Peterson-less possibilities

Who benefits from Julian Peterson not being around the 49ers this spring? After considering the negative impact his absence may have on the team as a whole, there are some obvious answers to which individuals could prosper, and some not-so-obvious answers to whom actually would take his position on the field.

The Niners' first choice to fill in at Peterson's left outside linebacker spot appears to be Derek Smith, who was in that position when the 49ers were running their first-unit defense during team drills at their first spring minicamp.

That might seem like a strange choice, because Smith has become an integral part of San Francisco's improving defense as the team's middle linebacker, where he has led the Niners in tackles each of his three years with the team, including a franchise-record 189 last year.

But at this point, the Niners are more comfortable moving the versatile Smith there instead of flipping an athletic, speedy player such as Jamie Winborn or Saleem Rasheed from the right side, where those two have been groomed behind starter Jeff Ulbrich the past few years.

"If we were to start tomorrow, for example, Derek would move to where Julian was playing, Ulbrich would be in the middle and Jamie would play the weakside plugger," coach Dennis Erickson explained.

Although Winborn - with his sideline-to-sideline speed and flashy propensity for making big plays - would seemingly be a perfect fit for the play-making void left by Peterson's absence, the Niners would rather keep him on the right side and slide over their two other starters to the left.

"That's where Jamie plays," Erickson said. "We're not going to move him around a lot. The thing about Jamie is, sometimes we confuse him a little bit. The guy is a tremendous athlete that can run, so we put him in a position where he can make plays and do some different things."

Though the Niners have each of their linebackers learn multiple positions within the unit, Rasheed also has been groomed on the right side. Rasheed now is listed as Peterson's backup on the team's current depth chart, though he still was listed behind Ulbrich and Winborn on the right side just a few months ago on that same chart.

"I'm still playing the plugger," Rasheed said. "I've played some 'Buck' (Peterson's position), but the majority is at (plugger). But any of our linebackers, really, learn to play (multiple linebacker) positions."

The Niners also like fourth-round draft pick Richard Seigler at the weakside (right side) plugger position, meaning Rasheed likely will see extended time - along with Smith - on the left side during the team's upcoming June minicamps as the Niners prepare for a possible summer without Peterson in their defensive plan.

Peterson's absence also could provide a longer look for some of the promising undrafted rookie free-agent linebackers the team has signed this spring. That group includes Melvin Simmons, Greg Carothers, Pasha Jackson and Renauld Williams.

"It benefits all our linebackers because they're getting turns, really," Erickson said. "We're preparing ourselves with this group. This might be the group we have in the fall. Who knows that? All I can worry about are the guys that are here and try to prepare them for that game. Hopefully the Julian (contract) thing gets worked out, and if it does, that's great. And if it doesn't, then we play with the guys we have. That's what we're preparing ourselves for right now."

Said Winborn: "We obviously hope Julian can get back as soon as possible. But practice goes on. You have to learn. What happens if Julian's not there one day or something like that? So you have to prepare yourself regardless of the fact."


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