Oates: 49ers, Pack survive cap hell

Just four players who started that game for the 49ers -- wide receiver J.J. Stokes, offensive linemen Derrick Deese and Ray Brown and defensive tackle Bryant Young -- are still starting, although Owens was a heavily used third receiver back then.

The Packers have only 10 regulars from 1998 that are still starting -- Favre, wide receiver Antonio Freeman, fullback William Henderson, guard Marco Rivera, defensive tackles Santana Dotson and Gilbert Brown, defensive end Vonnie Holliday, linebacker Bernardo Harris, safety Darren Sharper and cornerback Tyrone Williams. And of those, Brown was out of football for a year before rejoining the Packers this season.

The first thing Walsh and Wolf did was rid themselves of dead salary cap weight. There were painful personnel decisions to make, in many cases with players who had helped the franchises win NFL titles.

This was a brutally extensive job for Walsh. He dumped 11 sometime starters after the 1998 season, five more after 1999 and four more last off-season. The most painful cuts came two years ago, when Young was nudged into retirement and defensive stalwarts Tim McDonald and Lee Woodall were jettisoned, and last season, when wide receiver Jerry Rice and linebacker Ken Norton Jr. were casualties.

Getting those huge contracts off the books left the 49ers with $21 million in dead cap money this season and another hefty chunk next year. After that, however, they should be in great shape with cap money to spend and a young, talented team on the field.

In Green Bay, Wolf continued his long-standing policy of trying to re-sign his own players, but only within reason. End-of-the-line veterans such as Reggie White and Robert Brooks weren't asked back. Younger veterans such as offensive linemen Adam Timmerman and Ross Verba went elsewhere for bigger money than the Packers were willing to pay.

Still, the Packers ran into a salary cap wall after last season, a wall they scaled by getting veterans LeRoy Butler, Dorsey Levens, Frank Winters, Earl Dotson and Santana Dotson to accept pay cuts. Now, the Packers have a young team and a comfortable cap situation.

The second thing Walsh and Wolf did was milk the draft to resupply the talent that was lost to age, injury and the cap. Both men had exceptional drafts in 2000, landing classes that put their teams back on track sooner than expected.

Walsh, who had a history of trading down in the draft, stockpiling picks and then using them wisely, did that again in the 2000 draft. He kept trading down and ended up with seven of the top 108 picks. Six of the seven -- cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster, linebackers Julian Peterson and Jeff Ulbrich, defensive end John Engelberger and safety John Keith -- became starters, although Keith's career was sidetracked by injury. Those players have become the backbone of a defense that has improved to 13th this year after being ranked 28th and 29th the previous two years. And it's getting better all the time. The 49ers have posted three shutouts in their last six games.

Walsh's 2001 draft yielded one more defensive starter -- end Andre Carter, the No. 1 pick -- and oft-used substitutes in linebacker Jamie Winborn, halfback Kevan Barlow and nickel back Rashad Holman.

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