Niners need vet at PK

The 49ers have signed four unproven punters to their roster since Jan. 7, which gives you a pretty good idea of what they think of the guy who handled the role for the team last year. But the Niners haven't hired any new place-kickers, a good sign for incumbent veteran Todd Peterson and a definite sign that coach Dennis Erickson has no intention of going into the 2004 season with an inexperienced or unproven kicker.

Erickson already has said as much. And more than once.

"I do know one thing, and I've said this before," Erickson said. "We aren't going to be without a kicker. There is no way. I'm not going to deal with that. I need a veteran kicker."

Peterson is about as veteran as they come, an 11th-year player who has drilled field goals for five different NFL teams, and did a pretty decent job for the Niners over the second half of last season after the fiasco follies of Jeff Chandler/Owen Pochman during the first half may have cost the Niners three wins and a playoff berth.

Peterson, however, knows he is far down the list of the team's priorities at the moment. He is one of 14 players who are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in March.

"There are big fish to fry," Peterson said. "I know that. But at the same time, I know that because of what happened this year, it certainly's not the last thing on the list."

Peterson tried not to, but as he said those words he couldn't help but break into a half-smile. He knows he's the most reliable kicker the 49ers have trotted out onto the field in at least the past six seasons.

The Niners need to keep him, unless they plan to find a younger veteran with a stronger leg and an equally proven track record.

They won't be keeping Bill LaFleur. While the Niners make their roster decisions during February in anticipation of the start of free agency on March 3, you can be relatively certain one of the moves they won't make is a tender offer to exclusive-rights free agent LaFleur, who imploded last season in a dual role as their punter and PAT/field goal holder.

On the surface, the inexperience punters the Niners have signed to their roster don't look any better than LaFleur, but it is almost certain that whoever the Niners end up with can't be much worse.

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