parrish, for the right money.

The Schulters deal is an interesting one; he will not receive any signing bonus in year one of a five-year contract. Instead he will make $1.5 million and receive a $1 million advance. Next year, the Titans hold an option clause that will pay him a $3.5 million signing bonus and an $800,000 base salary.

He will make around $8.5 million over the first three years of the contract and $11.5 million over the first four years. The club holds an option also in the sixth season and the total value of the contract, if the Titans exercise the option is believed to be in the $20 million dollar range.

Schulters, 26, is a market value not, he is a superb athlete I will give him that, and he does deserve respect out on the playing field with his famous hard pops. He hits with authority and many of his victims lay breathless or get up and walk slowly off the field. But that kind of money is money that the 49er’s could never realistically afford to pay, and think of keeping other players down the road. The Titans will find that out the hard way.

Schulters a proven player in run support and, with good range has developed during his career as a solid defender against the pass. He had six interceptions in 1999, when he was named to the Pro Bowl that year. For that kind of money in Tennessee he better make many more Pro Bowls.

Former University of Washington star Tony Parrish is the man with the right fit for the right price. He signed a five-year contract worth $12.025 million, and the deal includes a $3 million dollar signing bonus. The contract is worth $7 million in the first three years and includes roster protections. Parrish is a safety that will be able to step right in and you’ll see absolutely no drop off in experience or hard hitting.

I go on record as hoping that the 49er’s would consider him as their first free agent pickup. The deal with Schulters dead in the water made this deal ever more pressing and I am very happy that Terry Donahue was able to get the deal done. Parrish, also 26, met twice with San Francisco officials and coaches over a two-week period and it was obvious that he was the heir apparent to Schulters throne.

Parrish a second-round choice of the Bears in the 1998 draft, Parrish was an immediate starter from the first day of training camp. The durable veteran started all 64 games in Chicago and finished his tour there with 329 tackles, eight interceptions, 27 passes deflected and four sacks.

“It’s been a rough, rough market this year and the way it is now, I’m a winner,” Parrish said. Parrish had 80 tackles just last season with three interceptions and seven passes defended. He totaled 416 tackles in four seasons.

He is without a doubt in the front office’s eyes and my own the very best if not better replacement for departed Lance Schulters. You usually sometimes take a step back in releasing a veteran free agent in the caliber of Schulters. But not this time, if anything we have upgraded at that position at the very least.

“We think Tony (Parrish) is one of the outstanding safeties in pro football,” added Donahue. “I’ve known about him for quite awhile, dating back to my days at UCLA and I’ve been a fan of his since he came out of Washington.”

What transpired soon after the deal with Parrish was the 49er signing of defensive end Sean Moran as a free agent. Moran broke into the league as a fourth-round selection of the Buffalo Bills in 1996 after his college career at Colorado State. He spent four seasons with the Bills before joining the St. Louis Rams for the past two seasons. His best statistical year as a professional was 1997 when he started seven games and finished with 54 tackles, 4.5 sacks and two interceptions.

“We feel good fortune smiled on us that we were able to lad a player like Tony Parrish and have enough money left over to sign a player we really liked in Sean Moran,” Donahue said.

Moran, 6-3, 280-pounds, will see some extensive time in nickel defense situations and give the 49er’s a high-effort, aggressive force at left end. Donahue has even indicated that Moran has the versatility to play inside as well as outside.

“He’s going to have a great motor and be a great presence in the locker room,” Donahue said. “He’ll be an asset to this organization whether he starts or not.” Moran’s contract is a three-year deal worth just over $2.4 million.

I believe the signing of two free agents for the price of Schulters was definitely the best way to go. Both Parrish and Moran will add to the defense that was already peaking just last season. Both will have a dramatic effect on the overall productivity and health of this formidable defense. The 49er’s continue to pursue every avenue at their disposal in making improvement on a franchise that hit rock bottom just a few years ago.

