49ers set in Stone

<P>The 49ers solved their dilemma at offensive guard in high style Friday, filling the position with a player they felt all along was the best man for the job.

 The Niners signed two-time Pro Bowl guard Ron Stone to a four-year, $9 million deal, punctuating their pursuit of one final prime free agent to add to their starting lineup. Stone, perhaps the top guard available on the open market this year, received a $2.35 million signing bonus as San Francisco scored yet another coup in 2002 free agency.

 "I wanted to be somewhere where I knew people," Stone said Friday afternoon. Stone and 49ers starting right tackle Scott Gragg formed the right side of the New York Giants' offensive line for several seasons before Gragg left and joined the Niners in 2000. "With the market being what it is, it wasn't the best of situations. The 49ers did the best they could for me."

 Said Ralph Cindrich, Stone's agent: "The 49ers' contract was very competitive. All things considered, we liked the way it felt. It just seemed like the right feel and fit."

 Stone, 30, is entering his 10th NFL season after establishing himself as one of the league's dominant guards the past two seasons with the Giants, each of which ended with him in the Pro Bowl.

 The Niners, who visited with at least five free-agent offensive lineman in the past month, have focused their efforts on Stone since it became apparent they might have a chance to meet his contract demands because the market has been lukewarm for high-end free agents. Stone is expected to start at left guard, replacing 39-year-old veteran Ray Brown, a 2001 Pro Bowler whom the Niners now will release after June 1.

 "When you can replace one Pro Bowler with another Pro Bowler, you've got to feel good about that," Niners general manager Terry Donahue said. "Ron brings to us a powerful guard who is very strong at the point of attack. We anticipate him being in the Pro Bowl the next couple of years."

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