Gragg finally gone; Heitmann has home through 2008

Scott Gragg officially has left the building, but Eric Heitmann will be sticking around for a while as part of the 49ers' immediate future. It was just three seasons ago that these two players were integral parts of one of the NFL's best offensive lines, but now Gragg has been purged because of salary and performance issues while Heitmann rides on into the prime of his career with a bunch of new players surrounding him on a rebuilt line.

Gragg, as the team has been indicating since late February, was released Thursday – the date after which unamortized signing bonus money will be included in the succeeding year's team salary structure for players removed from the San Francisco roster other than by trade.

The move immediately gives the 49ers about $3 million more of space under the 2005 NFL salary cap of $85.5 million. The Niners will use that room to sign their 11-player draft class, but it also gives them some maneuverability to add veteran free agents who were dumped onto the open market Thursday in the same fashion such as Gragg.

After the 49ers' exodus of top veterans following the 2003 season, Gragg became one of the team's leading senior statesmen during last year's ill-fated season, and the 10-year veteran was a major figure in the team's 21st century rebirth after the 1999 crash-and-burn of San Francisco's two-decade dynasty.

After joining the team in 2000, Gragg started 51 consecutive games at right tackle. During that time, Gragg earned second-team All-Pro honors in 2001 and was honored with the Bobb McKittrick Award as the team's top offensive lineman in 2002, teaming with guard Ron Stone and center Jeremy Newberry to give the Niners one of the most formidable right-side lines in the NFL, particularly in rushing the football.

A high ankle sprain ended Gragg's starting streak in the 2003 opener, but he began another two weeks later and started his final 30 games with the team, including all 16 last year. But his performance, particularly his usually reliable consistency, fell off dramatically as last season progressed, and the team's new coaching regime decided it would be best to move forward without him, particularly with the salary figures he would be due.

With the team searching for quality depth along the offensive line, some have suggested the Niners might be interested in signing back Gragg at a reduced rate to be a solid veteran backup at tackle. But don't expect it to happen. The 49ers are more concerned about adding interior depth on the line – particularly at center – and the team could have restructured Gragg's contract long ago if it had any intentions of having him remain.

The 49ers obviously have those intentions with Heitmann, the three-year veteran who has impressed the team's new regime with his versatility, work ethic and commitment to getting stronger in the offseason.

Before former general manager Terry Donahue was fired on Jan. 5, the team had been working on a new deal for Heitmann, who – as a restricted free agent – instead was tendered at the lowest amount of $656,000 on March 1 after the new regime moved in. Heitmann later signed that deal in April before the NFL draft.

However, after seeing Heitmann's willingness to follow direction and work on his strength, not to mention his ability to play all three interior positions, the new regime showed not only good faith but also some foresight and long-term planning by inking Heitmann to a four-year extension that locks him up through the 2008 season and also provides him with cash he figured to lose in 2005 by signing his one-year tender.

Heitmann received $1.5 million in signing and roster bonuses as part of the deal, which could be worth as much as $6.5 million if he realizes playing-time incentives based on being a starter.

"His dedication, discipline and hard work has helped to identify Eric as the type of player we want on our team," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "His youth, experience and versatility gives us flexibility on our offensive line."

Heitmann has proven himself as a reliable performer since joining the 49ers in 2002 as the first of the team's three seventh-round draft picks that year. A product of nearby Stanford, Heitmann moved into the starting lineup in the fourth game of his rookie season, becoming the first 49er rookie to start on the offensive line since Harris Barton in 1987.

Heitmann, who remained in the starting lineup the rest of the season and started both of the team's'playoff games, was the youngster on a proven, veteran line that included Gragg, Stone, Newberry and left tackle Derrick Deese. That unit was one of the NFL's best that season, limiting opponents to just 22 sacks (third fewest in the NFL) and paving the way for a rushing attack that ranked sixth in the league.

Heitmann fought through injuries to both his ankles in 2003 – which limited him to just nine games and eight starts – but he was the team's most dependable lineman last year when he played every offensive snap while starting all 16 games at left guard.

The Niners shifted Heitmann to right guard this year to take better advantage of his straightforward run-blocking skills, but the team now sees him as the answer at center if Newberry is unable to return for the season opener because of his recurring knee problems.

Heitmann, who has taken practice snaps at center since his rookie season, has been impressive while transitioning to the position during team practice workouts this past month. He's likely to remain there with the first team into training camp, with rookie second-round pick David Baas taking first-team snaps at right guard.

That could change if the Niners find a starting-caliber veteran center this month, but there aren't many out there, and the team isn't interested in bringing back Brock Gutierrez, who started 15 games in Newberry's place last year.

According to personnel chief Scot McCloughan, the 49ers will be looking diligently this month for veteran free-agent help at defensive back, wide receiver and along the offensive line.

The team – which has added offensive tackle Jonas Jennings, defensive end Marques Douglas and kicker Joe Nedney as its only big names in 2005 free agency – still feels it can add some proven veteran talent before training camp because veterans throughout the league still want to play in San Francisco, and the team offers an opportunity for those individuals to step in and contribute immediately at several positions.

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