With the aging of veteran Pro Bowler guard Ray Brown, the San Francisco 49er’s again expressed a real desire to address this position with some youth. With money still available the 49er’s began an influx of free agent offensive linemen to their facilities for interviews and workouts and analysis.

Two top free agent guards that came in were Green Bay Packer Mike Wahle and Oakland Raider Frank Middleton, after some careful considerations and overall analysis the 49er’s parted ways with both of these. And focused on two brighter prospects in New Orleans Saint Chris Naeole and New York Giant guard Ron Stone.

Others that deemed consideration were Matt Joyce and Blake Brockermeyer. Of all of these the contest came down tighter as Wahle, Middleton and Joyce were all resigned by their original teams after careful negotiations.

Chris Naeole also jumped ship as the interest was there, but mutual agreement was not, the former Saint accepted an offer and is now with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Ron Stone the Pro Bowl guard with the Giants made several visits and looked impressive to the 49er brass.

One of the most interesting things that happened in the Ron Stine process was the fact that he was reunited with former teammate Scott Gragg, another offensive lineman with the 49er’s. The two played alongside each other for several years in New York and Gragg spoke highly of the experience.

“Ron is a great player, a really great player,” Gragg said. “I’ve seen him absolutely dominant guys. Just shut them down totally. He was a big reason why I had so much success in New York and I have no doubt he would be a great fit here.”

Blake Brockermeyer is a 6-4, 300-pound lineman that is also very familiar with the 49er’s after spending four years of his career with the Carolina Panthers (1995-98) before spending the last three seasons with the Chicago Bears.

But the 49er’s when comparing the two seen some questions in Brockermeyer that really was glaring concerns. Donahue was careful and marked with his words and analysis on the big Bear lineman. He was most determined to find an answer at left guard through free agency rather than going through the draft to determine what to do.

Brockermeyer has started 101 career games at tackle, but he is coming off surgery on his right shoulder and left knee. Those surgeries and the fact he was scheduled to count $3.9 million against the cap led to his release by the Bears.

“The biggest thing for us with Blake is his physical health and not the position he would play here,” Donahue said. “I expect he would play any position we asked of him, but there are some medical questions that need to be answered.”

In regards to Ron Stone the 49er’s came away seemingly impressed, the 49er’s still have veteran Ray Brown on the roster so the time frame in which they felt compelled to make a move was not as urgent. However Donahue indicated early in April that if he could get a deal done with a free agent guard he would do so.

“We would prefer to get a free agent offensive lineman prior to the draft, but it is not essential to us,” said Donahue. “We have parameters established for the position and it really depends on how cooperative the players can be or will be. We are not going outside our limits.”

So the dating game commenced, it lasted too long with Chris Naeole as he signed on with the Jaguars, but Donahue was not in a hurry he wanted to have the right player for the job and it all came down to Brockermeyer or Stone. Patience seemed to be the rule of thumb in Donahue’s thought process and it was here where he saw the real true picture.

“It was a situation we felt either Ron Stone or Blake Brockermeyer was the direction we wanted to go,” Donahue said. “No slight was intended to Chris Naeole. But we felt if we’re going to do this, and we’re going to fill this need by the draft; Stone or Brockermeyer was the way for us to go.”

On April 12th, 2002 the San Francisco 49er’s signed free agent Pro Bowl guard Ron Stone, he was the NFL’s most coveted free agent offensive lineman this year. He agreed to a four-year $9 million dollar contract, including a signing bonus of $2.35 million.

Stone was a two-time Pro Bowler at right guard for the Giants. This makes the final look of the 49er offensive line that will include Derrick Deese at left tackle, Stone, Newberry at center, Dave Fiore at right guard and Scott Gragg at right tackle.

Ron Stone is a nine-year veteran from Boston College was originally a fourth-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in the 1993 draft. He spent three seasons as a reserve in Dallas, before joining the Giants in 1996 where he has been a starter at right guard ever since. Stone has also played every line position but center during his NFL career and has started all but four games since the 1996 season.

