The sure starters
SS Donte Whitner: Coach Jim Harbaugh isn't handing out any starting positions before the exhibition season, saying on Monday that the team's policy of open competition at every position still is in effect. But when Harbaugh does start identifying starters, you can be sure Whitner's name will be called at strong safety. The veteran shined in his first practice with the team Saturday, then was at the top of the team's depth chart that was released for the first time this year on Monday. Whitner might already be to San Francisco's secondary what Justin Smith is to the team's defensive line and Patrick Willis is to the linebackers corps. Yes, he's that good, and yes, he'll be starting from Day 1.
K David Akers: OK, so Akers doesn't really have any competition for his job as the team's kicking specialist, since the Niners wouldn't have signed him to an attractive deal to replace Joe Nedney if they really planned on giving a legitimate shot to youngster Fabrizio Scaccia, who has a strong leg but can't really be counted on at this point with a game on the line. The Niners would like to keep Scaccia around as a developmental prospect on the practice squad, where he ended last season, and let Akers fire away at adding to his reputation as one of the best and most productive kickers of this NFL era.
WR Braylon Edwards: Yeah, Edwards was dropping easy passes left and right during his first few days as a 49er, but the dude is a beast, and he's the closest thing San Francisco has had to Terrell Owens since Owens bolted from the team after the 2003 season. That means Edwards is starting, with or without Michael Crabtree on the field instead of a walking boot, because once Edwards gets into shape and starts hanging onto passes again with more regularity, he will be hands-down the most explosive receiver on the team. And Harbaugh isn't going to keep a guy like that on the bench, even if he has Edwards listed second on the depth chart today behind Ted Ginn.
C Jonathan Goodwin: When the Niners brought in Goodwin with a three-year deal worth $10.9 million, it was generally assumed that the 10th-year veteran – a Pro Bowler last season and a Super Bowl-champion starter with the New Orleans Saints the season before that – would go straight to the head of the class at center, where the departure of David Baas at the end of July left a gaping hole in San Francisco's offensive line. But Adam Snyder has filled in there capably since training camp began, perhaps better than expected, and it was Snyder – not Goodwin – who topped the depth chart released Monday. Snyder still was seeing a lot of work with the first team in practice Monday, which probably means nothing more than that he will now be a top backup at center as well as guard, since it's going to be Goodwin making San Francisco's first offensive snap of 2011 in the season opener against Seattle.
The probable starters
FS Dashon Goldson: The natural snap reaction upon Goldson's return is to immediately list him as a sure starter, because he actually was one of the Niners' top priorities in free agency until he recently turned down a deal that would have paid him more than any free agent signed by San Francisco this year. Goldson combined with Whitner would make a formidable pair or rock-'em, sock-'em safeties, but therein lies the rub: As Whitner eloquently explained upon his arrival Saturday, the 3-4 system the Niners are implementing this year under coordinator Vic Fangio is best with a pair of safeties that complement each other with different skill sets. The free safety this year will be depended upon more for coverage, and that's not exactly Goldson's strength. All things being equal, Reggie Smith – listed as the starting free safety on today's depth chart – might be a better match with Whitner, but Smith's status is uncertain now due to a knee injury that could keep him out a while. Goldson arguably is a better talent and playmaker than Smith regardless of how he matches up with Whitner, but the 49ers aren't married to Goldson after signing him to just a one-year deal, meaning they won't force him into the lineup if it turns out he's not a good fit.
CB Carlos Rogers: Rogers was the last of the top-shelf cornerbacks available on the open market this year when the 49ers scooped him up last week, and he is the likely replacement at right cornerback for the departed Nate Clements. Just the same, Rogers hasn't exactly nailed down the job yet, and the Niners will continue to look at Tarell Brown, Phillip Adams and promising rookie Chris Culliver before they make any decisions about how they'll use their top cornerbacks next to Shawntae Spencer, who has the job at left cornerback locked down.
Roster berths likely
FS Madieu Williams Williams went from possible starter to possible roster casualty in the space of three days after the 49ers signed Whitner and Goldson, who both move ahead of him at safety. Williams is listed second on the initial depth chart behind Smith at free safety, and Goldson surely will be leapfrogging Williams on that list. The 49ers have some promising young safeties behind Williams in Chris Maragos and Curtis Taylor, both of whom spent time on the 53-man roster last year. Williams must bounce back from a sub-par 2010 season with Minnesota, which is one of the reasons he was available to the 49ers on a one-year deal that didn't even reach seven figures. If Williams shows he can still play, he'll probably be kept around as veteran insurance at both safety positions. If he struggles, the Niners will quickly consider going in another direction.
OLB Antwan Applewhite: The San Diego Chargers castoff is in a good spot here, because the 49ers have an open roster spot behind their top three outside linebackers, who already have been defined as Ahmad Brooks, Parys Haralson and exciting rookie Aldon Smith. Applewhite is big and he has some nice pass-rushing skills, which is what the 49ers need from his position. He's listed as second on the depth chart behind Brooks on the left side, but since Smith is now practicing with the first unit with Brooks out – Smith is playing the right side with Haralson moving over to the left – it means Applewhite will have to show he's worthy on special teams while he battles for a roster spot with Thaddeus Gibson, who ended last season as San Francisco's fourth OLB.
Fighting for a job
LB Blake Costanzo: The fifth-year pro is one of those scrappy players who is used to selling out on special teams to make a final roster, which he has done four times with two teams despite never starting a game during his NFL career. Costanzo has made himself relevant by making big plays on specialty units, where he has distinguished himself as a warrior and ingratiated himself to new 49ers special teams coordinator Brad Seely, who coached Costanzo when both were with the Cleveland Browns. "I definitely have a couple of screws loose," Costanzo said. "I think that's why coach Seely likes me a little bit." It might make Constanzo likable enough to make the final roster, even as he runs third on the depth chart today at inside linebacker.
LB Larry Grant: This is Grant's second go with the 49ers – who selected him in the seventh round of the 2008 draft – after he was plucked off San Francisco's practice squad by St. Louis during his rookie season. Grant lasted three years with the Rams and even started eight games for them last season before being released last month. He's a solid player who also can contribute on special teams, and the 49ers had him listed second on their initial depth chart behind NaVorro Bowman at inside linebacker – and ahead of Scott McKillop, who was expected to be Bowman's top challenger this year. Grant has a decent shot at the final roster, but he also could get caught up in a numbers game with McKillop, Costanzo and Keaton Kristick also competing for the two roster berths behind Bowman and Willis. The deciding factor could come down to prowess on special teams, where the other three candidates have excelled in the past.