Full-time Winborn better for 49ers?

If you're one of those people who has been arguing for years that the 49ers would be better with Jamie Winborn starting at linebacker, your wish has come true. But the flashy fourth-year veteran says not to expect anything different from him now that he's back in the starting lineup after the injury to Derek Smith.

Winborn says he'll be coming after opponents with the same all-out onslaught that he has been bringing off the bench the past two years. Which, of course, is the same fiery aggressiveness and intensity he brought as a starter in 2002 before a knee injury derailed that promising season and gave Jeff Ulbrich an opportunity to grab the starting slot at right-side linebacker that he has yet to relinquish.

"It doesn't change anything for me," Winborn told SFI on Thursday in regards to his first starting assignment since that 2002 knee injury. "I'll just be out there playing. In my mind, I've always been a starter. That's how I've always looked at it out there."

That's the way the Niners have looked at it, too. Since Smith and Winborn arrived on the scene in 2001 to join 2000 draft picks Ulbrich and Julian Peterson, the Niners have been claiming that they have four starters at linebacker, and they've been backing up that assertion by using them as such in a four-man rotation.

Well, actually, it's a three-man rotation. All-Pro Peterson mans the left side and rarely leaves the game as the Niners move him around to take advantage of his multiple talents. That leaves Winborn rotating on a regular basis with Ulbrich and Smith at the middle and right-side positions in what has become one of the NFL's strongest linebacker units.

But Smith won't be around to rotate the rest of this month. The team's leading tackler the past three seasons and again this year, Smith suffered ligament damage in his right ankle in last week's loss to St. Louis. He'll miss at least the next two games leading to San Francisco's Oct. 24 bye week.

That's fine with some people, who have been saying ever since Smith arrived that the Niners would be better with Ulbrich - a natural middle linebacker - moving inside and the speedy, playmaking Winborn filling in at his most natural position as the right-side "plugger" in San Francisco's 4-3 scheme.

That argument doesn't hold much credence, though, when one considers how much Smith has developed over the past two years. He set a franchise record with 189 tackles last year, when he also made major strides in coverage and as a playmaker who could do more than just plug the middle. Smith had a career-high 3.5 sacks last year and was much better in pass coverage (a career-high six passes defensed) than he was in 2001, when he could be exploited on pass downs.

Smith leads the Niners with 43 tackles this year - 13 more that Peterson, 15 more than Ulbrich and 27 more than Winborn - and was on his way to another huge year of production.

Still, Winborn offers a different dimension on an every-down basis. And his presence definitely softens the impact of Smith's loss.

"Derek's a great player," Winborn said. "But I'm going to get in there and bring what I bring to the game. I'm a speedy guy. That's what I do. A lot of my game is speed, really trying to get gas and just trying to cause disturbances and stuff like that."

Winborn has been doing that since he joined the Niners as their second-round draft pick in 2001. He started four games that season, then moved in as the starter on the right side to start the 2002 season. He began that year auspiciously, being named the NFC's Defensive Player of the Week after his awe-inspiring performance during San Francisco's season-opening win over the New York Giants.

Winborn's tally in that game: A career-high 16 tackles, three of them for losses, one sack and two passes batted away in coverage. It looked like Winborn was in the starting lineup to stay. But two weeks later, his season was ended by a knee injury. Ulbrich stepped in as the starter and hasn't relinquished the position since.

Now Ulbrich and Winborn will be working side-by-side on a regular basis the rest of this month without much rotation. Will the Niners be better for it? Well, they certainly don't figure to be worse.

"Derek's a great player and Jamie's a great player," Ulbrich said. "But (Winborn) definitely adds a blitzing presence there. He's a great blitzer, great in coverage. But then, Derek is, too, you know. That's what I think is so cool about our rotation. We all bring something to the table for an offense."

Niners coach Dennis Erickson wasn't going along with the idea the Niners are better with Winborn starting instead of Smith, either.

"When Derek Smith is not in there, you miss something," Erickson said. "You miss something on the field and off the field. There's no substitute for having him here. There really isn't. We're going to miss Derek in a lot of different ways."

But that said, Smith's absence won't necessarily hurt the Niners. Not with Winborn around.

"It really doesn't change anything we do," Erickson said. "As far as playing, Jamie will come in and play well."

It's what he's always done. It's what he's ready to do again - whether it's on the first defensive snap or alternating series thereafter.

"It's no big deal," Winborn said. "I've (started) before. I'll just go in and play plugger, do my thing and play my game."


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