Will lockout save jobs of 49ers' fringe vets?

With the continued NFL lockout reducing the ability of rookies and young players to learn systems and get up to speed while also greatly reducing time for teams to prepare for the upcoming season, fringe veterans that might have been phased out suddenly become much more valuable and more likely to be kept around in 2011. The 49ers certainly have some veterans that fall into that category.

There are two sides to every story, it has been said, and the continuing NFL lockout is no different. Except in the case of the lockout, there really are two sides to at least one of the two divergent sides.

It's been chic to detail the manner in which the absence of rookie orientation sessions, minicamps and organized team activities could reduce the ability of young players to demonstrate their wares and earn roster spots. The flip side: With the likelihood that NFL franchises will be subjected to condensed preparatory time for the start of the season, whenever that is, experience and familiarity take on a renewed and significant importance. And that almost certainly translates into increased opportunities for some veterans who might otherwise exist only on the fringe of the roster.

The 49ers have several veterans who fall into that category.

"You take the five- or six- or seven-year veteran who isn't a starter, is making good money, and is a role player," agent Joe Linta said. "In a normal year, those guys would be in jeopardy. A lot of teams would be looking to replace them with a draft pick or a (rookie) free agent, someone who makes a lot less money, and might more or less do the same job. But if there's basically no minicamps or any offseason program, no training ground for the young guys, teams are going to keep the older players because they know the system."

Certainly, the logic is sound.

And let's extend it a bit further, perhaps, to the quarterback spot.

Example: The Tennessee Titans have a new head coach (Mike Munchak), new offensive coordinator (Chris Palmer) and no veteran quarterback of any real NFL tenure on the roster. Kerry Collins is a pending unrestricted free agent. Ditto Chris Simms. Even with the departure of Jeff Fisher, the club has reiterated that Vince Young will not be back for 2011. Brett Ratliff has yet to play in a regular-season game and second-year veteran Rusty Smith owns one career start.

That leaves first-round selection Jake Locker or the potential for re-signing a guy like Collins, whose most enhanced value for 2011 might actually be back with the Titans instead of signing with the sixth different team in his league tenure.

The 49ers present another great example. With a new coaching regime in place, retread veteran David Carr is the only quarterback currently under contract with the team. Nobody expects the team to go with Carr this year as its starting quarterback, so the 49ers are making a real pitch to keep around erstwhile starter Alex Smith, despite the turmoil he has been embroiled in the past six seasons since being the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 NFL draft.

Smith isn't a fringe veteran, since he still is young and a lot of other NFL teams would surely vie for his services this year as a free agent. But he becomes much more important to the 49ers this year because of the lockout, since they need a capable veteran hand around this year while second-round draft pick Colin Kaepernick – the team's presumed quarterback of the future – develops.

Said one veteran defensive player who has fewer than 10 career starts but has been around the league long enough now to be vested in the pension program: "I'm sure that in most years, it would be a situation where even my (minimum-level) salary would put me on the chopping block, and they'd be looking for some cheaper kid to run down under kickoffs, or be a backup. But the lockout, while it's put some strain on my finances, could keep me around for another year."

Most franchises turn over about 25-40 percent of their rosters in a given season, and clubs seem to rely increasingly on young players, even late-round draft choices, to make rosters and fill roles. The league's standard roster metrics, though, could be disrupted if the lockout precludes most offseason work.

For the most part, the focus throughout the work stoppage has been on the negative impact the lockout will have on the ability of young players to earn jobs. In a rather convoluted way, the lockout might actually allow some potentially at-risk veterans to cash paychecks for another season.

Here's a look at some of those potentially at-risk veterans on the 49ers roster:

FB Moran Norris: The 49ers appear ready to replace Norris – the team's on-and-off starting fullback four of the past five years – because his lumbering style does not appear to be a good fit for coach Jim Harbaugh's West Coast offensive system. The team was hoping to land Stanford's Owen Marecic in the draft, since he's the prototype fullback for Harbaugh's offense. Marecic was off the board before the 49ers could grab him, and the team instead took Central Florida's Bruce Miller in the seventh round. While Miller may have the tools to become a good fullback, he was a defensive end in college who was the Conference USA defensive player of the year the past two seasons. He'll take time to develop, which might extend the shelf life of Norris, since the 49ers currently have no other fullbacks on their roster.

OT Barry Sims: The 13th-year veteran has proven to be a valuable backup for the 49ers the past three seasons, starting 22 games because of injuries to others during that span, including at least seven every year. Sims turns 37 in December and the Niners surely would like to start getting younger at this slot on their roster. Young Alex Boone is waiting in the wings, but do the 49ers really trust him to take over should one of their starting tackles go down? They know Sims can handle the role, and since both of the tackles San Francisco took in the draft will be moved to inside positions along the line, that could keep Sims around another season, given Boone won't have the developmental time during the offseason that he would in a non-lockout year.

OL Tony Wragge: Wragge is a solid backup at the interior line positions, but he seems a veteran most likely at risk for his roster spot since the 49ers drafted fifth-rounder Daniel Kilgore and seventh-rounder Michael Person to play the same inside positions. Those youngsters, however, are being stripped of valuable developmental time this spring, which may bring cause for the 49ers to keep a valuable old hand such as Wragge around a little longer. He's a free agent without a contract, so the Niners will have to make a decision on Wragge as soon as the lockout is lifted.

DT Demetric Evans: Evans is entering his 10th NFL season and hasn't started one game since coming to the 49ers in 2009 as a free agent. But the team did not draft a defensive lineman last month, and starting nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin is likely to leave via free agency later this year. In a non-lockout year, the 49ers probably already would be grooming their expected starters along the defensive line. With uncertainty still prevailing there, Evans' value to the team remains high.


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