49ers to Peterson: Tag - you're it

On Tuesday, the 49ers kicked off what is sure to be a spree of consequential personnel decisions over the next two months with one of the easiest determinations they'll make during that period. They placed the franchise tag on linebacker Julian Peterson for the second consecutive year, and while most everybody agrees it's the logical thing to do to ensure the two-time Pro Bowl linebacker remains with the team, it ends up being a better deal for Peterson than it does for the 49ers.

Peterson said in an interview last week that he'd consider it "giving me respect" if the 49ers placed the franchise tag on him again this year, and it's obvious why he would feel that way.

Any way you look at it, Peterson lost leverage in contract negotiations this year when he suffered a serious, season-ending tear of his left Achilles tendon in a game against Arizona on Oct. 10. But by placing the franchise tag on him again – this year, it's the non-exclusive franchise tag – the 49ers are guaranteeing Peterson a 20 percent raise over the $6.074 million he made as the team's exclusive franchise player in 2004.

That comes out to a $7.29 million paycheck for Peterson this season – all of it guaranteed – which is more than any NFL linebacker made in base salary and pro-rated bonus last season.

Not a bad deal if you can get it – particularly for a player who only appeared in five games last season and can give no guarantees that he'll be back at his previous All-Pro level by the time the 2005 season begins in September. Niners coach Mike Nolan, in fact, said Tuesday that Peterson might not return to the field with his teammates until training camp later this summer.

There was no need for the 49ers to place the exclusive franchise tag on Peterson again this year. With the non-exclusive tag, Peterson and his representatives still can attempt to negotiate a contract with another team on the open market, but the Niners would have right of first refusal to match that contract. And, if the Niners decided not to match said offer, the team that signs Peterson would owe the 49ers two first-round draft picks as compensation.

With Peterson coming off his injury, no team is going to risk losing two first-round draft picks to sign him – and that's without even taking into consideration the whopping deal that would be necessary to pay him.

"In our situation, we feel the non-exclusive, for us, is a better choice," Nolan said Tuesday afternoon. "Because with Julian coming off the injury, I don't know that there will be quite the interest there would have been the other way. I don't think the risk of losing him was as large as it would have been. Certainly, if Julian wasn't coming off an injury and things, we would have to rethink that."

But he is coming off the injury. And, while Peterson continues to make steady progress in his rehab, Nolan indicated Tuesday that Peterson won't be on the field with his teammates until San Francisco's final spring minicamp in June at the earliest.

And, most likely, probably not even then.

"He might be able to take part in some limited (spring) drills," Nolan said. If that's the case, the coach said, "It would be the (minicamp) in June, or as late as training camp. If he cannot participate in anything all the way up until training camp, I'm not all that worried about it as long as he participates in all of the meetings."

But there's no guarantee that will happen.

Last year, after the 49ers designated Peterson their exclusive franchise player following his sterling first-team All-Pro 2003 season, Peterson never was seen around the team facility during spring preparations after he and his agents, brothers Kevin and Carl Poston, rejected the team's six-year, $37.8 million offer. That deal included a $15.5 million signing bonus, which would have been a franchise-record offer.

After refusing that offer in February, and then being slapped with the exclusive franchise tag, Peterson did not practice with the team until well into August, missing more than three weeks of training camp practices.

Indicating there have been more important things for the 49ers to do in the past month due to the major overhaul of the franchise, Nolan said there was no contact between the team and Peterson's representatives about a new long-term deal. That will come later, Nolan said.

"Well, certainly, he is coming off the injury, so we'll continue to evaluate his progress as that goes," Nolan said. "But it is our understanding that he is going to make a full recovery and that is kind of what we're banking on.

"With that being said, we would certainly at some point like to come to an agreement on some kind of deal with him. As that franchise tag continues to increase 120 percent each year, that is certainly not something you want to stay in and you want to get out of that market, so to speak, if you try to get something done. As time progresses and he continues to heal his injury, I believe we'll be in negotiations and trying to do something at some point, I'm sure."

Though Peterson said he would not take that same $37.8 million deal from 2004 even if it was offered today, he appears more likely to participate in the team's offseason schedule this year and not be a contract holdout when training camp begins in July.

There are two primary reasons why this is so.

First, the one-year tender being offered Peterson is a darn good deal for a player in his predicament. The $7.29 million offer figures to be well above the average of the 2005 salaries of the top five players at Peterson's position this year. By being tagged, Peterson would have received that average salary or 120 percent of his 2004 salary – whichever is higher – as the franchise player this year. The 20 percent raise will be a much higher figure.

It also will be more than any NFL linebacker was paid in 2004. Baltimore's Ray Lewis had the highest salary among NFL linebackers last year at $6,928,571. Peterson salary figure was fourth among linebackers last year, trailing only Lewis, Chicago's Brian Urlacher ($6,157,142) and Houston's Jamie Sharper ($6,125,000). After Peterson and No. 5 Lavar Arrington of Washington ($5,630,877), salaries for the other top linebackers dropped considerably.

Secondly, the 49ers are making it clear that Peterson will be an integral part of their defensive plans, and the team is preparing to showcase his multiple skills within its revamped 3-4 scheme.

"He will mean a lot to what we do, whether it is 3-4 or 4-3," Nolan said. "He'll mean a tremendous amount because you want to get a player like him in a position to make plays. I believe the 3-4 puts him in the position more often, but he is a player that can make a lot of plays in the 4-3. I will say he probably has more to do with the success we'll have defensively than he does with what scheme we actually play. But I do like the way he fits in the 3-4 at this time, and certainly in the ways we would utilize him."

Peterson has been a regular face at the 49ers facility this month while he continues his rehab and – while Peterson obviously still is seeking a big-money, long-term deal – Nolan expects other factors involved this year to persuade Peterson to participate in team functions in the upcoming months if he doesn't immediately sign his franchise tender.

"There's obviously been a staff turnover, and I think that he whole system is new," Nolan said. "I would think – or I would hope, anyhow – that he would participate from a meeting standpoint if nothing else so that he can grasp the system. Any time you turn over staff, the biggest thing you need to grasp is the language that is used. It would be my anticipation that he would participate in those minicamps and in the OTAs (other team activities) and things that we've got going just because of that.

"I would be disappointed a little bit if he was not, but I think there is a good chance of him being here for that. He's here all the time as it is (doing his rehab), so we do see him around. I would think as that continues, since he is going to be here rehabbing, that he is going to be a part of all of those (spring activities)."

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