Drakeford returns to 49ers

<P>Tyronne Drakeford was sitting in the 49ers locker room Wednesday, across the floor from where his locker once stood. A big smile on his face, he was talking with a few of the team's beat writers whom he remembers well from his first stay with the team. </P>

He was happy just to be talking football again. Then SFI asked him why he wasn't in the league right now. Drakeford looked up. "Why aren't I in the league?" he repeated. "That's a good question," the veteran cornerback continued. "I've been asking myself that. I don't know, man."

Drakeford doesn't have to wonder anymore. The 49ers signed him to the team on Thursday, clearing a spot on the 53-man roster by placing second-year running back Jonas Lewis on the injured reserve list. Drakeford and free-agent cornerback Tom Carter had tryouts on Wednesday, and the Niners obviously got a good enough look to hire Drakeford as insurance at cornerback, where starting left corner Ahmed Plummer is bothered by an abdominal muscle near his hip and third corner Rashad Holman is hampered by a stinger.

"We're just covering all our bases right now," Niners coach Steve Mariucci said. The salary cap-strapped Niners were able to save enough money to sign Drakeford during the time in November and December they played with a 51-man roster. Drakeford was the Niners' second-round draft pick in their last Super Bowl season of 1994. He won a championship ring after playing in 13 games as a rookie, had five interceptions in his second season as a part-time starter then started all 16 games in his third season. But he lost his place in the starting lineup and was moved to nickel back in 1997 when the Niners brought in free agent Rod Woodson to play corner. Drakeford had five interceptions again, then signed with New Orleans as a free agent the next season. He started for the Saints in 1998 and had four interceptions, returning one for his only career touchdown. But things began to awry in New Orleans in 1999, and after playing for the Washington Redskins in 2000, Drakeford was out of football.

"Things started out good in New Orleans," Drakeford said. "But in my second year, a few words and things were said that didn't go over well. That led to a benching and as I came back, with (coach Mike Ditka) being fired and new management coming in, and then I also had shoulder surgery, and I was one of the guys to be out. "Then I did a one-year deal in Washingon, and we had a lot of good players come in thinking we was going to win it all, and then I put myself back on the market, but it didn't work out that way. And that was that."

Drakeford, who has a degree in finance, was working for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter in Washington, D.C. and opted not to go on a tryout tour through the league during the season. But when the Niners called after Plummer was hurt on San Francisco's first defensive play against Dallas - causing him to miss the entire game - Drakeford took a cross-country flight on New Year's Day.

"That was my new year's gift, I guess," Drakeford said. "I thought this would have been a good opportunity here being this is where I was drafted. I know a few of the coaches that are still here and some of the players, too. So it gives me a chance to get back playing football." Which Drakeford will be doing back in New Orleans against the Saints on Sunday. "I'm in pretty good shape," Drakeford said. "As far as 100 percent football shape, I don't think so. But I'm in shape to play. It would be difficult to step in and be a starter and play every down. But to be a nickel back, I don't think it would be a problem."

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