Niners take look at trio of defenders

As expected, the 49ers entertained free-agents Chad Cota, Tony Parrish and Sean Moran on Thursday at the team's Santa Clara headquarters. As the free-agency period hits full swing, the Niners continue to formulate their 2002 roster plan, a course of action in which one of these defenders might just fit nicely.

As of Friday morning, with unrestricted free agent Lance Schulters still unsigned, the team's most urgent needs include safety and defensive line. Cota and Parrish both are durable safeties and Moran is a defensive tackle who also can play end. Parrish and Moran both took physicals with the team Thursday.

With approximately $2 million of room still remaining under the cap after Wednesday's signing of unrestricted free-agent tailback Garrison Hearst, the Niners still have money to spend in free agency before they decide what needs and voids on their roster they will fill through the college draft on April 20. But they don't have the kind of money being sought by Schulters, who is looking for a deal in the $3 million per year range.

There was no new news in negotiations between the Niners and Schulters on Thursday, and the two sides are still believed to be far apart. Schulters is being pursued by other teams, most notably Atlanta and Tennessee, and his agent, Brian Levy, said earlier this week that Schulters could make a decision by the end of this week. With the other three starters in their secondary under contract, the Niners feel they can fill the starting role at strong safety with a veteran for about half the money Schulters is seeking.

The Niners also could decide to draft a safety in April - a few top prospects could still be around when they pick late in the first round - or they could promote one of their own young safety candidates, which include John Keith, Ronnie Heard and Al Blades.

A more likely scenario is signing a veteran such as Cota or Parrish, if the price is right. Cota, recently released by the Indianapolis Colts, has started 79 consecutive games for the Colts and Carolina Panthers. He was third on the team in tackles and second in interceptions for Indianapolis last year. Like Schulters, Parrish is one the top young veteran safeties in the league. Parrish, who started every game with the Bears the past four seasons after being their second-round draft pick in 1998, was fifth on the team last season in tackles and second in both interceptions and fumble recoveries. His asking price is likely to be more than Cota's but less than Schulters.'

Moran also is a viable candidate for a San Francisco defensive line that needs to add some quality depth. The Niners are toying with the idea of occasionally playing stalwart tackle Bryant Young at end in 2002, and Moran's versatility definitely is a factor, since he also can play both positions.

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