The San Francisco 49ers, as they have in the past, led the way during yesterday's Plan B free agent market, leaving unprotected three of their major stars.
All-Pro safety Ronnie Lott, running back Roger Craig and linebacker Matt Millen were left unprotected. None of the players, because of their high salaries and age (each is over 30), is expected to be signed by another team.
Of the five 49ers who played in the 1981, 1984, 1988 and 1989 Super Bowls -- Lott, linebacker Keena Turner, wide receiver Mike Wilson, quarterback Joe Montana, and cornerback Eric Wright -- only Montana was protected.
Declared unconditional free agents were 518 players left unprotected by their teams. Under Plan B each team can protect 37 players, leaving the remainder free to receive bids from other teams. If a player doesn't sign by April 1, he goes back to his old club under the terms of his current contract.
This year's Super Bowl participants also left some of their key players unprotected. Buffalo kicker Scott Norwood, who missed the 47-yard field goal that would have won the game for the Bills, was left unprotected. They also did not protect Super Bowl starters wide receiver James Lofton, strong safety Leonard Smith and inside linebacker Ray Bentley.
The Super Bowl's most valuable player, 33-year-old Giants running back Ottis Anderson, was left unprotected, as was former all-pro tight end Mark Bavaro.
"This thing is very difficult for a team and an organization because no matter what you do, somebody's going to be unhappy," said Giants Coach Bill Parcells. "The players want free agency, but when you unprotect them, they sometimes feel rejected.
"I'd be hurt if I wasn't" on the unprotected list, joked Anderson.
Other notable unprotected players were quarterback Jim McMahon and wide receiver Mike Quick of the Eagles; defensive back Deron Cherry of the Chiefs; wide receiver Leo Lewis of the Vikings and defensive tackle Tim Krumrie of the Bengals.
Protected by the Cardinals was defensive tackle Dexter Manley.
The 49ers excel at manipulating Plan B. Last year they left unprotected tight end Brent Jones, who had signed a new contract with the team only days before the Plan B period started.
Craig, the 49ers' leading rusher for the past five years, was slowed much of this season with a knee injury.