Draft could bring changes at RB

For a team that appears set at running back in 2003, the 49ers have been showing a lot of interest in college running backs. The Niners have a top tailback tandem in Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow, but it's possible they will draft a RB this weekend, make that player Barlow's primary backup, then release Hearst after June 1 and use his $2.2 million salary to pay for their upcoming draft class. The Niners, however, continue to assert that Hearst is part of their plans this season.

"Our thought is Garrison Hearst will be on the team," coach Dennis Erickson said this week. "Him and Kevan Barlow are going to be our two running backs. Garrison, in my opinion, is very valuable in a lot of the things that he does. Hopefully, he's going to be here. That's the way it looks right now."

Added general manager Terry Donahue: "Things happen, but we're not looking to replace Garrison. I'm planning on him being on the roster."

That's not to say the scenery couldn't change quickly on draft day if the Niners can find a running back of high value at one of their picks after the first round. Both Erickson and Donahue indicated the Niners wouldn't consider any running back with their first pick.

In several ways, it makes sense for the team to look for a way to replace Hearst. Barlow appears ready to take over as the featured back regardless of whether the team adds another back to the roster, and his skills are better suited to the changes Erickson will bring to San Francisco's offense. And Hearst's salary is an exorbitant amount to be paying a backup, particularly for a team that could use that money in other areas.

The Niners have had Oregon's Onterrio Smith and LSU's Domanick Davis in for visits at their Santa Clara facility. They also had scheduled Miami's Willis McGahee for a visit, but he never did make the trip to Northern California. The team also has expressed interest in Kentucky's Artose Penner.

Last year, the Niners did not bring in any draft-eligible running backs to their team headquarters. Donahue said it's just a part of the process of trying to be thorough for his team winds up with the best player available when its number comes up in the draft lottery. But it's a clear indication the team would be willing to pull the trigger on a change if an advantageous situation presents itself. The Niners also could use the money saved from Hearst's 2003 salary to negotiate long-term contracts for some of its key players that will become free agents in 2004.

The team is intrigued with McGahee, who would have been one of the first players selected in the draft had he not torn up his knee in Miami's loss to Ohio State in January. Despite the severity of his injury, it is still believed McGahee might be the first running back chosen on Saturday. But Donahue said the Niners will not consider McGahee with their first pick, the No. 26 overall.

"We wouldn't do that in the first round," said Donahue, who also said the Niners did not attend McGahee's scheduled workout Tuesday before NFL personnel.



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