Niners getting head start on 2006 season

The end is near for the 2005 season, but the 49ers already got a head start on 2006 and their busy offseason to come by signing three veterans - two of them young restricted free agents - to contracts that will keep them as building blocks in the team's reconstruction plans for the future.

Sixth-year linebacker Jeff Ulbrich, third-year receiver Arnaz Battle and third-year linebacker Corey Smith each have signed contract extensions with the team.

Ulbrich, a regular starter since 2001 who had a career-high 167 tackles last season, already was signed through 2006. He was on pace for another big year this season with 41 tackles in the first five games before suffering a torn left biceps muscle that required season-ending surgery.

Despite the injury, the 49ers had been seeking to lock up Ulbrich to long-term deal. According to documents filed with the NFL Players Association, Ulbrich signed a four-year extension worth almost $9 million that includes a $2 million signing bonus.

With five key linebackers scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in March - a list that includes leading tackler Derek Smith, franchise player Julian Peterson, starters Andre Carter and Brandon Moore and backup Saleem Rasheed - the 49ers moved to add some stability at the position by signing Corey Smith, since at least some of the five players listed above are certain not to be back in 2006.

Corey Smith signed a three-year, $1.825 million contract that includes a $75,000 signing bonus, and it's believed the team also is pursuing Derek Smith with a representative offer in hopes that it can sign the ninth-year veteran before he hits the open market.

The status of Peterson, who has been paid more than $13 million as the team's franchise player the past two years, remains unclear. Peterson would have to be paid more than $8.7 million next year on a one-year tender if the team designates him as its franchise player again, which is unlikely.

Peterson, Carter, Moore and Rasheed all are likely to test the open market before they consider signing deals with the 49ers, who won't pursue all of them with long-term offers.

Battle signed a four-year contract extension that will keep him a part of the team through 2009. He missed six games this season with a knee problem that has limited him in several other games, but has been an effective and versatile performer when healthy.

--- The 49ers might have won themselves out of the Reggie Bush sweepstakes, but coach Mike Nolan does not mind. In fact, he said the 24-20 victory the 49ers recorded Saturday over the Rams is more important than what the organization's draft status would be in April.

"It's a hurdle that you have to get over when you're losing in order to win," Nolan said. "And that hurdle is much greater than your draft status. I don't believe any one player takes you to the Promised Land in football."

If the 49ers had lost their final two games of the season, they would have assured themselves of the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. But there is now a chance with two straight victories that they could finish with a 4-12 record and draft No. 7 overall.

"It's always good to have good players, but I believe wherever we pick, we're going to do well," Nolan said. "My confidence in our (scouting) department and (vice president of player personnel) Scot McCloughan makes it a lot easier for me to say that."

--- As the 49ers build toward next season, it will be important for the team to gain more momentum with another victory over Texans -- the first team against which the 49ers have been favored this season.

As the season has stretched on, the Niners often have found themselves as the biggest underdog in the NFL in several particular weeks. They were a 13.5-point underdog in Jacksonville two weeks ago but lost by only a point. They were a 9.5-point underdog at St. Louis.

"That is important to stay on that winning note," Nolan said. "This week's game against Houston will be important for us to play well and win. There hasn't been a win streak around here in a while. It'll be nice to start a streak."

--- The 49ers won their first road game of the season, averting their first winless year away from home since 1979. They also snapped a six-game losing streak in St. Louis.

The 49ers' road woes had become such a huge issue inside the 49ers organization that owner John York asked renowned sociologist and team consultant Dr. Harry Edwards to study why the team has been so anemic away from home. When Nolan was asked about the study two weeks ago, he said he was unaware it was taking place.

Nolan said after Saturday's game he later confirmed Edwards had indeed been asked to look into the issue without Nolan's prior knowledge.

"Once I found out, it didn't happen," Nolan said.

The 49ers finished 1-7 on the road for the third consecutive season. But the victory over the Rams was just their first road victory in regulation since 2002. Their lone road win in 2003 (at Philadelphia on Dec. 21) and in 2004 (at Arizona on Dec. 12) both came in overtime by identical 31-28 scores.

--- Injuries to starting cornerbacks Bruce Thornton and Derrick Johnson knocked them out of the lineup in the first half against the Rams, so the 49ers had to get creative. Linebacker Julian Peterson saw action at defensive back on third downs as the 49ers did not have enough healthy defensive backs to put onto the field.

"I'm very pleased with how the guys performed because that happened early in the game," Nolan said. "We had to put Julian Peterson on that guy (the slot receiver), and we finished the game doing it. So it was a pretty good deal."

Johnson is listed as questionable for this week's game against the Texans with a neck stinger. Thornton is questionable with a right knee sprain. Reserve cornerback B.J. Tucker is also questionable with a dislocated and lacerated finger.

--- Visco Grgich, one of the first 49ers stars on their original 1946 team, died early Monday morning from natural causes at a hospital in Modesto, Calif. He was 82.

Grgich played nose guard for the 49ers from 1946 to '52 before a serious knee injury ended his career. He was named first-team All-America Football Conference in 1949, and was chosen to the Pro Bowl in 1950, the first season the 49ers played in the NFL. He was named honorable-mention All-NFL in '50 and '52.

--- WR Johnnie Morton was a healthy scratch from Saturday's lineup because Nolan wanted to take a look at some of the younger players. Morton, who has started nine games this season because of injuries to the receiving corps, ranks fourth on the team with 21 receptions for 288 yards.

--- CB Shawntae Spencer had not practiced in two weeks because of a strained right quadriceps. He played in an emergency role Saturday and had a crucial interception in the end zone. He leads the 49ers with four interceptions.

--- C Eric Heitmann graded out the highest of the 49ers' offensive linemen after the club rushed for 217 yards in the victory over the Rams. Heitmann has started every game this season, including the last four at center after Jeremy Newberry opted for season-ending knee surgery.

--- LG Justin Smiley, a second-year player, has played extremely well as the 49ers' offensive line has started to mesh together in recent weeks. Smiley used his speed to get out in front on several run plays that resulted in big gains Saturday against the Rams.

--- S Ben Emanuel, who has started the past six games in place of Tony Parrish, recorded his first career interception in the final minute of Saturday's game to seal a 24-20 victory over the Rams. Emanuel entered the starting lineup after Parrish sustained a season-ending broken leg Nov. 11 against the Bears.

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