Training camp battleground: Linebacker
If and when All-Pro linebacker Julian Peterson returns to the team at some point in August or early September, the Niners will have a serious and consequential decision to make: Do they send Jamie Winborn back to the bench? Entering training camp, with Peterson an expected holdout due to contract issues, the Niners have slid their starting linebackers over to the left, moving productive middle linebacker Derek Smith to Peterson's left outside position, pushing Jeff Ulbrich over to Smith's usual position and moving the play-making Winborn into Ulbrich's starting slot at right inside linebacker. This all looked fine and well during spring drills, and the Niners still would be formidable at linebacker if they were to begin the season with this group of starters. Of course, they are expecting - and hoping - that Peterson, arguably the team's best player, will be back in the lineup and ready to roll by the season opener. That would leave the steady Ulbrich and the flashy Winborn once again battling it out for the starting slot on the right side. Both are of starting caliber, but Winborn is a unique player who can have a dramatic impact on games. Still, Ulbrich has played well enough for two years to hold onto the starting position, and he - like Winborn - just keeps getting better. Ulbrich had has best season as a pro last year, starting 15 games and recording career highs in tackles (138), sacks (2.5) and passes defensed (6). He is a heady and aggressive player. But Winborn can be a defensive demon when he is healthy. He earned NFC defensive player of the week honors after his monster 16-tackle game in San Francisco's 2002 season opener against the New York Giants, only to see his season end due to a knee injury two weeks later. Last year - though he didn't start any games - Winborn had career-high totals of 61 tackles, three sacks and five passes defensed in just nine games before his season was stopped by a career-threatening neck injury, a setback from which he now appears to be fully recovered. The Niners like to say they have four starting linebackers - and Winborn probably played as much as the starting three last year when he was healthy - but it again will be a significant issue this summer whether it's best to keep Winborn or Ulbrich on the bench at the beginning of games.
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