Peterson/49ers: Nobody wants to play the fool

Julian Peterson already has said the 49ers would be fools if they slap the franchise tag on him in 2006 for the third consecutive year. But would the Niners be even bigger fools if they don't? Peterson is headed toward a big payday this year, one way or another, and he's no fool when it comes to knowing the high price he may command on the open market. That leaves the 49ers to seriously consider during the next month whether it really would be worth the cost to let one of their best players go.

Coach Mike Nolan makes it clear how he feels about keeping Peterson in the fold – at least in a general sense – as one of the team's core players.

"J.P.'s a good player and he's a great guy," Nolan said. "I enjoy being around him. He's a joy to coach, so I'm very hopeful. We'll have to wait and see exactly what happens."

Wait and see.

That's the 49ers' stance right now regarding a lot of their impending free agents. But Peterson in particular. The team has a significant decision to make regarding its approach toward the two-time Pro Bowl linebacker, and a reasonable case could be made for making sure he stays with the team or for allowing him to leave San Francisco after six seasons.

The team settled that issue in February each of the past two years by slapping Peterson with the franchise tag, tying him to the San Francisco roster with a one-year tender offer that, in 2004, was equal to the average of the top five NFL players at his position. When Nolan and crew arrived last year, they put the tag on Peterson again, which gave him a 20 percent raise over the tender offer he signed in 2004. The 49ers ultimately forked out $13.36 million to Peterson over the past two seasons, during which he missed a combined 12 games to injury.

In other words, they didn't get their money's worth.

And now, if the 49ers want to be absolutely certain Peterson doesn't sign with another team when he can become an unrestricted free agent March 2, they can slap the franchise tag on him again – for a tidy sum of at least $8.75 million on a one-year tender.

The Niners certainly don't appear interested in that, nor should they be. San Francisco figures to have about $20 million of spending room under the new NFL salary cap that will be announced later this year (expected to be between $92 and $95 million), and that one-year tender salary alone would eat up a huge chunk of it as the 49ers attempt to reshape their roster.

It would make perfect sense to Peterson if the 49ers don't go that route. In fact, he would consider it a bit illogical if they do.

"This year, it's kind of up in the air," he said. "I would say it would be hard to assume that they will (tag him) because of how high the number might be, and they might have to cut a couple of guys to fill the depth chart if my number was that high to be franchised. That's a high number (while also) trying to keep some key guys and trying to go the right path, which we are trying to do. So, I don't think that would be a smart move if they did anything like that."

The thing is, Peterson's probably right.

Last year, considering the circumstances of a new regime coming in and Peterson coming off a season-ending Achilles tendon tear, it was reasonable for both parties concerned for the 49ers to franchise Peterson again, since the team's new management honchos had little time to negotiate with Peterson's agents, Carl and Kevin Poston, on a new long-term deal.

But now, the 49ers have to find a better alternative if they want to keep Peterson around as a building block in their reconstruction project. And that better alternative is a long-term deal that will be much more cap friendly than the ever-growing one-year franchise tender.

There are, however, several factors involved here, and that creates a dilemma for both sides. Peterson – while at the height of his value after earning All-Pro first-team honors during the 2003 season – rejected a six-year, $37.8 million offer from the team in 2004 that included a franchise-record $15.5 million signing bonus. At the time, according to reports, Peterson was looking to become one of the best-paid defenders in the NFL.

While it's debatable whether Peterson's value has diminished since then – he's still only 27 years old – there is no way the 49ers will offer him that deal again, even though NFL inflation has increased another two years since then.

Ostensibly, the 49ers are working right now on an offer that features numbers more friendly to the team's cap structure. It can't be a cheap deal, but rather a representative offer that would be in line for what a player such as Peterson is worth. But Nolan and other team sources already have indicated the team may be more inclined to let Peterson test free agency and let the market determine what he's worth.

If that happens – and, at the moment, it appears to be the most likely scenario – Peterson likely is a goner, because it's almost certain another NFL franchise that could use Peterson to fill a prominent void on a contending team will overpay for his services. Or, at least, pay more than the 49ers are willing to bring him back.

"It's a tough decision," Peterson admitted. "We have a lot of talent on this team and you don't want to just start over with ground zero all over again. I think coach is going to have some time to sit back and think about what he has to do, and the organization, and guys they're going to keep from the team, and some of the guys on the free-agent market who they're looking at, and some of the draftees, too. So, I think everybody is going to have some time to sit back and think about everything as a whole."

Everybody now has had a month to think about it since the season ended, and firm decisions must be made in the upcoming weeks before the free agency period begins in March.

Is Peterson, finally, headed toward free agency after two years of being taken off the market by San Francisco's franchise tag?

"I don't know," he said. "Right now, I'm just soaking up that it's a case that might be. You never know what the future holds. I know that I enjoyed my time here if this is my last time. I'm looking forward to coming back, though."

Peterson went on to say, "I want to be back, but also, you know, I want to really sort out what's the best decision for myself and my family. That's the biggest thing. It will be a very difficult decision. I've (been) here for six years. This is like my home. I'm still smiling, still love it here, still trying to get that sixth Super Bowl back here, too."

If they don't bring him back, the 49ers take the risk of losing a player who could be one of the best in the NFL at his position. Peterson had a down year – by his high standards – in 2005 during his return from the debilitating torn Achilles. But he could return to top form – 2003 form – next year after having 2005 to regain his bearings. His skills – circa 2003 – remain perfect for the 3-4 defensive system the team envisions taking the 49ers back to the top.

On the flip side, Peterson failed to flourish in that system in 2005, and he entered the offseason with shoulder and knee problems in addition to his Achilles. He's now damaged goods, and the possibility remains that he may never again by the player he was a few seasons ago.

But after slowly returning to form in the final months of last season, Peterson says the best still is yet to come.

"By next season, I'll definitely be a lot better off," he said.

So the question remains: Are the 49ers better off with Peterson or without him? They soon will run out of time to answer that one, because if Peterson hits the open market in March, he likely never will be coming back.

And that could have the 49ers ending up looking like … well … not exactly the sharpest outfit when making crucial personnel decisions.

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