DT now a priority for 49ers

The 49ers officially will be making changes at defensive tackle now that Dana Stubblefield has signed with the Raiders. After releasing Stubblefield on Feb. 26, the 49ers still had hoped to get him back in 2003 at a reduced salary to compete to retain his starting role opposite Bryant Young. Now the Niners will turn to someone else to plug that void, perhaps from the draft. "One of the areas of the draft that is pretty thick is defensive tackle," GM Terry Donahue said. "And that is good for us."

The Niners would love to snag one of the big and bright college tackle prospects that will be available in April, but it's a chancy proposition whether an elite player still will be available when they select No. 26 in the first round. The Niners also are eyeing a topflight receiver in that slot, but would definitely go for a DT if a player they want still is available.

"There are a number of really good defensive linemen in the draft, both at tackle and end," Donahue said. "There are a number of good free-agent tackles out there. I think we have to look and analyze the draft at both the tackle and end position. The system is built for you to replace your players in the draft."

As of today, Jim Flanigan would be the starting DT next to four-time Pro Bowl star Young, but the Niners certainly will bring in somebody else they expect to seriously challenge for that role. Flanigan is quicker and perhaps more aggressive than Stubblefield, but at 290 pounds he can't match the beef of Stubblefield, who clogged the middle at well over 300 pounds, and the Niners would like to get bigger at the position since Young tips in at 290 pounds himself.

Of course, Stubblefield's weight is one of the reasons the Niners decided to cut his $2.325 million base salary from their 2003 payroll. In his 10th pro season, Stubblefield had his moments last year, finishing with 43 tackles and three sacks. But, Donahue said, Stubblefield "at times struggled, particularly towards the end of the year when his weight got higher on him."

Stubblefield had expressed a desire to remain in the Bay Area and some reports said he was considering re-signing with the Niners for a deal near the veteran's minimum. On a conference call after signing with Oakland, Stubblefield indicated he felt slighted by Donahue's comments and had closed the door to returning after the team released him.

The Niners will miss his veteran leadership and locker-room presence, but they're not worried about that right now. They need to upgrade at the position, and they don't have a lot of money to spend for a free agent.

Flanigan is underrated, but he seems better suited to a reserve role. Donahue said "we like" second-year DT Josh Shaw, who rehabbed a major knee injury most of his rookie season before finally getting some game action late in the year. Shaw has some speed and skills that could be developed, but he also isn't the 300-pound-plus impact performer the Niners envy for this position in their young and improving defense.

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