Niners checking list of own free agents

The NFL's free agency period begins Friday with the 49ers sure to go after some of their own. Now that the team is beneath the league-mandated salary cap, here's a look at each of the team's 18 unrestricted, restricted and exclusive rights free agents, where each currently stands with the team, and the interest each can expect from the Niners in the upcoming months.


Dana Stubblefield: The team released the veteran defensive tackle on Wednesday to save his $2.325 million salary against the team's 2003 salary cap. There's some talk the Niners may bring him back at the veteran's minimum if he doesn't sign elsewhere, but don't expect that. The team wants to get younger and better at the position.

Dave Fiore: His 2003 salary of $2 million wasn't going to fit into the team's structure, either, so the offensive guard also was a Wednesday cap casualty and now is free to negotiate with any team. His chances of returning to the Niners are better than Stubblefield's, but the team now views him only as a backup in its plans, and would expect him to play for the veteran's minimum if he returns.

Chike Okeafor: The defensive end was the team's only starter scheduled for unrestricted free agency before Wednesday's cuts. The Niners will make a hard push for Okeafor, but they'll also hope to get him for a price that makes sense. Okeafor will look for a bigger payday on the open market, but might settle for the right offer from the Niners.

Matt Willig: The 11th-year veteran has been a quality, valuable reserve who has stepped in at several positions on the offensive line the past three seasons. But the team wants to develop youth behind its aging starters on the line. Willig still could be re-signed this summer if the Niners don't feel they have anyone to take his place, but don't expect him to get an offer from the team before then.

Ben Lynch: The team didn't re-sign the veteran center  last year until well into training camp, and that's a possible scenario for him again if he has a future with the 49ers. He's a good backup center, and they're not easy to find, but his lack of versatility and veteran's salary are two reasons the Niners would like to go in another direction.

Duane Hawthorne: The Niners brought in the fourth-year cornerback in December, a week after he'd been cut by the Dallas Cowboys. He was brought in as insurance at the position and never played on defense until forced into action during the season-ending playoff loss at Tampa Bay. Doesn't appear to fit into the Niners' plans, but after the way the team struggled at the position last year, San Francisco might consider signing him and taking a longer look in training camp.

Terry Killens: A special teams star in 2001 before leaving for Denver, Killens was brought back for the Tampa Bay playoff game because of injuries. The Niners already had replaced Killens in the team structure after he left, so there is no place for him now.

Tim Hauck: The 13-year veteran was signed in December because of the injuries that struck the secondary. The Niners have no interest in re-signing him.

Ronnie Heard: A valuable member or the team the past three seasons, the Niners opted not to tender him an offer as a restricted free agent, making Heard an unrestricted free agent who can negotiate with any team. The team still likes his versatility and heady play on defense, and also what he brings to special teams. The Niners likely will make a legitimate effort to re-sign him unless he gets a better offer on the open market.

John Keith: The restricted free agent became unrestricted when the team declined to offer him a tender this week. Still trying to come all the way back from knee surgery, Keith showed some improvement and development last season, and still could rejoin the team at a minimum salary, though it's highly unlikely he and Heard both will be asked back.

Justin Swift: Not a good sign for the three-year tight end that he wasn't tendered an offer as a restricted free agent. He could re-sign for a minimum salary, but it looks like the Niners would like to upgrade at his spot on the roster.

Quincy Stewart: Was team's leading tackler on special teams, but was not tendered an offer as an exclusive rights free agent, likely because the team is so deep at the linebacker position. Team likes what it got out of him and he still might be offered a contract and invited to training camp.

Vinny Sutherland: The wide receiver/return specialist - who set a team record for kickoff return yardage by a rookie in 2001 - was released in training camp last year and brought back for the playoffs. The team is not interested in bringing him back again after declining to tender him an offer as an exclusive rights free agent.



Tai Streets: The Niners got a big break when the NFL ruled recently that Streets is a restricted free agent - not unrestricted - because of his lack of playing time as a rookie in 1999. The team promptly tendered him Wednesday at $1.318 million, meaning another team would have to surrender a first-round draft pick to the Niners as compensation if they were to sign him. That won't happen, and Streets will be back with the team in 2003.

Tim Rattay: No surprise that team tendered him at $605,000 on Wednesday. The Niners would like to see him continue to progress and develop as Jeff Garcia's backup and eventually challenge to become Garcia's successor.

Brian Jennings: The long-snapper is a fixture on special teams and the Niners didn't have to spend much time considering whether to tender him at $605,000.



Jimmy Williams: It was an easy decision for the Niners to tender Williams at $375,000, since he was leading the NFC in punt returns before a season-ending knee injury in December, and also was displaying some development at cornerback. As he ERFA, he can negotiate only with the Niners.

Bill LaFleur: It came as something of a surprise that the Niners tendered LaFleur at $300,000, considering that he struggled after being signed as the team's punter in December. But the Niners didn't want to risk losing him and not having any punter on the roster. He also can negotiate only with San Francisco.




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