Contra Costa Times

49ers have a healthy list of needs for '03
January 15, 2003
Injuries exposed the team's lack of depth as the season wore on

By Cam Inman

As he spoke of the 49ers' season, owner representative John York had a pretty good take on it as he stood outside the 49ers locker room after Sunday's 31-6 divisional playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"We were a better team than we were last year, and we had a heck of a lot more injuries," York said.

The 49ers went 10-6 in the regular season, won the NFC West and made a storybook comeback to beat the New York Giants for their first playoff win since 1998. But a rash of injuries made the 49ers wonder how much further they could have gone if healthier.

It all began 14 plays into the 49ers' exhibition debut in Japan, when right guard Ron Stone severely injured his right elbow, an injury that led to him to basically blocking with one arm all season. Upon the 49ers' return to training camp, general manager Terry Donahue said: "We're not a very deep team."

That became even more apparent on a seemingly weekly basis. Down went left guard Dave Fiore, then linebacker Jamie Winborn, then wide receiver J.J. Stokes, then free safety Zack Bronson, then special teams captain Terry Jackson, then return specialist Jimmy Williams, then ...

Well, just pick a player and he probably made a stop on the injury report.

"Our offseason is going to be very important as to how we condition ourselves and get ready for minicamp," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said Monday at his end-of-the-year press conference.

Here are 10 things to watch as the 49ers offseason unfolds:

1. DECIDE MARIUCCI'S STATUS: He has one year remaining on his contract, but expect Mariucci to either agree on an extension or head elsewhere. York said Sunday it's not likely Mariucci would return as a lame-duck coach, and they are expected to discuss an extension soon. Winning the NFC West and a first-round playoff game helped Mariucci's cause. Mariucci's status also has a direct reflection on his staff, with half of his assistants' contracts set to expire in two weeks. What kind of raise he's offered likely will decide Mariucci's fate, but so might his loyalty to some of those assistants who might not be re-signed.

2. GET HEALTHY. Nine players ended the season on injured reserve, and many more played with broken bones covered by casts or torn ligaments protected by braces. None of the injuries is believed career threatening, so it's important that the wounded players get healthy and the others condition themselves well for 2003.

3. LOOK FOR RECEIVERS. Perhaps the biggest question mark among the different positions is at wide receiver. All-Pro Terrell Owens can become a free agent in 2004. Tai Streets, who emerged as the No. 2 receiver this season, hits the open market this March. Stokes likely will be released unless he agrees to play for a minimum salary. So who catches Jeff Garcia's passes next year and beyond? The draft, or free agency, could produce that, or those, receivers.

4. REPLENISH THE OFFENSIVE LINE. Picking up a young tackle must receive consideration, not because veterans Derrick Deese and Scott Gragg are wearing down, but so they can have capable backups that can be groomed as successors. Kyle Kosier showed some promise, but he was the 249th player drafted overall in April. The 49ers also might want to find a young backup to center Jeremy Newberry. At guard, rookie Eric Heitmann got a crash course by having to replace starting left guard Fiore after four games.

5. REPLENISH THE DEFENSIVE LINE. With defensive end Chike Okeafor possibly gone to free agency, the 49ers will need someone to complement fellow bookend Andre Carter. John Engelberger is an option, but he had no starts this year after making 27 his first two seasons. Defensive tackles Bryant Young and Dana Stubblefield had poor statistical seasons, and considering they have 19 seasons between them, perhaps it's time to inject new blood there.

6. ADDRESS THE SECONDARY. As York said Sunday, "We've been drafting cornerbacks for a long time." The 49ers have selected at least one cornerback in each of the past five drafts, and it's still uncertain if Ahmed Plummer, Jason Webster, Mike Rumph and Rashad Holman -- their top four corners -- are future Pro Bowlers. Adding a veteran cornerback through free agency could be an answer. Adding depth at safety is also key, but that could hinge on whether Kevin Curtis returns in good form from a knee injury that stole his rookie year.

7. GET UNDER THE CAP. The 49ers need to cut some $8 million in the next six weeks to get under the salary cap. Wide receiver Stokes is a prime candidate to be released as he's scheduled to make $2.25 million in 2003. Others with high salaries who may be asked to renegotiate are Garcia ($6 million), Owens ($4.2 million), Young ($2.5 million), Gragg ($2.35 million), Stubblefield ($2.33 million), Deese ($2.3 million), running back Garrison Hearst ($2.2 million), linebacker Derek Smith ($2.05 million), Fiore ($2 million) and Newberry ($2 million).

8. SOLIDIFY SPECIAL TEAMS. Kicker Jeff Chandler appears to have settled into his new gig, but the special teams units have so many other questions. Punter Bill LaFleur didn't look promising since his Nov. 25 debut. Jackson and Williams are coming off serious knee injuries, so finding capable replacements for them might be in order.

9. HAVE A MORE PRODUCTIVE DRAFT. Of the 49ers' 10 draft picks last spring, only three -- Rumph, Chandler and Heitmann -- made significant contributions. The 49ers will have their full complement of draft picks this year, having forfeited a pick each of the past two years for salary cap violations. They're slated to draft 26th overall on April 26.

10. WATCH THE BUDGET. York's penchant to enact a tight, franchise-wide budget has resulted in some complaints from inside the organization. But if York opens his wallet to Mariucci and current players or free agents, the on-field product likely won't change dramatically.

Tell us what you think on the new 49ers Clubhouse message board.