Confused? Don't be. The Niners have made the decision that Brown - who made the Pro Bowl last year in his 16th season but will turn 40 in December - no longer fits into their plans. But they still have been unable to find a replacement for him in free agency. So by signing Brown to a minimum contract, the Niners can keep him on their roster until they find another guard in the draft or via another method.
The Niners then will release Brown after June 1, when his prorated signing bonus can be spread over two years instead of one and the Niners will take a lighter hit against their salary cap. Because Brown - who wants to play another season but hasn't been able to find a deal with another team - agreed to San Francisco's proposal, the Niners threw in the $100,000 bonus.
After he's released in June, Brown will have a better chance of signing elsewhere, since he then can sign a one-year deal with any team for a 2002 cap figure of $450,000.
"We think that allows both of us to keep our options open," Niners general manager Terry Donahue said Thursday while announcing the deal. "It allows us to see where we're at following the draft and minicamp, and allows Ray to remain with us on the team and possibly explore any options he might have regarding the future and his playing for another team.
"The understanding is there's a very high probability he will be released after June 1 if we satisfy our desire to get younger and to build with the draft. Then I think there's a very high probability that will happen. But we're not in stone on that right now. I think (Brown's agent) Steve Baker and Ray feel inevitably he'll be released in June. As far as the club goes, we have not made that decision 100 percent. In all likelihood, Ray won't be on the team. Is that 100 (percent) positive? No, it isn't."
OK, so call it 99 percent certain Brown is gone. The Niners are talking seriously with free-agent guard Chris Naeole, who visited the team's Santa Clara headquarters Monday and Tuesday. The team also has begun talks with free-agent guard Ron Stone, a two-time Pro Bowler. Even if the Niners can't find a guard in free agency, and don't find a suitable replacement for Brown in the draft, Donahue has indicated the team could find a starting guard on its own roster from a collection of veterans that includes Matt Willig, Chad Ward, Milford Stephenson and Dave Costa.
"We've got to believe we can develop a guard out of that group," Donahue said. "We also have to believe there will be a guard available somewhere in the draft. We don't feel as an organization we're under the gun. We think we'll solve it."