Changing landscape

The 49ers had barely announced the signing of Curtis Conway on Thursday before they slid his name to the top of the team's depth chart at split end. That may or may not indicate a starting position on a vastly inexperienced San Francisco receiving corps now is Conway's to lose, but the landscape at receiver definitely has changed with the 12th-year veteran on board.

Coach Dennis Erickson hasn't publicly announced he is handing a starting job to Conway, but the organization took the liberty of immediately pushing Conway's name to first on the depth chart ahead of incumbent Cedrick Wilson, who has impressed coaches with his commitment, had work and progress during the spring.

Though there are several different ways the team envisions Conway can help, Thursday's switcheroo in the projected starting lineup pretty much says Conway is being brought in to become a primary 2004 contributor.

"He has been a successful starter in the league," Erickson said. "Curtis will help us on and off the field, as a player and as a mentor to our young receivers."

There's no doubt the Niners need a veteran such as that to ease the transition to a new group of receivers featuring rookies Rashaun Woods and Derrick Hamilton and second-year players Brandon Lloyd and Arnaz Battle. The swift NFL indoctrination several of those receivers were expected to receive in 2004 will be pushed back now that Conway apparently has been suited for a featured role this season.

Conway, in fact, may just have become the top contender to fill the vacancy left by Terrell Owens as the team's No. 1 receiver. Many observers thought that role might fall to Brandon Lloyd, who's now listed as the starting flanker, or first-round draft pick Woods, who's now listed as Lloyd's backup.

Interestingly, third-round pick Hamilton and free agent Brian Poli-Dixon now are listed as the third-teamers at wide receivers, which makes one wonder about the status of Battle, whom Erickson said earlier this month would have an opportunity to push for a starting position. Battle was listed second behind Wilson at split end on the team's offseason depth chart.

"We've got a bunch of guys that are totally different type receivers," Wilson said. "You can break them down any kind of way that you want to. Each and every individual is good at what they do. And that's one thing as a receiver you want to do, you want to build a confidence level within yourself and do the things you feel you're good at and don't worry about anyone else."

If Conway steps in as expected, it may create a stronger possibility that the Niners will keep six receivers on their final 53-man roster. But even keeping six receivers will leave plenty of competition for the final spots among young prospects the team has been grooming such as Battle, Hamilton, Poli-Dixon, Arland Bruce and several undrafted rookie free agents who were signed to the roster this spring.

The Niners selected Woods with the 31st overall pick in the draft with the expectation he could become the team's No. 1 receiver, but the acquisition of Conway may buy the rookie more time to develop into that role.

"Of course, you have to realize that," Woods said. "But at the same time, you have to come out as if you're trying to win (a job) every single day. I felt pretty comfortable out there (in May minicamp). Obviously, I have a long way to go. But I'm confident I'll get it down."


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