Big changes coming?

With the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft already assured, the 49ers will, in essence, be playing their first exhibition game for next year when they face the New England Patriots on Sunday.

At 2-13 entering the final game of the season, the 49ers have to make some major changes in the offseason. Owner John York is expected to sit down with coach Dennis Erickson and general manager Terry Donahue in the days after the season to discuss the direction of the organization.

Some within the organization say that big changes could be coming, though it is unclear exactly what that means. It's been widely rumored that Erickson, who interviewed for a job two weeks ago with University of Mississippi officials, might not be back next season.

It is also possible that York could admit he made a mistake when he signed Donahue to a four-year extension early this season and fire the man who has been the central figure in the 49ers' drafts since 1999.

Or, in a move that would be sure to turn some heads, York could get rid of his coach and general manager.

Erickson has said repeatedly that he expects to be back next season, though his 9-23 record is the worst mark in 49ers history by any coach who lasted more than one season.

The 49ers should have a lot of salary-cap space for next season, and Erickson said he is confident that York will do what's necessary to make the organization competitive again. However, Erickson said he has not yet spoken to York about the plan for the offseason.

"That's something that we will talk about in the next couple weeks," Erickson said. "Again, it's how much money we have under the cap and how much we have to spend.

"I know John is committed to make this football team better, without any question. He's not any happier than any of us with what has transpired."

Neither Erickson nor Donahue appears to be completely assured of working for the 49ers next season.

Donahue signed a four-year extension after the first week of the regular season, but he has not exactly distinguished himself as a general manager. Since Donahue came to the organization and began running the draft in 1999, the 49ers have produced only one Pro Bowl player: linebacker Julian Peterson.

The coaching staff does not always appear to be on the same page as Donahue, either. Donahue would like to see Kwame Harris, the team's top pick in 2003, play right tackle, but Erickson and offensive line coach Gregg Smith are adamant that he is a left tackle. Also, Donahue would like to see top pick Rashaun Woods, a receiver, get a lot more playing time than he has gotten this season.

Erickson insists that the team has gotten better and that better days are ahead.

"Well, we're young," Erickson said. "I mean, the experience that these guys got in a lot of areas (means) we'll be a lot better next year. The offensive front is playing and we'll be better. Kwame Harris is getting better all the time, and (Eric) Heitmann, (Justin) Smiley ...

"We've got some good players on this team. We're just young in a lot of different areas. That, and hopefully adding some things. You go from there and see where you're at."

Erickson said he is not planning to do anything out of the ordinary in the season finale against the Patriots. He does not plan to play some of the younger players just for the sake of playing them, he said.

"We're not going to have an all-out substitution thing," Erickson said.

Rookie Smiley, who saw action at right guard in the team's first 14 games before spending Sunday's game on the sideline, will get playing time, Erickson promised. And Woods, the team's top draft pick, will also see some action, especially with a toe injury expected to keep Brandon Lloyd out of action.

But such rookies as Derrick Hamilton, a receiver who has not played this season, and safety Keith Lewis will not be used unless there are injuries to the players ahead of them on the depth chart.

NOTES AND QUOTES

--- LB Julian Peterson, who underwent surgery to repair a torn Achilles' tendon on Oct. 12, has an uncertain future with the 49ers. He is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, but the 49ers can lock him down again as the team's franchise player, which would carry a price tag of at least $7.29 million.

The 49ers might have a better chance to signing Peterson to a long-term contract extension because he will be coming off an injury. Peterson turned down a $15.5 million signing bonus in the offseason to sign a one-year, $6.074 contract. Still, Peterson said he doesn't believe his value has slipped this season because of the injury.

"I don't think I lost too much leverage," he said. "I mean, I'm hurt, I'm injured. But I'm 26. I got a whole year to come back and be healthy. If Deion Sanders can come back at 37, Jerry Rice is still playing at (42) and doing a great job, I know I can come back at 27 and do the same thing I was doing before."

Peterson said he hopes to be able to get on the field in May and start doing some football-related rehabilitation work. In the meantime, his rehab has been slowed a little by a case of tendinitis in his knee.

