Keeping Niners together will be no easy task

The 49ers completely turned around their fortunes in 2001 - winning twice as many games as the season before - with a young and talented team that matured considerably ahead of schedule. Unlike the previous two seasons, which finished with records of 4-12 and 6-10, San Francisco carried very little dead weight on its roster.

Perhaps none. So it made perfect sense a few days after the Niners' season ended when general manager Terry Donahue said he would like to keep this rapidly developing team together by re-signing San Francisco's key free agents. But in today's NFL, that is easier said than done.

 "In theory, that's what we'd like to do," Donahue said. "Now, I'm not naive enough to think we're going to get them all back and you're not, either."

So much for keeping the gang together. But the 49ers, still facing considerable salary-cap limitations, will try. It won't be easy. San Francisco will pay a price for its surprising success this season, as several players reached incentives and bonuses in their contracts that will add an additional $5 million to $6 million to the team's payroll for 2002. That could put San Francisco as much as $10 million over next season's cap, which is expected to increase by approximately $4 million over this year's NFL-mandated cap ceiling of $67.4 million.

That will make it difficult to keep around veterans who no doubt will want to be rewarded for their part in the Niners' fine season now that they have reached free agency. San Francisco has nine players - four of them starters - scheduled to become unrestricted free agents when all 2001 contracts expire on Feb. 28. Those players will be free to negotiate and sign a contract with any NFL team when the free agency period begins March 1.

The Niners also will have three restricted free agents and six exclusive rights free agents. The Niners can match any offer the restricted free agents might receiver from another team. The exclusive rights free agents can negotiate only with the 49ers. Obviously, it's the four starters who can become unrestricted free agents - running back Garrison Hearst, center Jeremy Newberry, safety Lance Schulters and fullback Fred Beasley - that the Niners are most concerned about retaining. Hearst and Newberry both were named to the Pro Bowl this season, Schulters was a Pro Bowl starter after the 1999 season and Beasley is regarded as one of the NFL's top fullbacks.

"There's no way I'm going to prioritize the free agents," Donahue said. "What I will say is that we would like to have as much continuity on our team as we can. That's important to us. Economically, can we do that? It depends on how cooperative everyone is. It depends on what the real cap room is and how we can work with the cap to create enough opportunities for each and every one of those guys to come back. We've got to get them back or we've got to replace them."

Other pending unrestricted free agents are offensive tackle Matt Willig, quarterback Rick Mirer, linebacker Terry Killens, defensive end Troy Wilson and defensive back Tyronne Drakeford. Willig and Killens played major roles on the team this season.

Mirer never played a snap after being brought back as the third quarterback in late October. Drakeford and Wilson each joined the team in January to add veteran depth to injury-plagued positions. Some of those names may or may not be retained. The Niners certainly would like to keep Willig, their top reserve lineman, around, and the same holds true for Killens, a special teams star who also proved to be a valuable reserve linebacker in his first year with the team. But Donahue and coach Steve Mariucci made it clear the primary focus will be to retain as many of the starters as possible.

"It's important to keep your own here," Mariucci said. "Because you know what you've got. We know what we have in Garrison Hearst. We know what we have in all of the free agents that we're talking about. We know what makes them tick. We know we love them."

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