49ers following free agency plan

Don't expect the weeks ahead in free agency to be anything like the one that just went by for the 49ers. The Niners cut ties with several of their top veteran players due to salary-cap concerns and watched significant others leave via different sets of circumstances, but the swift moves San Francisco did make last week suggests there is a plan and light at the end of the tunnel amid the gloom-and-doom forecasts that are surrounding the team.

There's no doubt it hurts the Niners to lose players such as Jeff Garcia, Terrell Owens, Garrison Hearst, Ron Stone and Derrick Deese. That's almost half of the team's offensive starters from last season, even if that offense was showing signs of growing stagnant and old, as were each of those players.

But busting out an $11 million signing bonus to secure cornerback Ahmed Plummer, along with signing unrestricted free agents John Engelberger and Brian Jennings, is a clear indication the Niners are now building around their defense and hoping that new faces can develop into a respectable and effective attack on the other side of the ball.

That could be all the Niners need to surprise people who have them ticketed for a heavy fall in 2004. Defense wins championships, and the Niners finally could be one of the league's best defensive units next season, particularly if they play it right the next few months and pick up a few more parts in the draft and free agency.

The Plummer signing was key, because it not only showed the Niners were willing to fork out big bucks to a homegrown talent in free agency, but it also proved that all the team's premier talent doesn't necessarily want to abandon ship, as some are suggesting. If any of the top young unrestricted free agents were to leave (we're not including Terrell Owens and his ordeal in this discussion), it figured to be Plummer, who talked openly near the end of the season that he would consider other offers and might be better off - and happier - playing for a team closer to his Ohio roots.

But Plummer - probably one of the most intelligent, reasonable and mature young players on the team - was convinced to stay with the Niners, and it wasn't just about money.

"It was the young talent we have here," Plummer said. "Once I talked to (team officials), I understood their plan and I understood where they were coming from. I am committed to the plan and they are committed to their plan and it is our job to make it successful now."

"We did lose some guys who are very talented and who have done some great things in the NFL (but) some of the guys still there are guys that you can win with. Sometimes it can be very easy to get blinded by the big-name stars and not remember the guys who are about to sign and guys who are about to come into their own, and that is what I saw after talking to the Jamie Winborns, and we got Julian (Peterson), we have Andre Carter, we have Tony Parrish coming back, and so the defense looks really strong."

Plummer went on to list a similar set of names on offense, and suddenly it didn't look so bad. If the Niners can manage to bring back a few more of their seven remaining unrestricted free agents - defensive linemen Chidi Ahanotu and Travis Kirschke, tight end Jed Weaver and kicker Todd Peterson would be the most vital and likely to return of that group - they will further improve the core base of a young team in transition.

Because of cap constraints, general manager Terry Donahue said "we are not going to be as active now" in free agency because "we can't be as active." But San Francisco's early moves during Week 1 of NFL free agency puts the team in a position to have a successful draft in the spring and also pick up a few other veterans to fill voids later in the summer.

"We know that we are heading in the right direction," Donahue said. "There are no questions in our mind about that. We have made some tough decisions, but this is going to be much better for the team. It is going to allow us to be a good team year in and year out.

"That fact that we could get Engelberger and Plummer back really helps us. It keeps that defense more intact. It allows us to be more aggressive in the draft. It allows us to have a little more comfort in picking the best available player and not have to weigh need quite as much. I think it will allow us to be on offense in the draft rather than on defense."

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