Proactive planning in Peterson's place

The 49ers are digging in for a long, drawn-out summer without Julian Peterson, who now appears further away from slipping into a practice uniform than any other player on the San Francisco roster. While the Niners obviously don't look as dangerous on defense without their All-Pro linebacker, they don't exactly look bad either, though some of the adjustments they're making to deal with Peterson's absence are a little bit surprising.

But instead of keeping a spot warm for Peterson, and filling his left outside linebacker position this spring with players who would be backing him up in the fall, the Niners are taking proactive measures and going about their business as though the two-time Pro Bowler won't be with them any time soon.

Which, of course, might be the case. Peterson - looking for a blockbuster long-term contract rather than the one-year, $6.073 million tender the Niners have offered him this year after slapping him with the exclusive franchise tag - is likely to miss most or all of summer drills as a training camp holdout, a development that certainly isn't going to leave the 49ers as happy campers.

"We've got the franchise tag on Julian, and we hope that he'll show up," Niners general manager Terry Donahue said. "The earlier the better, I think, for all concerned. Not just for us, but I think for him. If he expects to play at the franchise level, he's got to come in and learn the new terminology. The new system, it's a little different. If you talk to the players on the team, particularly the linebackers, they like what we're doing, but it's a little different. So Julian's got to come in and learn that. And if he doesn't, he won't perform at a franchise level, and were going to be disappointed that we paid him at a franchise level, and he's not going to perform at that level if he doesn't get in here."

That's one worse-case scenario for the Niners, who are hoping it won't come to that. But they won't be standing around waiting on July 30 to see what Peterson is going to do.

The Niners already have made revisions in their starting linebacker unit, shifting Derek Smith to Peterson's left outside slot, moving Jeff Ulbrich from the right side into Smith's middle linebacker position, and having Jamie Winborn take over Ulbrich's starting spot on the right side.

It's a nice-looking lineup that worked well together during the spring. But moving Smith - instead of playing a speedier, flashier player such as Winborn or Saleem Rasheed in Peterson's spot - seemed a little bit like messing with a good thing.

Smith set a franchise record with 189 tackles last season and was a fixture in the middle. But he also had a career-high 3.5 sacks and had one of his best years in pass coverage, displaying the kind of versatility the Niners like to see at the left outside position.

"He's played inside and he's played outside," Niners coach Dennis Erickson said. "Julian isn't here, so our move was to move (Smith) outside. Derek Smith is a football player. He's a veteran. He's a pro. You can play him any place and he'll play well. We're playing with a plan right now. We've got to have a plan in case Julian doesn't come into camp. That's Julian's choice, not our choice. What we can do about it, we can make our adjustments to how we're going to play next fall if he isn't here. And moving Derek outside was the answer."

Erickson reiterated Donahue's statements that Peterson already has missed valuable and important work under the Niners' new defensive coordinator, Willy Robinson, and it will only get worse with each and every practice he might miss this summer.

"Any time you miss training camp, you miss stuff," Erickson said. "The more training camp you miss, the more you miss. We're adding things here defensively; we're different defensively than we were a year ago. We're doing some different things. If you miss some of that, you miss it. You're going to have to make up for it."

The Niners will keep making up their contingency plan while Peterson is away.

"We have to play whether he's here or whether he isn't here," Erickson said. "We have to put everything in and you just do it with different people. We're going to do the same things defensively whether he's here or whether he isn't. We have a good plan. We'd like to have Julian, but if we don't, then we have a good plan and we can win a lot of football games with that group (that's in place)."


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