Niners giving special teams a kick in draft

The 49ers are full of surprises. With a resounding vote of no-confidence for incumbent kicker Jose Cortez on Sunday morning, the Niners made it known with certainty that they are serious about upgrading their special teams units in this year's NFL Draft.

 San Francisco used the fourth pick of the fourth round – a selection it traded down to get from Buffalo on Saturday – to take kicker Jeff Chandler from Florida, the first kicker selected in this year's draft. That all but ends the one-year experiment of Cortez as the team's kicker, because NFL teams don't spend fourth-round draft picks on place-kickers they don't plan to keep on their roster.

 In fact, NFL teams don't usually spend any draft picks on kickers, often preferring instead to fill the position with free agents or established veterans. That's what the Niners did last season with Cortez, and what they've done every year since 1994, when they used a third-round draft choice to select Doug Brien, who they abruptly cut midway through the next season after he missed a couple of game-deciding kicks.

 For a team that already has its 22 starters on offense and defense set for 2002, coach Steve Mariucci said Chandler was drafted "to compete for the starting job." But that's just Mariucci showing respect for players already on his roster. Chandler is the team's new kicker, and it's his job to lose.

 Chandler is only the most obvious example of the Niners' intention to upgrade their specialty units. San Francisco also drafted Alabama linebacker Saleem Rasheed in the third round and Texas Tech safety Kevin Curtis in the fourth round. The Niners are set for starters at both positions, and those two players were brought in for what they can do on special teams this year as much as for what they can do on defense.

 "All the guys we've drafted (through the first four rounds) will be special teams contributors, no question about it," Mariucci said.

 And there's no question the Niners will have a better kicking game in 2002. With Jamie Rheem also on the roster – he was leading a training-camp battle with Cortez for the position last year before suffering a pulled hamstring – the Niners will begin their first minicamp next week with three kickers. It's unlikely they'll take three kickers to Stockton for training camp in July.

 "We've got, really, three capable kickers," Mariucci said. "We may or may not want to have three kickers in training camp. That is a little heavy. My guess is we'll have three this weekend for the (mini)camp, and then make a decision as to do we bring two to (training) camp or three."

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