Plenty of reasons Peterson signed tender this time

Coming off arguably the best individual season by a linebacker in 49ers history, Julian Peterson at this time in 2004 was digging in for a long, protracted and occasionally contentious stalemate with team management that would make him a virtual stranger to the Niners until late August. A year later, amid similar circumstances, he already has signed his tender offer as the team's franchise player and is eagerly awaiting next week's early spring minicamp. What does this change in posture tell us?

It's just the latest indication this is a new day and a new way for the 49ers, and the changes in approach and attitude presented by the new San Francisco regime obviously sit well with the team's best player, a guy who picks up on such things because of his earnest and sincere drive to push the Niners forward as their undisputed team leader.

But don't think for a second that Peterson's decision to sign the one-year, $7.29 million tender – meaning he relinquishes his leverage on holding up the team for a long-term contract this year – means the sixth-year veteran has gone soft in his pursuit for a fat deal that will make him one of the highest-paid defenders in the NFL.

He hasn't. Peterson still seeks those high numbers and that high status. Despite the serious Achilles tendon tear that ended his 2005 season abruptly in October, Peterson says he still would turn down the six-year, $37.8 million offer the team dangled before him last winter if indeed it were offered again today.

When that offer – which included a franchise-record $15.5 million signing bonus – was turned down by Peterson's agents, Kevin and Carl Poston, former 49ers general manager Terry Donahue immediately slapped the exclusive franchise tag on Peterson, meaning he could negotiate only with the 49ers.

The thing was, the 49ers already were through negotiating. That offer – a decent proposal by any standards – was their final offer. Take it or leave it – or sign the one-year tender to play football in 2004.

That offer turned out to be $6.073 million – the average salary of the NFL's five highest-paid linebackers. Peterson declined to sign that deal until Aug. 25, when he ended a 28-day training camp holdout.

Besides all the physical and mental instruction he missed during almost a month of training camp absence, Peterson also didn't attend any team meetings or participate in any spring practices or other functions during the entire year until he showed up in late August.

Not one.

So why is he here now? Why is he already participating (albeit in a very limited capacity) in the team's offseason workout program? Why will he be present along with the rest of the team's veterans for an early get-to-know-the-new-coaching-staff minicamp that will run for three days at the end of next week?

It's because he likes what he sees going on with the team. It's because he likes what he sees in new coach Mike Nolan and his organizational reshuffling. And – most importantly – it's because he now feels that the team is dealing with him in good faith.

Peterson didn't have that feeling last year, when he was coming off a first-team All-Pro season that had defined him as one of the NFL's great linebackers and impact defenders.

So, feeling a bit disrespected considering his high standing on the team, Peterson did the only thing he could – he used his leverage. He stayed away. He had to know the team wasn't going to budge on its offer. He had to know the only way he was playing football in 2004 was to sign that $6.073 million tender.

Considering the business atmosphere that now permeates the NFL, it wouldn't have been out of line for Peterson to take a stance with the new 49ers regime this spring, just to let the new guys in charge know he wasn't going to be stonewalled like last year, that he wanted negotiations on that new deal to make progress and go forward so that some day it can get done.

And, besides, the guy can't play football right now. He can't even run. He's making steady progress in his rehabilitation, but he won't even be able to step on a football field again for several months.

So why not stay away, continuing his rehab on his own, just like Peterson worked out on his own away from the team for the first 8½ months of 2004? Ostensibly, he would have even a better reason to stay away this time, since there is little he will be able to do and physically accomplish during the team's spring practice functions.

But Peterson sees a ray of light. As he said Friday, he likes what he has seen with every move the Niners have made so far in 2005, and he's excited about being a part of it. While he'll watch from the sidelines when the Niners take the practice field under Nolan for the first time next week, he will be fully involved in team meetings and learning the new schemes and playbook presented by Nolan and his new coaches.

While Nolan welcomes Peterson with open arms – Peterson would not have been able to participate next week even in team meetings if he hadn't signed his contract tender – the new coach also has been up-front and straightforward with the linebacker. Nolan has let Peterson know that the timeline on negotiations for his new deal – which is something the team wants as much as Peterson – will have to run concurrently with the progress of Peterson's healing process.

Peterson can appreciate the honestly and forthrightness. It's why he's here.

Oh, and there's that other reason why Peterson's here (besides making himself almost $7.3 million richer) – to learn what his new role will be in the team's move to a 3-4 defense, a scheme that could take Peterson's unique skills to a new level of impact.

"He'd fit very well," Nolan said. "He'd be utilized (in the 3-4) more as far as rushing on regular downs as well as dropping (into pass coverage). The 3-4 is very versatile and very flexible in using players like him. It's a great scheme for a linebacker because you don't have to play coverage that exposes your secondary in order to bring a linebacker. When you are in a 4-3, it restricts good players like Julian to just pass coverage. If it was just about Julian alone, I think he'd be in that (3-4 scheme) every down."

But Julian Peterson obviously is not just about Julian Peterson alone. That's why – while some franchise players around the NFL remain unsigned and away from their teams – he is in the fold with the new 49ers and moving forward with the rest of the team.

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