Peterson becoming top priority

The 49ers will have a busy off-season, as a number of starters and reserves are scheduled to be free agents, including receiver Terrell Owens, receiver Tai Streets, running back Kevan Barlow, cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster, defensive end John Engelberger, and perhaps the most important of them all - versatile linebacker Julian Peterson. <BR><BR>

Through the first half of the season, the 49ers plan for the future may have changed.

No longer when people talk about the best player on the 49ers do they weigh the merits of Jeff Garcia against Terrell Owens.

The 49ers have turned into a defensive football team. And linebacker Julian Peterson is clearly the star of the defense.

Peterson, the No. 16 overall selection in the 2000 draft, has improved steadily through his first four seasons in the league. He made his first Pro Bowl last season, and he is having an even better season this year.

"He's the best linebacker in the NFL, in my opinion," 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora said. "There might be guys better at run defense and as pass rushers, but nobody can do all the things that Julian can do."

Peterson's rise to among the best players in the NFL comes at a fortunate time for him, as he is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

The 49ers will have a busy off-season, as a number of starters and reserves are scheduled to be free agents, including Owens, receiver Tai Streets, running back Kevan Barlow, cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster, and defensive end John Engelberger.

Prior to the start of the season, Owens was looking for a signing bonus in excess of $20 million. While Owens value on the open market appears to have declined, Peterson now ranks among one of the true superstars in the league.

Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis signed a contract extension prior to the 2002 season that included a $19 million signing bonus. Chicago's Brian Urlacher received $13 million in guaranteed money, plus another $6 million in bonuses paid out of three years.

Peterson appears to be in line for a paycheck approaching those of Lewis and Urlacher. At least, Peterson's stock appears to have surpassed what the 49ers would have been prepared to retain Owens.

Niners general manager Terry Donahue insists it's not an either/or situation surrounding the teams ability to re-sign Peterson or Owens.

"Julian Peterson is a very, very important player for us," Donahue said recently. "And wed love to have him back. Just like all those players we drafted and have played well, before me and since I've been here. Wed like to have them all back. But certainly Julian Peterson is a very key, important player. But I don't think we necessarily have to pit him against T.O."

If the 49ers are unable to sign Peterson to a contract extension prior to the start of the free-agent signing period, they are almost certain to make him their "franchise player."

The one-year franchise tender this year for linebackers was $5.6 million, so next year it would likely take approximately $6 million to lock up Peterson with the franchise tag.

The 49ers do not want to take any chance of losing Peterson, just as he is reaching the prime of his career. Peterson is 25 years old, while Owens turns 30 in December.

Peterson leads the 49ers with four sacks, is second in tackles. But his value to the team is difficult to describe in number. He has gotten a lot better against the run and can shut down tight ends and running backs in coverage.

"Personally, I think he is as good as anybody that I have seen at that position," 49ers coach Dennis Erickson said.

Peterson's versatility enables Mora to line him up at almost any position across the board. In a game against the Dallas Cowboys last season when the 49ers were ravaged by injuries in the secondary, Peterson played a few snaps at cornerback and safety, as well as outside linebacker and defensive end.

"A lot of people take their best athletes and move them around," Erickson said. "We're starting to play him down more in nickel and then bring him up. You can just do so many things and you can disguise many things defensively with a guy like that because they don't know where he is going to be."


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