Niners paying to keep core of team together

49ers paying Pro Bowl specialists trio $40 million

The 49ers are not only securing the long-term services of their star performers as they aim to build an enduring contender, they also are rewarding them with the big bucks of top-dollar contracts. Andy Lee's new deal that makes him one of the highest-paid punters in NFL history is the latest example, but it follows a recent trend of the team sparing no expense to hold onto to its best players.

Lee obviously was a happy camper earlier this week when discussing his new seven-year contract extension that will pay him $21.5 million and keep the All-Pro punter with the team until at least 2018.

But while discussing the new deal and talking about his career with the 49ers moving forward, Lee made a telling comment when asked about the team being proactive in getting a new deal done with him before Lee entered the final season of his previous six-year deal.

"I think it just shows the type of guys we have here," Lee replied. "They want to keep this team together. They want to do what they can to keep other guys here, too. They've done a good job signing other guys and keeping other guys here, too, and just trying to keep this team intact to make a run at the Super Bowl."

And so they have. Over and over again during the past few years.

The 49ers took immediate measures this offseason to retain several veterans who were key performers in last year's surprising turnaround season that landed San Francisco in the NFC title game after the team won its first NFC West championship since 2002.

The Niners took quarterback Alex Smith, cornerback Carlos Rogers and linebacker Ahmad Brooks off the open market with big deals that not only kept each player happy, but also will keep each with the team until the 49ers open their lavish new stadium currently being constructed near team headquarters in Santa Clara.

The team probably overpaid for Brooks – who was in his first season as a full-time starter last year – giving him a six-year, $37 million deal that some saw as too high a price for the product. It also made Brooks the fourth highest-paid player on the team, which might have produced some grumbles from other veterans on the roster.

But Brooks was a key part in the team's powerful defense last year, and the Niners didn't want to mess with the good thing they have going on that side of the ball, which will return all 11 starters in 2012.

And besides, at 28 years old, Brooks is a rising talent who proved himself as both a pass rusher and versatile three-down performer last year at an essential position in San Francisco's 3-4 defensive scheme. He would have commanded attention on the open market. The 49ers didn't want to lose him, and they didn't want to take a chance of getting into a bidding war. So they struck first at the start of free agency in March and gave Brooks an offer her certainly wouldn't refuse.

The Niners later kept Smith and Rogers in the fold with deals that totaled more than $53 million in price.

But those contracts were to retain key players who were hitting free agency this year. Like they did with Lee, the 49ers in recent years have taken the initiative to lock up top-tier players long before their current contracts were set to expire.

The most obvious examples were the deals San Francisco got done with two of its brightest young stars four months apart in 2010.

In May of that year, the Niners signed five-time Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis – arguably the best player on the entire team – to a seven-year, $53.51 million extension that included $29 million guaranteed. That deal will keep Willis as the centerpiece of the team's elite defense through at least 2016.

Four months later, a day before the 2010 season was set to kick off, the Niners signed Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis to a six-year, $42.705 million extension that included $23 million guaranteed. Davis will be a 49er at least through the 2015 season.

The Niners also gave the heart and soul of their offense – running back Frank Gore – a well-deserved four-year, $25.9 million extension last summer after Gore had half-heartedly held out during the opening days of training camp.

That's a big contract to give a running back with the injury history and wear-and-tear already absorbed by Gore, but the team opted to reward him for what he has accomplished while also locking him up for future seasons. Gore responded with another Pro Bowl season while becoming the all-time leading career rusher in 49ers history.

Offensive tackle Joe Staley (nine-year, $43.66 million extension in 2009) is another prime example of the team being proactive in locking up a top young talent. Staley responded in 2011 with his first Pro Bowl season.

The team is even doing it with lesser-proven players whom the 49ers project will be productive performers moving forward. Backup tackle Alex Boone was given a five-year, $7.450 million extension last December, and now Boone is working this spring as the team's starting right guard in place of Adam Snyder, who departed a few months ago in free agency.

Then there's the big-money deals the 49ers awarded in free agency the past few years to retain two of the key cogs in their rugged defensive front: Tackles Isaac Sopoaga and Ray McDonald, who both received five-year, $20 million deals three years apart. That was after signing the star of that unit – All-Pro tackle Justin Smith – to a six-year, $45 million deal in 2008 free agency.

"It is our objective to keep the core of this team together long term, and this is just another step in that direction," general manager Trent Baalke said this week after signing Lee to his extension.

The 49ers have been taking those steps for a while now, and Lee's partners in the battery of San Francisco's special-teams specialists are three guys who perfectly illustrate the point.

Lee, kicker David Akers and long-snapper Brian Jennings might currently be the best three players at their respective positions in the NFL. They certainly performed like it in 2011, when each represented the 49ers in the Pro Bowl.

The group arguably could be considered one of the best trios of specialists in NFL history.

And the 49ers are paying them like it, while also paying to keep them together. Jennings – a 13th-year veteran who is the longest-tenured 49er – signed a six-year, $6.365 million extension in 2009 that keeps him with the team through 2014.

Akers, the team's oldest player at 36, was signed to a three-year, $9 million deal in free agency last year, and he responded with the greatest season by a kicker in NFL history.

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