Even with an expected announcement Monday that tailback Garrison Hearst will undergo left ankle surgery that could sideline him until midseason, the San Francisco 49ers remain longshots to land free agent Lawrence Phillips.
With a decision from Phillips expected later this week, possibly as early as Tuesday, several teams courting the former Nebraska star conceded Monday the Buffalo Bills have inched ahead of the pack. Officials from two other teams pursuing Phillips told SportsLine that the Buffalo proposal reportedly includes a signing bonus of more than $200,000, far beyond what anyone else seems willing to invest.
"If that's the case," one personnel director said, "then the Bills will get him."
A two-time loser in the NFL after having been released by St. Louis and Miami, Phillips resurrected his career this spring by becoming the first player to rush for 1,000 yards in the NFL Europe League. According to league officials, the largest signing bonus ever awarded a player moving from the springtime loop to the NFL was $50,000. Agent Mitch Frankel, who represents Phillips, did not return phone calls. But Frankel earlier cited the middle of this week as the most likely time for a decision.
The 49ers, who have used former Nebraska stars Roger Craig and Tom Rathman to help recruit Phillips, cleared salary cap room Monday when wide receiver Terrell Owens officially signed the contract agreement first reported by SportsLine last week. Owens received a signing bonus of $7.5 million. His base salaries for the seven-year deal are: $400,000 (1999), $2.8 million (2000), $3.5 million (2001), $4.1 million (2002), $4.7 million (2003), $5.3 million (2004) and $5.9 million (2005).
That brings the contract value to $34.2 million. But because the final two seasons are "voidable," it will most likely turn out to be a five-year contract worth $23 million. In a pending deal that will be completed Wedneday, the 49ers will re-sign defensive end Charles Haley to a four-year deal that voids to just one season.
Hearst was to have an MRI exam late Monday afternoon and then huddle with 49ers club physician Michael Dillingham to finalize a course of treatment. Hearst fractured his ankle in a '98 playoff loss at Atlanta, and doctors feared he suffered from avascular necrosis, the condition that prematurely ended Bo Jackson's NFL career. Hearst spent much of last week seeking outside opinions on his ankle.
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