Possibility of Brown's return increasing

With general manager Terry Donahue, coach Steve Mariucci and director of football operations John McVay among the contingent of 49ers officials at the NFL meetings in Florida this week, there's a lull in the team's activity in free agency.

But as each day passes, the possibility increases that Pro Bowl left guard Ray Brown will return to the Niners for the 2002 season.

The Niners have been unable to find a replacement for Brown since the free-agent signing period began March 1, and the team will revisit his situation and meet with his agent, Steve Baker, early next week.

"We'll talk about it next week, you bet," Mariucci said from Orlando. The Niners will have to make a decision regarding Brown's status at some point next week, since he is due a $500,000 bonus at the end of March. Brown originally was due that bonus at the start of the month, but he agreed to push it back. That allowed the Niners to keep him on the roster - he otherwise likely would have been released - and also allowed Brown's agent to look into better offers and trade possibilities. With the bonus, Brown is scheduled to make $2.4 million in 2002.

The Niners are looking to fill his role by paying about half that figure - or less. Restructuring is not an option since Brown doesn't figure to be playing football beyond this year, despite the fact he may have had his best season at age 39 in 2001, when he made the Pro Bowl for the first time in his 16th NFL season. His base salary was $477,000 last season.

The Niners have had several capable free-agent guards visit their Santa Clara facility in recent weeks, but none now are candidates to join the team. Mike Wahle, who was in during the first week of March, re-signed with the Green Bay Packers, and Frank Middleton - who started for the Raiders last season - was not offered a contract when his asking price was too high.

The Niners had Matt Joyce in last Thursday, but he recently re-signed with the Detroit Lions, who gave him a three-year deal with a $1.25 million signing bonus. Brown, who isn't thrilled about being asked to take a pay cut after being such an integral force in the Niners' topnotch offense last year, now is likely to be asked to return to the team if the price is right.

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