"We just found out about the tendinitis in the knee, so they backed off a couple of things," Peterson said. "Right now, they got me working with my toes, flexibility with that, and stretching some old quad muscles and things of that nature. But that's about it, nothing real serious. You really can't rush into anything like that and overdo it."

--- The Patriots are one of the teams the 49ers have studied in recent seasons as they've tried to cope with their salary-cap problems. Donahue compared Patriots coach Bill Belichick with Bill Walsh, who worked his magic for the 49ers in the 1980s.

"They really understand how to utilize every player in their organization to the optimum," Donahue said. "They'll have a player who does very specific things for them and contribute to the team's success but won't be a complete player.

"I look at Bill Belichick as the closest thing I've seen to Bill Walsh in that regard. Everybody in the league tries to do it, but I don't think anybody does it as well as Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli, the personnel guy. They are absolutely on the same page."

--- With two sacks allowed, the 49ers would match the club record of 53 set in 1998. Their quarterbacks already have been sacked 51 times, the second most in 49ers history.

--- Rookie Andy Lee has attempted 91 punts this season, already second most in team history. The team record for punts attempted is 97, set in 1978.

--- The 49ers have already set the team record for fewest home victories in a season with one. In 1978 and '79, when the 49ers won just two games each of those seasons, all of their wins came at Candlestick Park.

SERIES HISTORY VS. NEW ENGLAND: 10th meeting. The 49ers lead 7-2, the Patriots winning the last meeting 24-21 in Foxboro, Mass., in 1998.

BY THE NUMBERS: 431 -- The 49ers will have to keep the Patriots under 22 points to avoid matching the club record of 453 points allowed, set in 1999.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Back in the good ol' days of the 49ers, there were many times when the ball never hit the ground in practice. The 49ers ran some the crispest practices in the league, which then carried over into the games.

One of the 49ers' best practice players this season has been a guy on the aptly named practice squad. Rookie receiver P.J. Fleck, who seemed to work open and catch passes with ease against the 49ers' first-team defense, was finally rewarded with a spot on the active roster.

Fleck probably will not suit up for the 49ers' season finale, but the team activated him for the purpose of signing him to a long-term extension, GM Terry Donahue said.

"He's always getting open, so we need to get him in a game and see what he can do against other people's players," Donahue said, referring to the 49ers' 2005 exhibition season.

As a whole, Donahue admits that the 49ers lack speed at the receiver position, which helps explain why the club has seen a dearth of big plays from its offense.

"I don't think we have the speed at wide receiver that you need to be successful all the time in this league," Donahue said. "I feel we have a lot of young wide receivers, and as they develop they'll get stronger and faster. But in this league you always need more speed, and there's no question we'll be looking for some speed."

To make room for Fleck on the active roster, the 49ers waived running back Ken Simonton. They then signed Simonton to the practice squad.

--- WR Brandon Lloyd, who ranks third on the team with 43 receptions for 565 yards, is questionable for Sunday's game against the Patriots with a toe injury. If he is unable to start, veteran Curtis Conway would get his fifth start of the season.

--- DE John Engelberger leads the 49ers with five sacks, though he's gone three games without adding to that total. Since 1971, when the sack became an official statistic, the 49ers have never had a sack leader with fewer than 6.5 in a non-strike season.

--- RB Kevan Barlow leads the 49ers with 719 yards and seven rushing touchdowns but has just a 3.3-yard average. The 49ers have only once had their leading rusher average fewer than 3.3 yards, in 1967 when Ken Willard averaged 3.0 yards.

--- WR Arnaz Battle, a third alternate as a special-teams performer, returned to practice after missing Sunday's game with a quadriceps strain. Battle should be able to play against the Patriots.

--- LB Jeff Ulbrich has a chance to lead the 49ers in tackles for the first time in his career. He has recorded 155 tackles, two more than Derek Smith.

--- TE Steve Bush has not caught a pass in the four games he has played for the 49ers, but he's gotten a lot of playing time in the run game. Bush, a 270-pounder, is a much better blocker than Eric Johnson, which enables the 49ers to have a lot more variety in their run game.


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