Openings for the unknown

Names such as Jason Wright, Melvin Simmons and Ronald Jones might not mean much right now to the casual 49ers observer. They are among the relatively unknown on the San Francisco roster, undrafted rookie free agents who don't have the glamour and reputation of the team's draft picks. But by the end of this summer, some are likely to have jobs with the Niners and be anonymous no longer.

"It's a pretty good group," coach Dennis Erickson said. "I thought all the free agents we signed were athletic and will compete in camp."

Practically every summer a few unheralded players emerge from the pool of rookie free agents the Niners sign to contracts during the frantic hours immediately following the draft's conclusion. General manager Terry Donahue calls it the eighth round, and plenty of players who expected to be drafted still are lingering unattached. The Niners don't hesitate to grab as many as they can, particularly players in which they are interested at positions that the team didn't fully address in the draft.

Most ultimately are training camp fodder, but there are the notable occasions when some make the roster and develop into quality players, with offensive tackle Derrick Deese and safety Zack Bronson the best recent examples. On the current roster, safety Ronnie Heard and linebacker Brandon Moore also made the team in their rookie seasons as undrafted free agents, and that pair now has six years of NFL experience between them.

That's particularly relevant for the Niners this year, because there may be several roster berths available for undrafted rookies on a team that's experiencing an overhaul and on the make for fresh young talent.

Wright, a running back from Northwestern, and Simmons, a linebacker from USC, drew specific mention from Erickson for their performance in the Niners' first spring minicamp earlier this month. Both are legitimate candidates to make the team, with Wright a strong challenger to become Kevin Barlow's backup at tailback and Simmons a contender in a cramped field at linebacker.

Wright, in fact, displayed skills catching the ball and running in open spaces that have the Niners eager to see what he can do in pads this summer. The owner of two of the best rushing seasons in Northwestern history, Wright was highly regarded by the Niners, who signed him to a three-year contract. Unlike most of the undrafted rookies, Wright received a $15,000 bonus from the team.

Even though linebacker is the strongest unit on the team now, the Niners still are looking for depth at the position because they plan to make more use of the 3-4 defensive scheme this year. That could leave an opening for Simmons or some of the other well-regarded undrafted rookies on the roster. That list includes Washington's Greg Carothers, Hofstra's Renauld Williams and Oklahoma's big Pasha Jackson - all of whom had varying degrees of considerable success in college.

Penn State's Tony Johnson - who hopes to join brothers Larry and Bryant in the pros - and Northern Illinois' P.J. Fleck are attempting to make a wedge in the open competition among the multiple new faces at receiver. Fleck made an impression in the May minicamp by tying defending champion Brandon Doman to win the team's annual endurance 'beep' test.

Tight end Kevin Zureki, center Norm Katnik, kicker Kirk Yliniemi, defensive backs Mike Adams and Lawrence Turner and defensive ends Jones and Josh Cooper are others who appear assured of making it to training camp in July and could get a long look once there.

More new faces could be joining them in the near future.

"Things will change," Erickson said. "Our roster will change in (late May and early June) depending on what we do after the first of June - as far as this team is concerned - or what we financially can do after the first of June. We're always looking to make it better, whether it be in a free agent or just improving our college free agents. If there is a guy out there that is better than a guy here, then we may make a change so that we have as quality of players as we can have when we start training camp."

Niners Digest Top Stories