Niners waiting for next move after quiet March

It got so quiet around 49erland during March that you could hear a free agent drop. Not many did. A year after making a series of major moves in free agency during the month, the Niners in 2003 signed only a backup tight end while watching a few of the veteran starters they cut loose sign elsewhere. Don't expect much change in activity during April as players start returning to the team complex in Santa Clara and the organization makes final preparations for the April 26-27 draft.

The Niners clearly are waiting to see what kind of help they'll get from the draft before they determine what other voids they must address in free agency. Last year, general manager Terry Donahue spent tens of millions of dollars in free agency to keep his team together. This year, he is attempting to spend as little as possible with the same intention in mind.

That's because the Niners are saving money and salary-cap space with an eye toward the 2004 offseason, when the team is hoping to sign several in its nucleus of young stars - players such as WR Terrell Owens, DB Ahmed Plummer and LB Julian Peterson - to long-term contracts.

The 49ers had a parade of capable veteran free agents file through their Santa Clara facility last year during March. That is not the case this year, and the team's only signing in March was tight end Jed Weaver - formerly of the Miami Dolphins - which is only a marginal signing to address the team's depth and talent at tight end.

If the Niners could find a sure-fire free agent this month to fill one of their problem areas at wide receiver or defensive line, they would. But they feel better about watching and waiting and seeing how things shake out with signings throughout the league. That's the approach they've taken with their own lone unrestricted free agent, DE Chike Okeafor.

Okeafor has visited with at least five other NFL teams, but he enters April without having signed with anybody. Okeafor, obviously, is looking for the best contract he can get after having his best season in 2003. The Niners are staying in touch, waiting to see what kind of final offers Okeafor gets from others, and they still are a player in retaining his services. But that Okeafor still is available entering April tells the Niners they were not wrong for waiting.

Considering their uncertainty along the defensive line, the Niners would like to retain Okeafor. But they won't overpay for him, as some other team probably will. That's how the landscape has changed for the Niners in free agency this year. They are sitting on the team they have, waiting to see how the draft pans out until they make their next move.


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