Free-agent priorities a pecking order?

The 49ers will spend the 29 days of February making clear decisions regarding their direction in free agency come March. While San Francisco's most pressing priorities center around what to do with the team's three biggest stars - LB Julian Peterson, WR Terrell Owens and QB Jeff Garcia - the Niners will spend this month having "meaningful discussions" with these players and dozens of other impending free agents while attempting to devise a plan to keep as many as possible on the team in 2004.

"I'd like as much of the core of this team back as we can get," GM Terry Donahue said. "It's a good core of players."

At the center of that core is Peterson, whom the Niners would like to sign to a contract extension before the free agency period begins March 3. Donahue said the Niners will give Peterson a competitive offer and the GM is confident he'll be back with the team next season.

But that doesn't necessarily make Peterson the team's No. 1 priority, Donahue said, because the direction the franchise takes with each of its free agents will be contingent on the circumstances surrounding what happens with the free-agent group as a whole.

"We have a lot of priorities," Donahue said. "We are going to deal with them one by one. Julian Peterson, he's a high priority on our list. We want to get him back. But so are the other guys. I don't think you necessarily place a pecking order, because you don't know the numbers you'll be dealing with yet."

The Niners will be learning of those numbers during conversations this month and, while it appears virtually certain the Niners will lose Owens once he voids his contract and hits the open market in March, Donahue remains resolved that there's a chance Peterson, Owens and Garcia all could be wearing 49ers uniforms again next season.

"I'm saying the same thing about our players in general," Donahue said. "If it's true with Julian, it's true with T.O. and true with Jeff. That doesn't mean I'm telling you they're all coming back. I'm not saying that. I'm just saying that with each case, you take it case by case, you find out where the common ground is - you find out if there is common ground, and where that is - and then you fit that player into your plans, if they're in your plans."

Donahue said Owens' value "is going to be determined by whatever teams are interested in him," so the Niners will have to wait until March to even see if there's a chance they can realistically bid for his services.

It's a different situation with Garcia, who is not a free agent but will definitely have to restructure his contract if he's to remain with the team. Since Garcia is due a $500,000 roster bonus in March, the Niners must determine before then how the QB and his 2004 paycheck will fit into the structure of what the team wants to accomplish in free agency.

"I think there's a number we can live with and a number Jeff can live with," Donahue said. "I'm hopeful we can reach that number."

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