49ers keep Smith off open market, sign 2 more

Whenever 2006 NFL free agency finally does begin, the 49ers will have a few less big things to worry about. They signed 10th-year linebacker Derek Smith to a three-year contract Monday afternoon, securing the services of one of their top veterans scheduled to hit the open market, and also locked up their starting fullback and a veteran backup quarterback by signing Chris Hetherington and Jesse Palmer to new deals.

The 49ers also have an agreement in principle with veteran kicker Joe Nedney, but he can not sign a contract with the team until the beginning of free agency, which is now scheduled to start at 12:01 p.m. (EST) Thursday after the deadline for CBA negotiations was extended for a second time late Sunday.

Coach Mike Nolan also filled out his 2006 coaching staff by announcing he has signed Pep Hamilton as the team's new offensive assistant/quarterbacks coach. Hamilton spent the last three seasons coaching on the offensive side of the ball with the New York Jets, spending the 2005 season as New York's receivers coach.

Hamilton replaces Ben McAdoo, who served as San Francisco's assistant offensive line/offensive quality control coach last season. McAdoo was allowed to leave the 49ers and follow Mike McCarthy to Green Bay when McCarthy – San Francisco's offensive coordinator in 2005 – was named Packers head coach in January.

Smith was one of San Francisco's prime targets among the 15 veterans who are/were scheduled to hit the open market as unrestricted free agents when free agency begins. In an interview late Monday afternoon, Smith said there was receiving high interest from other teams, but he wanted to end his career in San Francisco because he believes in the direction Nolan has the 49ers headed.

Keeping Smith off the open market is something of a coup for the 49ers, because he likely would have received a higher offer elsewhere than the contract he ultimately signed to stay in San Francisco. The deal is reportedly worth $7.5 million in base salary. According to documents filed with the NFL Players Association, Smith's contract extension included a $6 million signing bonus that makes the total package worth almost $14 million.

It also was important to the 49ers to get a new deal in place with Hetherington, which has been in the works for several weeks, to give the team stability at the fullback position in 2006. Hetherington, an 11th-year veteran, took the starting job away from 2003 Pro Bowler Fred Beasley midway through the 2005 season and was clearly the team's choice over Beasley – also scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent – at fullback as the 49ers move forward. The 49ers are likely to bring in a young prospect at fullback this spring to groom behind Hetherington.

The Niners also like Palmer – best known for his role as "The Bachelor" on the television hit series – as a veteran mentor to Alex Smith at quarterback who won't be inclined to challenge Smith for the starting job. The 49ers have talked extensively with Palmer – who was with the team for three weeks when Smith was hurt last season – for several weeks about bringing him back.

Palmer helped mentor Giants quarterback Eli Manning in 2004, and the 49ers envision him doing the same with Smith this season. Nolan last month described Palmer as "a big guy that has some talent … a guy that makes the young guys better."

And better is what the 2006 49ers just became with Monday's signings.

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