Last year as leader?

Bryant Young can see what's going on around him. He's the last 49er still standing from San Francisco's most recent Super Bowl championship run, but that's a distant memory for a young team looking toward the future with new direction. While the 11th-year player embraces another season as the team's central veteran leader, he realizes his time in that role is winding down. "I'm not going to be here forever," Young told SFI. "I think that's pretty evident." It's more evident now than ever.

There has been talk going around that 2004 will be Young's final season with the Niners. That certainly isn't set in stone, and if Young can display on a consistent basis this season the old impact flashes of brilliance he showed at times toward the end of last year, the Niners will be persuaded to continue with the four-time All-Pro tackle in the thick of their defensive plans.

But the truth is, Young almost didn't make it to this season with the team. He was paid a $2 million roster bonus earlier this year, and the Niners thought long and hard about making that commitment as they were shedding tens of millions of dollars of caps space during the offseason. According to NFL Players Association figures, Young's base salary alone will cost the Niners $2,250,000 against their cap each of the next three years, and that's not including the yearly prorated portion of his signing bonus or any recent contract restructuring.

For a team that is going young - and not necessarily Young - the Niners don't figure to be too interested in paying that money if Young no longer is the dominant defensive tackle that was awarded a team-record six-year, $38 million contract in 2001. That deal included a team-record $12.5 million bonus.

Young had his ups and downs in 2003, when he was hampered by nagging injuries, and he tweaked his surgically-repaired left ankle during June minicamps. But it wasn't a setback, and the Niners are anxious to see how high a level Young still can perform at after he faltered at times last season.

One reason, for sure, that the Niners were willing to bring back Young during their offseason exodus - a cleaning-house process that sent away veteran leaders such as Jeff Garcia, Derrick Deese and Garrison Hearst - is because of his presence in the locker room. He remains the team's unquestioned leader, and Young said he has no reservations about handling that unspoken duty again despite all the roster change around him.

"No, not at all," Young said. "I'm still comfortable with that role. There's still a lot more things that I want to do here. It's always a challenge for me to be a great leader. I look forward to that. I accept that role with open arms. I don't shy from that role at all."

For a player who is considered one of the greatest defensive tackles of his era, and a possible Hall of Fame candidate, Young has endured a certain amount of criticism the past few years that he no longer is an impact performer in the trenches. But, at age 32, Young continues to work hard and remain confident that he can perform at that standard of excellence.

And the Niners' new defensive coordinator, Willy Robinson, likes what he sees.

"He's a freak in regards to his ability to maintain his effort level, his work habits for somebody who plays in the pits and gets hit on every snap," said Robinson, who also was impressed by Young's "professionalism at the position."

Professionalism and attitude can take a player far, as Young has displayed throughout his career. Those attributes continue to make Young a fixture with the 49ers, though that status in the future figures to be directly linked to how he performs on the field this season.

"We've still got B.Y. here," Niners cornerback Ahmed Plummer said. "And since I've been here, B.Y. has been the leader of this defense. That's nothing that has changed, as far as him being vocal and leading by example."

But Young, perhaps cryptically, indicated prominent young 49ers such as Plummer need to be ready when the day comes they must move on without Young in the huddle.

"We've got a lot of good young talent here that can continue on here with the tradition," Young said. "I think now is just probably a good time to just start having guys step up to the forefront so that they can be recognized, and the younger guys can see who are going to be the guys in the future, or the guys of the present and the future.

"I know that there's going to be a time when I'm not here, and life continues. That's just how it is."

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