The San Francisco 49ers have played their way to a 4-2 record despite dealing with key injuries - and one indefinite leave of absence - through the first six weeks of 2013.
And now that six weeks have passed, players are eligible to come of the Non-Football Injury/Reserve list and start practicing. The caveat? Once a player comes off the list and suits up for practice, they have a 21-day window to be added to the 53-man roster.
If a player begins practicing but is not added after three weeks, then that player becomes ineligible to play for the rest of the season and goes on injured reserve.
Those four players likely to begin practicing, per Jim Harbaugh, are rookie nose tackle Quinton Dial, second-round pick Tank Carradine, cornerback Eric Wright and wideout Mario Manningham (Manningham is on the reserve/physically unable to perform list, which carries the same stipulations as the NFI list).
Those pending additions mean other players will have to be subtracted from the 53-man roster upon their arrival.
"There's a process there once they come back of being ready to compete in games. And then the final step is, they have to be better than somebody. They have to be better than somebody that's at their position," Harbaugh said Monday.
It's a complicated situation, but we'll try to break down the implications for all four players.
Taken in the fifth round last spring, Dial is a big, physical nose tackle that specializes in stuffing the run. The immediacy of his addition was accelerated Sunday, when Glenn Dorsey left the win over Arizona in the first half with a hamstring injury.
Dial had toe surgery following the season that caused him to miss the entire offseason program.
Harbaugh would not provide an update on Dorsey's status Monday. But even if his injury isn't long term, he's currently the only healthy nose tackle available. Starter Ian Williams was lost for the season in Week 2 after breaking his ankle.
The issue the rookie faces - along with Carradine - is missing an entire training camp and preseason. Instead of five or six weeks of practice in the summer, he'll have three weeks (at the most) in the middle of the regular season to get acclimated to pro game. He won't have the benefit of preseason games to take his initial lumps in the NFL.
Dobbs joined the 49ers as an undrafted free agent in 2011. Same for Jerod-Eddie in 2012. The competition won't be about talent as much as productivity within the context of the scheme. Both players have the versatility to play nose and end in Vic Fangio's 3-4 defense. They also have experience and comfort with the system on their side.
"So, here we are right dead in the middle of the regular season and these guys have missed all those steps," Fangio said. "So, when they're ready, and I have no idea when that'll be, they'll place them. We'll activate them and play them. But, until then, I think it'd be a mistake to put them out there too early."
The 49ers invested a fifth-round pick in Dial, which helps his standing against the undrafted Dobbs and Jerod-Eddie. Practice squad member Mike Purcell will also be considered.
Carradine and Dial's situations are very similar, as they would likely compete with the same players for a roster spot. And as Dial's situation might be impacted by Dorsey's hamstring, Ray McDonald's biceps injury could expedite Carradine's arrival.
Carradine was taken in the second round last spring after suffering a torn ACL in his final collegiate game last November. Had he not suffered the injury, there's a chance he might have been taken in the first round.
Listed at 273 pounds, Carradine isn't big enough to play nose tackle. The 49ers envision him as an eventual replacement to Justin Smith. Smith signed a two-year contract extension over the summer, making him a 49er through 2015. Expect Carradine to rotate with Smith as long as the 34-year-old continues to play at a high level.
Manningham is the only member of the group that has experience playing for the 49ers and the current coaching regime. He was the team's second leading receiver in 2012 despite playing in just 12 games. The focus of his return will be on making sure he's entirely healthy. He won't have to worry about adjusting to a new playbook.
Manningham's impact will likely be the most immediate of the group. San Francisco's offense could benefit greatly from a proven No. 2 wideout given the lack of production from receivers, sans Anquan Boldin.
The addition of Manningham will likely be bad news for Moore, Patton or Kassim Osgood. Osgood has the edge given his solid play on kick coverage. The 49ers could put Patton (fractured foot) on injured reserve, which would end his season. The team used its IR designation to return on Nick Moody and could not use it on Patton.
Wright might be the biggest wild card of the group. Given how well the secondary has played to this point with him on the sideline, there's no guarantee he will stick with the organization.
On the other hand, the 28-year-old is still in the physical prime of his career and has 85 games' worth of experience with 14 interceptions to his credit.
If Wright, a former second-round pick, takes well to Ed Donatell's coaching, he could return to form as an impact player and displace Nnamdi Asomugha and Tramaine Brock. It's a low-risk, high-reward situation with the team given his production in the past. But his issues off the field will be something the 49ers will keep an eye on.
Wright was suspended for four games last year for admittedly using Adderall. In July, he was arrested on suspicion of DUI, a year after a similar arrest that led to charges being dropped. Given Aldon Smith's situation, San Francisco isn't in a position to tolerate any more arrests relating to DUI.
Wright's addition might not bode well for Daryl Morris, an undrafted free agent that's made the most of his short time as a pro. Norris started the season on the practice squad and was promoted to the 53-man roster Week 3. He's currently the sixth corner on the 53-man roster that's seen time exclusively on special teams.
Nnamdi Asomugha was a healthy inactive Sunday, which doesn't bode well for him, either. Brock has played very well since taking over for the 10-year veteran three weeks ago after he suffered a knee injury against the Colts. But Brock did not play particularly well against Arizona.
If Asomugha remains inactive in the coming weeks, the writing might be on the wall for his brief career with the 49ers, opening up a roster spot for Wright.
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