Cota move gives Niners safety security

On the day the 49ers practiced for the final time in training camp 2002, a few key roster spots suddenly fell into place. Jason Baker will be the Niners' punter this year. Chad Cota will be the backup free safety. Baker is no surprise, but that the Niners spent the money necessary on Cota just to be a reserve shows how serious they really are about going for it all this season.

Cota was signed Wednesday afternoon to take the place of rookie Kevin Curtis, who will be placed on injured after surgery Tuesday revealed that his knee damage was worse than anticipated. Curtis has a ruptured posterior cruciate ligament that will end his rookie season before it even got started.

Curtis had locked up the team's fourth safety position as Bronson's backup with a solid training camp before being injured in Saturday's exhibition loss to Kansas City.

The Niners played with only three safeties last season - starters Lance Schulters and Zack Bronson and swing backup Ronnie Heard. But with more money to work with under the salary cap this year, the Niners forked out the veteran minimum of $650,000 to bring in a starter-caliber backup. Cota, who has started every NFL game for five consecutive seasons for three different teams, visited with the Niners in the spring as a possible replacement for Schulters before the Niners opted to sign free agent Tony Parrish to fill that role.

The Cota move immediately makes the Niners stronger at an already solid position, and gives the team the security that it didn't have in relying on the uncertain status of veterans John Keith and Al Blades to fill that fourth safety role. Keith is coming back from a season-ending knee injury, and Blades - who saw no action last year as a rookie - also is hampered by injuries. The Niners obviously didn't feel they could count on either.

But they'll be counting on Baker to improve on his rookie season. To make room for Cota on the roster, the team released Andrew Bayes, who had been booming punts in spring minicamps and summer workouts. But in Saturday's game in San Francisco, Bayes produced punts of only 32 and 27 yards. The team likes Baker as both a punter and holder, and he was going to win the job anyway, but Bayes sealed his fate with Saturday's performance.

Niners Digest Top Stories