Replacing Peterson might become a must in FA

The 49ers already have announced in no uncertain terms that they have no intention of slapping the franchise tag on Julian Peterson by Thursday's deadline for NFL teams to designate franchise and transition players. That likely will hasten the two-time Pro Bowler's exit from San Francisco once the free agency period begins March 3, since Peterson is recognized as the top OLB available on the open market in 2006. But if Peterson does depart, the 49ers might look to replace him with another FA.

They also may look to replace him with their high selection in the first round of the NFL draft, but the team might have other ideas on how to get the best value out of that pick by the time the draft arrives in April.

So the 49ers figure to be players in free agency at the linebacker position – be it an outside linebacker, inside linebacker, or both – particularly since Andre Carter also can become a free agent in March. Like Peterson, the 49ers don't plan to get into a free-agent bidding war with other teams for Carter, since linebacker is a position at which NFL teams can more easily replenish itself than others.

The 49ers placed the franchise tag on Peterson in each of the past two years, paying him more than $13.3 million over that span. In 2004, he turned down a six-year, $37.8 million offer from the 49ers – a deal that included a team-record $15.5 million signing bonus – and the team's new regime won't be offering him anything near those numbers to stick around this time.

But someone else might, which means Peterson is likely a goner. So might be Carter, which means addressing the outside linebacker position in free agency is a virtual must for the 49ers. Here, we take a look at what beat writers around the league think about the outside linebackers they cover that are scheduled for free agency in March.

--- Peterson's salary would jump to $8.75 million on a one-year tender if the 49ers franchised him this month for the third consecutive year – and that number alone explains why that is not going to happen. Peterson was a disappointment this season, as he didn't seem to grasp the new defense. Also, after returning from a season-ending Achilles tendon tear suffered in Week 5 of the 2004 season, he did not exhibit the same speed that made him one of the game's premier linebackers. The 49ers would like to keep him, but at far lower monetary figures than he likely will attract on the open market.

--- Carter is another player who did not appear to fit in well with the team's new defensive scheme and under-performed in it during 2005. The 49ers may be more willing to spend money on Carter in free agency since he'll command much less than Peterson and is viewed as a hard-working player who has pass-rushing skills that could be accentuated as a situational player.

--- Carolina Panthers' LB Will Witherspoon is going to garner a significant amount of interest if he indeed hits the open market in March. The Panthers are attempting to get Witherspoon under contract prior to the free-agent signing period. If able to entertain free agency, expect the Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals, Houston Texans, Atlanta Falcons, New York Giants, and the Panthers themselves to come calling quickly. The 49ers also are in that group, but they don't plan to pay top dollar to any linebacker and likely would lose out in a bidding war with those teams. If the 49ers don't go after Peterson with a contract worth mega-millions, why would they do so with Witherspoon?

--- Indianapolis Colts LB Cato June had a team-leading five interceptions. He also had 109 total tackles despite playing most of the year with a sports hernia. June was named to his first Pro Bowl and the Colts will not let him get away as a restricted free agent, which pretty much rules out the chances of him becoming a 49er, a team with which he would fit in well.

--- Jacksonville Jaguars LB Akin Ayodele, who is an unrestricted free agent, hasn't matured into a dominant player. He's capable of playing either strong or weak-side linebacker and is still viewed as a player with much potential. On a side note, the Jaguars also have allowed Jamie Winborn – whom they acquired from the 49ers in an October trade last year – to become an unrestricted free agent. The 49ers, obviously, won't be interested in bringing back Winborn after coach Mike Nolan banished him last year.

--- Minnesota Vikings LB Keith Newman, who took over Napoleon Harris' starting spot after four games before suffering a season-ending knee injury with three games to play, is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent. He spoke out after the season about feeling unappreciated and could be headed out of town.

--- Baltimore Ravens LB Tommy Polley played well at times but still needed to be more physical. He still holds some intrigue as a prospect, but whether the 49ers have interest in him is debatable.

--- Philadelphia Eagles LB Keith Adams had a disappointing season as a starter. Adams is better suited for a special teams and backup role.

--- Dallas Cowboys LB Scott Fujita, who took over as a starter for the injured Al Singleton, is an unrestricted free agent and may not return. He might be the kind of mid-level veteran the 49ers would be interested in bringing in as a possible starter or insurance depth if the price is right.

--- Washington Redskins LB Warrick Holdman did little while subbing for LaVar Arrington at times this season, though he played well in the Redskins' rout of the 49ers last October.

--- Oakland Raiders LB Grant Irons was used mostly in short-yardage situations and is neither a defensive end nor an outside linebacker. The 49ers are looking for linebackers whose positions are much more defined.

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