--- Jamal Robertson vs. Maurice Hicks: One of these guys will leave Thursday evening as the 49ers leading rusher in the preseason, and one of them will be anointed shortly thereafter as Kevan Barlow's backup. All signs point to it being Robertson, who can finish as San Francisco's leading preseason rusher for the third consecutive year. The Niners would really have to see something special out of Hicks to keep him over Robertson – there's a slim chance both could make the final roster – but coaches insist the competition between the two still has yet to be decided. --- Andy Lee vs. himself: The Niners took the pressure of Lee when they dumped Andy Groom – Lee's competition in training camp – during their first roster cutdown to 65 players. Lee definitely out-punted Groom during the summer, but he has been only a marginal performer at best in preseason games. The Niners want him to be their punter, and they've handed him the position, but if Lee bombs again in the notorious late-evening conditions at Candlestick Park, the Niners will at least have to consider some of the several veteran punters that will be available on Sunday after other teams make their final cuts. Of course, if Lee continues the progress he displayed in a domed stadium last week, it's a moot issue and he's the man. --- Saleem Rasheed vs. Renauld Williams: Yes, this is what it has come down to for Rasheed, who arrived with such promise and high expectations as a third-round pick in 2002. He must now beat out an undrafted rookie free agent to make the team, and that's no sure thing, because Williams has played just as well in less action during the preseason. He also has remained healthy, a condition that has eluded Rasheed again this summer, just like during most of his 49ers career. And Williams would come cheaper, too, on a team that will have an eye on its salary-cap bottom line when it's making tail-end roster cuts. There's a chance the Niners will keep only six linebackers, which means both of these guys will go, because the six backers ahead of them are roster locks. --- Justin Smiley vs. Kyle Kosier: Entering September, there is only one position in the Niners' entire starting lineup that has yet to be decided, and one of these guys will be the choice at right guard before the week is over. It's a tough call because both players have something to offer on a unit that is going to be a big key to the Niners' season. Kosier has more experience and polish at the pro level, but Smiley has shown such flashes of brilliance lately that the Niners decided to take this fight down to the final round. It seems inevitable that Smiley will be the starter here by October at the latest, but the Niners won't just hand him the position in September unless they truly feel he is ready and a better option than Kosier. Thursday's game will be another chance to show he is. --- P.J. Fleck vs. Adam Herzing vs. Bosley Allen: To be sure, Fleck has out-performed some of the receivers ahead of him on the depth chart this summer, making lunging grabs and smart decisions and generally displaying that unheralded little guys can make plays in this big-man's game. But the Niners appear committed – for several reasons – to keeping third-round draft pick Derrick Hamilton as their sixth receiver behind roster locks Brandon Lloyd, Cedrick Wilson, Curtis Conway, Arnaz Battle and Rashaun Woods. But Fleck would appear a perfect candidate for the practice squad, where Herzing ended the season last year. Herzing is steady with sure hands and also has more experience and polish than some of San Francisco's rookies, so it will be interesting to see what the Niners will do at the bottom of their receiving depth chart. Allen has no chance to break this unit and is still around only because he has an NFL Europe roster exemption. --- Gabe Crecion vs. Kevin Ware: Will the 49ers keep three tight ends? They might not, particularly since they are committed to keeping six receivers. If they do, Crecion has the clear edge, given his fine performance as a receiver so far in the preseason and Ware's injuries since joining the team in August, which will keep him out of action again Thursday. --- Dwayne Ledford vs. Scott Rehberg vs. Jerome Davis vs. Rob Murphy: If the Niners keep nine offensive linemen, Ledford is a lock, and he probably is even if the team keeps just eight. But if eight is the number, the latter three are in trouble. Davis returned to practice this week and will try to make waves again as a backup tackle, but it might already be too late. --- Riddick Parker vs. Josh Shaw vs. Christian Ferrara. It shows you how thin the Niners really are at defensive tackle that one of these players could be the team's fourth player at the position when the season starts because rookie Isaac Sopoaga will be put on injured reserve due to his back problems and miss the season. The Niners really would like to see someone step up here, but that really hasn't happened so far. They'd rather not pay Parker's veteran salary to be a distant backup, but they may have no choice, given the performance of others. Ferrera, the last of the team's 10 draft picks this spring, didn't even play in last week's game at Minnesota – not a good sign at this weak spot. A realistic possibility – particularly if these guys fail to impress Thursday – is that neither makes the team and the Niners pick up a fourth tackle that is discarded by another team after Sunday's cutdowns. --- Josh Cooper vs. Chris Demaree: These two young defensive ends haven't been bad this summer. Cooper, in fact, has the only sack by a Niners defensive lineman so far in the preseason – which probably tells you more about the defensive line than Cooper. The biggest hope for these guys is the Niners could be desperate for a third defensive end when the season begins in 11 days with Andrew Williams out until the end of the month and Brandon Whiting's status increasingly uncertain, to say the very least. --- Joselio Hansen vs. Mike Adams: If the Niners keep five cornerbacks – and they might – these two guys are the leading candidates, and a shining performance by either could persuade the team to go heavy at the position.
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