May is month of decision at receiver

While Terrell Owens is off globetrotting the Eastern seaboard this month on his pro hoops expedition, you can bet the 49ers will be closely examining what they have at the wide receiver position without him, and if an upgrade is necessary prior to training camp to push the team into legitimate Super Bowl contention in 2002.

When J.J. Stokes agreed to take a $2 million pay cut in April to remain with the team this season, that pretty much settled who the Niners would feature as their No. 2 receiver this year. Or did it? For San Francisco to take it to the next level, a more legitimate threat is no doubt needed opposite Owens than the 54 receptions for 585 yards that Stokes provided last season.

There has been plenty of talk the Niners will go looking for an established free-agent veteran after June 1 to compete with Stokes and Tai Streets for the Nos. 2 and 3 roles behind Owens. That would give the Niners four legitimate receivers to put on the field at the same time, but also might provide a serious clash of egos if someone such as Antonio Freeman is the No. 4 guy.

The Niners don't want that. They don't need a veteran to come in just to be unhappy he's not getting the ball enough. They have enough of that with the receivers they already have.

But - while this could be the year Stokes and Streets finally break out as a fine complementary combination to the All-Pro Owens - coach Steve Mariucci's wording when asked about the subject Sunday after the team's three-day minicamp indicates the Niners still don't feel they're set yet at the position.

Mariucci expressed that the team's two second-year receivers - Vinny Sutherland and Cedrick Wilson - "are considerably better than they were a year ago" and could be ready to contribute in the No. 4 role this season.

But then, Mariucci was particularly revealing when he said, "We could play the season the same as we did last year (at receiver). If it comes down to that, that would be satisfactory."

Since when has "satisfactory" ever been good enough for the Niners? Particularly when they're ready to push for the Super Bowl, like they are now? Ray Brown, an aging yet productive offensive guard, had his finest NFL season and made the Pro Bowl last year. But the Niners obviously didn't feel he was "satisfactory" for their big plans in 2002, so they went out and got one of the best guards in the league, All-Pro Ron Stone, a two-time Pro Bowler who is almost 10 years younger than Brown.

The Niners will spend a lot of time looking at their young prospects in May, and will decide at their early June minicamp if Stokes and Co. is enough to take the pressure off Owens and make San Francisco's passing game incrementally better than it was in 2001, which is what it probably will take for the Niners to reach the top of the NFC.

"If we can upgrade, we'll see," Mariucci said.

Stay tuned.

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