Putting the pieces back together

After making several moves the past week that shook the franchise to its core, the 49ers began putting some pieces back together Thursday for the team they will field in 2004. They added a second-round draft pick by sending tempestuous receiver Terrell Owens packing to Baltimore, then made their first moves in free agency by retaining a defensive starter and a key member of their special teams.

In light of the recent release of quarterback Jeff Garcia and three other key offensive starters, the Niners need to keep as many as possible of their own players who now are free to negotiate with any team on the open market. They took a solid first step in that direction by signing defensive end John Engelberger to a three-year deal and long snapper Brian Jennings to a six-year contract. Both players became unrestricted free agents on Wednesday.

The biggest news Thursday, of course, was swapping Owens to the Ravens for a second-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft. General manager Terry Donahue said the Niners would diligently attempt to trade Owens by Friday, and Donahue didn't waste any time.

The GM said he spoke with about half the NFL looking for trade offers, and the best he found was the 51st overall selection in the April draft from Baltimore, one of the top teams on Owens' list to begin with. Not that the Niners cared much about Owens' wishes, but that's a team he'll be able to live with.

Frankly, the 49ers couldn't move Owens fast enough once Baltimore offered the second-round pick. Donahue said other teams offered players of lesser talent and/or lower draft picks. The Niners, who were looking at the possibility of getting nothing for Owens before Owens' agent's recent gaffe failed to void his contract with the team, pounced on the Baltimore offer and didn't attempt to hold out for a higher pick - of which Owens' talent certainly is worth - which may or may not have been coming from another potential suitor.

The Baltimore deal also served another purpose for the Niners, sending Owens far away to the AFC where he can do them little future harm. Given the fortuitous circumstances of Owens' botched contract situation, the Niners had no intention of dumping off Owens in another NFC city, particularly not contenders such as Philadelphia and Tampa Bay.

As long as they do their homework on draft prospects, the Niners now are practically assured of getting a top-caliber receiving prospect on the first day of the draft. They now own the No. 16 pick in the first round and the Nos. 46 and 51 picks in the second round, making them the only team with three picks that high in the draft.

Signing Engelberger may seem like a minor move, but it guarantees the Niners a starting-caliber defensive end to match opposite Andre Carter, whom the team still expects to develop into a star. The Niners would like a little more juice on the edge than Engelberger has provided in his four seasons, but he had a career-high 4.5 sacks last year and has proven he can hold up at the position.

Engelberger's return will give the Niners more time to develop Andrew Williams, the team's third-round draft pick last year, who made no contribution last year, but is seen as still having the potential to excel as a speed rusher, even if only as a situational player. If the team brings back Chidi Ahanotu - which certainly won't be decided until later this spring or summer - the Niners could get by without bringing in another defensive end this year, though more heat on the edge remains a need for a team that didn't get enough of that last season.

Getting back Jennings is something of a coup for the Niners, because he was expected to leave for a better offer elsewhere. The impact of his solid and steady performance as a long snapper should not be underestimated, though it often is. The Niners obviously have plenty of holes to fill after their recent roster shakeup, but now Jennings' vital role won't be one of them for years to come.

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