The 49ers are intent on filling the only remaining void in their established starting lineup for the 2002 season with a veteran free-agent guard.
While San Francisco continues to consider all available alternatives, the steady trail of veteran prospects that have been in and out of team headquarters the past month makes the Niners' preference perfectly clear.
Earlier this week, the Niners got familiar with experienced and decorated guard Ron Stone, who is coming off two consecutive Pro Bowl appearances. Stone followed Chris Naeole, who followed Matt Joyce, who followed Frank Middleton, who followed Mike Wahle into the team's Santa Clara headquarters for a visit.
Following those five will be Blake Brockermeyer, who will visit and take a physical with the team on Thursday.
A common denominator links together Naeole, Joyce, Middleton and Wahle: They all signed with other teams after visiting with the Niners. That makes another thing perfectly obvious: The Niners are looking to find that veteran free-agent at the right price. Their price.
Stone, clearly, is the best of the capable lot that the 49ers are considering. The 320-pounder started at right guard the past six seasons for the New York Giants, where he was strong in pass protection and also used his size to open lanes for the run. The 30-year-old's continued presence on the open market puts the Niners in the running for his services, though it's difficult to believe Stone couldn't find a better offer than the one with which San Francisco ultimately will be comfortable presenting him.
"I think it depends on the mindset of the player," Niners general manager Terry Donahue said Tuesday. "It just depends on where people are in terms of their own parameters and what they're willing to negotiate and what they're willing to consider. Every player has determined what their value is, and how much latitude they are willing to have is dependent on whether you can get a deal done."
To attract Stone, the Niners apparently were willing to stretch their budget and the salary slot they'd previously set aside for the left guard position. But Stone left after his visit Tuesday with contract negotiations still in the initial stages and, Donahue said, "in the meantime, we're having conversations with a couple of other possibilites," none of which - besides Brockermeyer - the GM was willing to reveal.
"We have had initial discussions with both their agents," Donahue said of Stone and Brockermeyer, "and we do think there is interest on their part and on our part. But we can't put the cart before the horse yet. Is it wishful thinking? Perhaps not."
But it definitely is the Niners' thinking. While the probability of finding a quality line prospect in the draft remains high, the team would rather give any rookie lineman it might draft a chance to develop for a while in the system and go with an established veteran as the 2002 starter.
That's making the possibility of 2001 starter Ray Brown's return for one more season - he's currently under contract for 2002, when he'll turn 40 - appear stronger by the day as other veterans file into Niners headquarters then leave later without a contract in their hands.