Flanigan freefalls during final cuts

Jim Flanigan fell all the way from the top of the depth chart at the start of August to off the 49ers roster at the end of the month. Paul Smith's demise was even more immediate, with a high ankle sprain suffered Friday no doubt sabotaging his future with the team. Flanigan and Smith - along with fourth-year safety John Keith - were the biggest and most surprising names of the 20 the Niners loped off their roster on Sunday to get down to the NFL-mandated 53-player limit for the regular season.

In other key roster decisions, the Niners opted not to keep four quarterbacks and released Brandon Doman, went with Dwaine Carpenter over Keith as their fourth safety, and will go with Arland Bruce - the sixth receiver on the roster - to return punts and kickoffs when the regular season begins.

Flanigan entered training camp as the Niners' starting defensive tackle opposite Pro Bowl performer Bryant Young. He remained there in the early going even after he started missing practice with calf problems. But as rookie Anthony Adams finally took Flanigan's spot atop the depth chart, and Travis Kirschke displayed that he could contribute as a third tackle in the rotation, the Niners made the move to part ways with Flanigan, who was questionable to play in next week's season opener against the Chicago Bears.

Because of his veteran status, the 49ers terminated Flanigan instead of placing him on waivers. He is free go sign with any NFL team, and Niners coach Dennis Erickson said it's possible he could even be brought back by San Francisco.

"Jim obviously hasn't been able to do much in camp," Erickson said early Sunday afternoon. "We just felt right now, at this time, it was best to terminate him. We left the door open, but who knows what will happen down the road?"

Erickson indicated there still could be several moves to come as the Niners shape their final roster.

"I'm sure there's going to be some things happening in the next couple of days," Erickson said. "I don't know if this roster will be set for a week or two."

The other players the Niners released Sunday were tight end Gabriel Crecion, punter Jeff Crowell, guard Alonzo Cunningham, offensive tackle Jerome Davis, defensive tackles Charles Hill and John Nix, cornerbacks Joselio Hanson and Antuan Simmons, fullbacks Jason Isom and Matt Stanley, linebackers Masafumi Kawaguchi and Ray Wells, receiver James Jordan and center/guard Rob Murphy.

The Niners also waived linebacker Cornelius Anthony and guard/center Craig Osika, but must reach injury settlements with both players.

Erickson said Doman, Keith, Smith and Jordan were among the toughest cuts the team had to make.

Smith suffered a high ankle sprain covering the opening kickoff in Friday's preseason finale at San Diego, a condition that was expected to keep him out 6 to 8 weeks. Smith also missed considerable time during training camp due to injuries, just as he has throughout his four-year career with the team.

"Paul's been hurt off and on," Erickson said. "As it turns out, the injuries just set him back so far that we weren't able to keep him."

The Niners plan to have Bruce return kickoffs and punts to open the season instead of Jimmy Williams, who was the NFL's leading punt returner 2002. Williams - who is coming back from knee surgery - will concentrate on playing cornerback as he continues his gradual comeback from the injury.

"Right now, our game plan is to go with Arland. He's explosive and he'll be returning both (kickoffs and punts)," Erickson said. "Jimmy will be a backup at both positions, and he'll focus on cornerback. I don't know if he's 100 percent (as a returner) yet. I don't know that he has the explosiveness he had last year. We really like Arland, and we decided to go with him."

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