Starting up or stepping out?

Most of the 22 regular starters on offense and defense for the 49ers in 2010 are all but guaranteed to occupy the same jobs in 2011. But there are some exceptions, a few more conspicuous than others, with a variety of factors affecting why each could be stepping out of the starting lineup – or getting pushed out. Here's a look at the veterans facing legitimate challenges to their starting status.

Every starter from last year's disappointing 6-10 season is included in this analysis, even impending free agents who might not return as starters this year simply because they walk away from the team by their own volition to accept lucrative contracts on the open market and/or opportunities with other teams.

Aubrayo Franklin, for example, might not be in San Francisco's starting lineup at nose tackle come September because he's not on the team, having taken a better offer elsewhere, leaving by his own accord. But if Franklin is back with the 49ers, you can be all but certain he'll be on the field at that position for the first defensive snap in the season opener at Seattle.

That's not the case with these other veterans:

CB Nate Clements: Clements has not lived up to the $80 million blockbuster contract he signed in 2007 that at the time made him the best-paid defensive player in NFL history. But despite an erosion of his speed/coverage skills the past two seasons, Clements is arguably still San Francisco's best cornerback, so his challenge won't necessarily come on the field. It will come when the lockout ends and the 49ers tell Clements how large a salary cut he'll have to take to return to the team. Clements is scheduled to earn $15 million this year; he won't see anything near that from the Niners. If he holds firm in negotiations, believing he could get a better offer/situation elsewhere if San Francisco cuts him, Clements is gone, and the Niners immediately begin looking for a new starting cornerback.

QB Alex Smith: Sure, the unique circumstances surrounding the 49ers caused by the lockout have put Smith in an advantageous position to get one final shot at establishing himself as San Francisco's quarterback. And, as of today, he would be the leading candidate to start the season opener. But, obviously aware of Smith's results as a starter, coach Jim Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke have made it clear that they're looking for better at quarterback than what Smith has delivered so far. If the 49ers can find the right veteran free-agent QB to throw into the Smith/Colin Kaepernick mix this summer, they'll jump at the chance, and then Smith's lead at the position will be considerably narrowed, because he has never gotten off to strong starts in training camp, and there's no reason to think that will be different in a new system this year. That would give upstart Kaepernick and the currently unknown third QB an opening to impress coaches and grab at the job.

LB Manny Lawson: He's probably gone as a free agent, but if he does return, Lawson will find rookie first-round draft pick Aldon Smith breathing down his neck for the regular role at SAM outside linebacker in the Niners' 3-4 defense, with veteran Ahmad Brooks also lurking in the shadows. While Lawson at this point probably is a better all-around player and sideline-to-sideline linebacker than either of those two, each has the potential to surpass Lawson as a pass rusher, which is what the 49ers need most at the position. The Niners will be in a hurry to get Smith on the field, and when San Francisco made Smith the No. 7 overall selection of the 2011 draft, it was a clear sign the Niners are investing in Smith to become the future at the position Lawson has occupied the past three seasons.

G Chilo Rachal: After years of inconsistency and shuffling bodies along their offensive line, the 49ers finally have the potential to have a pretty solid and cohesive unit in 2011, particularly if center David Baas returns as expected. But Rachal, while talented, has been wildly inconsistent since joining the starting lineup as a rookie in 2008, and that was magnified last year. If Rachal, who didn't show up for player-organized workouts focusing on offense last month, continues to display up-and-down tendencies, the 49ers might opt for Adam Snyder to provide stability at the position. Though Snyder has moved around the line a lot and never been able to hold down one position as a regular, he remains of starter quality and started one game at right guard in place of a struggling Rachal last season.

FB Moran Norris: Even though Norris is getting a little long in the tooth as he enters his 11th NFL season, he remains a punishing lead blocker. However, the 49ers will expect more diverse qualities from their fullback in Jim Harbaugh's version of the West Coast offense, and that not only makes Norris expendable this season, but also the position he plays. If the 49ers like the potential of seventh-round draft pick Bruce Miller as they convert him to fullback as a rookie, that could spell the end for Norris, as San Francisco is unlikely to carry two fullbacks on the roster this year, particularly with tight end Nate Byham showing promise last year as a lead blocker in an H-back role.

S Reggie Smith: Smith stepped in nicely last year after the 49ers found themselves in a quandary at strong safety in November. The team had handed rookie Taylor Mays the starting job after veteran Michael Lewis abruptly bolted from the franchise in late September, but Mays displayed he was not ready for the role and the team turned to Smith, who had never started a NFL game but held down the position without imploding the rest of the year. But with a year of seasoning for Mays and a new coaching staff coming in, it figures the 49ers will want to push their 2010 second-round pick onto the field. Smith has the least experience of any regular in San Francisco's starting lineup last year, and if his role on the team is to be more than just a stop-gap starter, Smith will have step to the forefront this year to solidify his status as a regular.


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