Heitmann, Kosier offered little respect from 49ers

The new 49ers regime took its first step toward free agency by giving a clear indication what it thinks of the team's current offensive line – which is to say, not very much at all.

The Niners tendered both of their 2004 starting guards – restricted free agents Eric Heitmann and Kyle Kosier – at the lowest possible amount, giving each a one-year offer of $656,000.

With the NFL's free agency period beginning Wednesday, this could be considered a definite surprise, even for a team that is cleaning the slate such as the 49ers. As restricted free agents, Kosier and Heitmann can sign offer sheets with any other NFL team, and the 49ers would have only one week to match those offers.

By tendering each at the lowest amount, the 49ers would receive only seventh-round draft picks as compensation for either player should the team not match potential offers from other suitors. Heitmann and Kosier both were seventh-round selections in the 2002 draft.

The Niners could have tendered either player at a higher amount of $1.43 million, which would have guaranteed San Francisco a first-round pick as compensation should either sign an offer sheet from another team.

Obviously, the 49ers weren't considering tendering either at the highest amount of $1.9 million, which would have guaranteed them first- and third-round picks as compensation. But, considering the state of the team's offensive line, there is a certain wonder why the Niners didn't tender at least one of the two – with the versatile Kosier being the most likely candidate – at the higher $1.43 million amount to ensure at least one of the starters would be returning to the team in 2005.

But perhaps that's the point. After evaluating all team personnel during the past month, maybe coach Mike Nolan and his subordinates don't feel Kosier or Heitmann are worth more than the minimum offers.

And, though it might be risky strategy regarding two players who have proven they are of starter quality in the NFL, the team still can match any offer those two players might receive – in effect allowing another team to set the market for them on each player. The Niners then can decide if it's worth it to the team to match those potential offers, or take the seventh-round compensatory pick instead and go in a different direction.

The team appears inclined now to go with second-year guard Justin Smiley – a second-round pick in 2004 – as one of it starting guards in 2005. If either Kosier or Heitmann bolts this week, the guard position immediately becomes a top priority for the Niners to fill in free agency. They may want to get two, since – as Smiley displayed last year – it takes even top offensive line prospects acquired through the draft some time to get accustomed to playing at the NFL level.

It's something of a slap in the face to both Kosier and Heitmann, who each started all 16 games last year. Heitmann played every snap of the season at left guard, and Kosier started seven games at right guard and nine at left tackle in place of Kwame Harris. Kosier was honored with the Bobb McKittrick Award as San Francisco's top offensive lineman of 2004.

The 49ers were in negotiations for a long-term contract with Heitmann before former general manager Terry Donahue was fired on Jan. 5. It appears Kosier was almost certain to be tendered at a higher amount if the previous management regime had remained in place.

But with the Niners, this is definitely a period of out with the old and in with the new. The chances of Heitmann and Kosier being part of the new just took a big hit, even though they were two of the most dependable players on San Francisco's offensive line last year.

Dependable, however, doesn't appear to be enough. The new regime is looking for players who can make a bigger impact in the trenches. That's a message made clear by a move that offers little respect to two 2004 starters, who – in their vision for a revamped offensive line – the 49ers don't appear to view as much more than backup quality.

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