One of the great things I really like about Stone is that he is accomplished and has already been to the Pro Bowl twice, and at 30 years old he still has plenty of market value and productivity left. Nothing really replaces Ray Brown, I am still very much in his corner to see him comeback and play a reserve role with the team. However those chances are slim due to his nature and desire to start.

“Ron has great size, strength and durability,” said Donahue. “He’s very dominant at the point of attack. I would call him a power guard. He’ll do a great job for us.”

With this marvelous acquisition it all but seals the fate of veteran Ray Brown. In all due respect the fact that he will turn 40 this year is of little consequence. Look at Bruce Matthews with the Tennessee Titans do you see a dramatic drop off in productivity and durability? I certainly haven’t seen any either. Youth is the nature of this business though that is the underlying fact.

“We do not anticipate Ray Brown being with the team after June 1st,” added Donahue. “We have the greatest respect and admiration for Ray, but we needed to move in another direction and I think he appreciated our honesty. And when you can replace one Pro Bowl player with another one, you’ve got to feel good about that.”

This awesome free agent marathon will benefit both sides of the line this season; we have absolutely no retreat in our convictions and no decrease in the quality of our overall personnel. We have added key players that will manufacture positive productivity and make our dreams become more in tune with reality.

I am excited at the prospect of watching all of these former free agents work for us on the field in battle week in and week out. I am sad to see Lance Schulters go, but not so sad about his overall agenda. It all came down to money and his own desire to be closer to home. I am confident in Tony Parrish and it will be a great pairing in Parrish and Bronson.

I am also excited to see that the pass rush is not being ignored but fine-tuned, with Sean Moran as the addition it will press more from Chike Okeafor and John Engelberger. Andre Carter is expected to have much more success on his side with a full year under his wings. I see a lot of potential for sack digits to double over last season with Moran’s signing and Carters increased percentage in reaching the passer.

On offense you can expect no drop offs in manufacturing points and moving the chains as the line have been regenerated with Ron Stone and the resigning of reserve guard Matt Willig. It should be a great year baring injuries for us to go deeper into post-season contention.

Offensive Coordinator Greg Knapp is equally as excited at the prospects for this season, having signed all the important elements on the offense in Newberry, Beasley and Hearst he expects nothing less than perfection from his starting lineup.

“It is just huge to get all three of those guys back,” Knapp said. “And to get a guy like Matt Willig back, a guy who is an experienced frontline veteran and can play lots of positions. To have all our guys returning is such a plus.”

With so much riding on the season the 49er’s will come out of the gate in awesome shape this season, in fact this could be one of the best teams the 49er’s have ever assembled in real numbers and quality.

“We’ve done an extensive self-scout as a staff,” added Knapp. “We have gone through every run, every pass, and every situation from last year and we’ve critiqued it all. We find out what we need to improve on and even more importantly, we really find out what worked and what we might run more of.”

Others around the league are noticing just what the San Francisco 49er’s are doing and that is building a foundation and an infrastructure that will last for many years to come. We have made headlines not just around the Bay Area but the entire nation as well, we are forcing other teams and front offices to step up and take notice in what we are doing, and what we are accomplishing.

“What the 49er’s have done has been remarkable,” said one former general manager in the NFL, who chose to remain anonymous. “Being able to keep all of their free agents and replace Schulters with Parrish, and most people in the league think that is an upgrade, and do all of that before the draft is just very impressive.”

“The talk around the league centers around two teams: the Patriots and the 49er’s. The Patriots get credit for winning the Super Bowl and the 49er’s have earned the respect for the way they have turned around after being, let’s face it, in bad shape the previous two years. Donahue has done a great job of keeping the team’s free agents and that is so important.”

This concludes my series on free agency, I am again in awe at how well we did and have very high expectations for the 2002 season. Training camps will tell the tale of the tape on a lot of these athletes and we see where cuts need to be made. The competition in camps will be nearly doubled what it used to be as. We should see some very positive influences make their way to the top of this roster, and we should be in position to strike deeper into the playoffs.

The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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