Niners give up on Keith, Sutherland

So now we're finding out what the 49ers are about. They're about not waiting around for players who just can't stay healthy. They're about not being satisfied with average. They're about moving on with their big goals for 2002, and leaving behind a couple of young guys - one once a top prospect - who at one point both figured prominently in their plans.

But that's no longer the case for safety John Keith and receiver/kick returner Vinny Sutherland. Both players were released on Monday as the team closes in on the NFL-mandated 65-player limit that all teams must comply with by 1 p.m. Tuesday.

It's sad to see Keith go, because he once was a rock'em-sock'em prospect at strong safety who then-general manager Bill Walsh said might end up being the finest pick of the team's blockbuster 2000 draft. Keith had the fire and charisma to go along with the heavy-hitting mentality and instinctive skills that made him a starter early in his rookie season and pushed Lance Schulters - a natural strong safety - to free safety.

Then he broke his arm on the opening kickoff of overtime in an October game against the Raiders, ending his rookie season after six games. Then came the crusher. Anxious to get back in the picture as a prominent force in the team's rising defense, Keith blew out his knee on the opening kickoff of the season opener against Atlanta last year, ending that season on the play it started.

In the NFL, you get branded as injury-prone when that sort of thing happens, no matter how good a player you are. The Niners were going to place Keith on the expansion list made available to the Houston Texans earlier this year, but he didn't pass his physical. He tried to make it back in camp this year - he has been practicing for almost two weeks - but he's just not ready for game action. And the Niners couldn't wait any longer, since players who aren't going to be ready to help this season have no place on their roster.

It has been obvious for weeks that the Niners were going to dump Sutherland. When coach Steve Mariucci started saying in training camp that, "We know what we have in Vinny as a returner, so we want to look at other guys," the writing was on the wall. The Niners know what Vinny can do, and it's not what they wanted.

Sutherland wasn't bad last year as a rookie, setting a team rookie record with 1,121 yards returning kicks and showing dependable hands. But he wasn't a breakaway threat returning punts, and the team ranked 30th in the league in that department. That wasn't going to get it done. With Cedrick Wilson's development as a receiver, it became apparent Sutherland wouldn't be needed in that department, either.

So the Niners move forward now without two guys who at different points in the past two seasons looked as if they could have been players for the team. It's the nature of the business. John Keith and Vinny Sutherland, good luck and it was nice to know you.


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