Training camp sleepers

The 2004 49ers are a team in transition, and there are several unheralded players on San Francisco's training camp roster that could surprise this summer by making serious bids for roster berths or, in some cases, significant playing time once the season begins in September. Here, SFI identifies and examines some of the top candidates who could come alive once camp opens at the end of this month.

JASEN ISOM: The hard-nosed fullback spent 12 games on the practice squad last year and four games on the 53-man roster, though he saw action in only one game and has yet to carry the ball in an NFL game. While he certainly doesn't have a roster berth assured this time around, Isom could be the unheralded young veteran most likely to burst onto the scene and play a prominent role with the Niners this season, even though it will be tough to get much action at fullback behind Pro Bowl starter Fred Beasley. But Isom has impressed coaches this spring, just as he did last season, and he is the top candidate to win the backup fullback role behind Beasley. If he does that, expect to see Isom flying around regularly on special teams each Sunday this fall - and perhaps also in some offensive situations. "In my opinion, Jasen Isom could start a lot of places in this league," 49ers running backs coach Tim Lappano said. "He's 250 pounds, he catches the ball well, he can run routes, he's out here sitting up on guys and he's a great lead blocker. He's a hammer-type guy, but he's also athletic and he's got good feet."

ADAM HERZING: Here's a guy who, after being signed to the 49ers' practice squad for the final week of last season, actually asked the Niners if he could be one of their allocations to NFL Europe this spring so that he could have an opportunity to display his ability in game situations. Herzing was on Indianapolis' practice squad in 2002, then was out all of the 2003 season before the Niners picked him up in late December, but he tore it up when given the chance in NFL Europe. Herzing was the star of an otherwise struggling Rhein Fire team, leading the league with 656 receiving yards and finishing second in the league with 49 receptions. The Niners already liked the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Herzing to begin with, and he has been a regular participant in workouts at team headquarters since the NFL Europe season ended in June. An All-NFL Europe selection, Herzing will be in midseason form when training camp begins, and there certainly are some open roster berths at receiver for which he can compete.

KHIAWATHA DOWNEY: Despite excellent potential and his standout performance at the Division II level, the Niners were the only NFL team to offer Downey a tryout after he went undrafted this spring, and they promptly signed him to a contract after getting a look at the 340-pound offensive lineman in May. Downey is believed to be the first player to sign with a NFL team after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis before entering the league, which obviously scared off other teams. But Downey displayed undeniable talent this spring to go along with his imposing size, and he also is versatile enough to play virtually every position along the line. The Niners released veteran guard/tackle Greg Randall in June, so that moves Downey up the depth chart and increases his chances of making the team and becoming a factor.

JASON WRIGHT: The shifty 5-foot-10, 210-pound running back probably is the team's top undrafted rookie free agent, and he was impressive immediately at the team's first spring minicamp in May before injuring his hamstring. Wright couldn't participate in June minicamps because his class at Northwestern still was in session, which allowed veterans Jamal Robertson and Terry Jackson more time to shine during team drills, but Wright is a legitimate challenger to those two for the backup role at tailback behind starter Kevan Barlow. The former receiver, who produced two of the best rushing seasons in Northwestern history, has big-play ability, and that could earn him a place in San Francisco's offensive plans.

MELVIN SIMMONS: There aren't many - if any - openings at linebacker, the team's strongest and deepest position, and Simmons is competing with a strong group of other undrafted rookie free agents such as Greg Carothers, Renauld Williams and Pasha Jackson just to get a look in practice situations. But Simmons' read, react and fly to the football style fits San Francisco's system perfectly, and he could make it difficult for the Niners to leave him off their roster if he performs in pads the same way he did while learning the ropes this spring.

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