Niners getting good at keeping their own

The 49ers have done it again. Despite being strapped by their well-documented salary-cap constraints, the Niners re-signed another of their sought-after unrestricted free-agent starters Wednesday, keeping with San Francisco's idealistic master plan to keep its rebuilt roster intact.

Tailback Garrison Hearst became the second Pro Bowl unrestricted free agent to return to the Niners this month when he agreed to a six-year, $20 million contract that includes a $3 million signing bonus. Hearst, 31, will earn $6 million over the first two years of the deal and $9 million over the first three.

Hearst, the NFL's comeback player of the year in 2001 for the second time in his career, recently had visited with the Atlanta Falcons - his hometown team - and the Cleveland Browns and his agent had been contacted by several other teams. But the Niners were able to come up with an attractive enough offer to keep him in the fold, and have now retained Hearst, center Jeremy Newberry and fullback Fred Beasley - all unrestricted free agents who are among the top players at their positions in the NFL.

"We believed that we gave Garrison a very competitive offer," Niners general manager Terry Donahue said late Wednesday afternoon. "We do not think Garrison took less money than (he could have received from) somewhere else. The free-agent system is such now that in order to get anybody to return to the team we have to pay competitively and we have to be in the marketplace. We don't feel there's any players out there that we can get to come here if we're not in the competitive marketplace. Garrison brings so much to this organization. We felt it was critical to retain him."

After missing the previous two seasons with a career-threatening ankle condition, Hearst picked up in 2001 where he left off after being injured in a Jan. 9, 1999, playoff game. He was fifth in the NFC in rushing with 1,206 yards and also had 41 receptions. Hearst rushed for a team-record 1,570 yards in 1998 before being injured in the playoffs that season.

"It feels good to be back with the 49ers," Hearst said. "I think we have something special out here, and I really enjoy working with my teammates and coaches in San Francisco. I'm glad (free agency) is finally over with and I can get ready for the upcoming season and improve on what we did last year as a team." To that end,

Hearst's return is a step in the right direction. He also is a strong locker-room presence and his amazing comeback and return to previous form provided inspiration to the entire team that helped push the Niners to a 12-4 season after they went 6-10 without Hearst the year before.

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