The last Stone unturned before draft day

<P>Free agent Ron Stone was courted by the 49ers on Monday at the team's Santa Clara headquarters. The two-time Pro Bowl guard represents the team's final bit of unfinished business before the April 20 NFL Draft as San Francisco's focus begins to turn from free agency to the upcoming college lottery. </P>

The Niners are set with starters for the 2002 season at every position except left guard, where the team would like to replace 39-year-old Ray Brown with Stone, who is rated by several observers as the top guard available on the open market.

The team's pursuit of Stone likely will be San Francisco's last dalliance in free agency until the Niners see how their roster shakes out after the two-day draft, in which they currently have nine picks.

"We probably are very close to being finished (in free agency)," Niners general manager Terry Donahue said.

With the recent free-agent acquisitions of safety Tony Parrish and defensive lineman Sean Moran, along with the re-signing of key unrestricted free-agent starters such as center Jeremy Newberry, tailback Garrison Hearst and fullback Fred Beasley, the Niners have done fabulously in free agency. Securing Stone would be a slam dunk, but even if that doesn't happen, the Niners still have left themselves in a position to center their draft attention on specific essential elements.

"We feel like the only position that we don't have a bona fide established starter in today - if Ray Brown doesn't return to the team - is guard," Donahue said. "So that has got to be one of our concerns. We've said that we felt a defensive back, a corner, is certainly a priority somewhere early in the draft for us. Offensive tackle and, possibly, wide receiver are strong considerations early in the draft, considering who's available where. Some of those situations may never unfold."

Donahue said the Niners, who traded down from the No. 3 overall pick in 1999 and up from the No. 9 overall pick last year, are more likely to trade down this season if they move from their No. 27 slot in the opening round. The surest bet for draft day, Donahue said, is that the Niners will select a defensive back "in the first three rounds."

The Niners currently don't have a third-round selection, but that could change if they are able to package some of their seven selections in the final four rounds to move up.


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