Battle ready to run with WR role?

Arnaz Battle sits atop the 49ers' depth chart at flanker as the team prepares for its getting-to-know-you minicamp this weekend. Does the new Niners' coaching regime know something the old one didn't? Even though Battle was a force on special teams last year, the 49ers could have made much better use of his skills at WR, which appears to be in the plans for 2005. "I've got faith in whatever role they place upon me," Battle said, "but I would think that I would get more time at wide receiver."

"But you never know," the third-year veteran added.

Battle should get a pretty good indication when the Niners hit the field Saturday for the first of three weekend practice sessions. The team will not practice Friday, when the 49ers will gather for physicals and the first official team meeting under the direction of new coach Mike Nolan.

A lot has been made during the offseason regarding the 49ers' lack of go-to receivers, but Battle was pretty impressive last year whenever he had the football in his hands as a receiver. He averaged 17.9 yards on his eight receptions, by far the best average on the team for anybody with that many or more catches. His 65-yard catch-and-run to set up a touchdown against the New York Jets was one of San Francisco's most spectacular passing plays of the season.

Yet, the Niners were in a quandary all season about exactly what was the best way to use Battle as he came into his own after an injury-plagued rookie season of 2003. Former coach Dennis Erickson talked throughout the season about getting Battle more involved as a receiver, but it never really happened on game day.

The team's rotation of receivers – which included starters Cedrick Wilson and Brandon Lloyd, No. 3 Curtis Conway and some brief cameos by first-round draft pick Rashaun Woods – often seemed inconsistent and confused during the course of the season as no individual stood out from the others.

The problem, as far as Battle was concerned? The team was reluctant to make more regular use of him at receiver because of what he brought to the team in other areas.

Battle was a star on San Francisco's special teams, the only unit of the team that did not under-perform in 2004. Battle was a big reason for that, ranking sixth in the NFC in punt returns with an 8.9 average, including a 71-yard touchdown return that sparked the Niners to one of their two victories last year.

Battle also occasionally returned kickoffs (13 for a 19.8 average), and he was a terror as the gunner on coverage teams, finishing the season fourth on the Niners with 16 special teams tackles.

He was always ready for more extensive action at receiver, but admitted it was difficult to focus on that aspect while being used so integrally on special teams.

"Special teams take a lot out of you," Battle said. "It definitely takes its toll on you. It's kind of difficult because (last) year I was so crucial as far as the special teams standpoint, as far as coverage, being a returner. (2004) was my first year, really, in a full role as a special teams player. I think that was a stepping stone for me. But, I was so crucial as far as contributing on special teams that you never know what they want my role to be."

Battle should begin getting a little more clarity on that this spring. Though there is talk about taking Michigan's Braylon Edwards with the overall No. 1 pick or bringing in some other hotshot college star high in the draft, or perhaps signing troubled but talented veteran David Boston after the draft, Nolan and Co. will take a long look first at the receiving talent on hand before making those decisions later in April.

It may not mean much at this point, but Battle's name has been moved to where Wilson's used to sit in the team's pecking order at flanker. Wilson left the Niners earlier this month via free agency to sign a four-year, $8 million deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers, leaving a void among San Francisco's front-line receivers.

And, in perhaps another telling sign, Battle also is listed as the top backup at split end behind starter Lloyd. Woods and 2004 third-round pick Derrick Hamilton – both of whom have plenty to show the new coaching staff after their disappointing rookie seasons – each are currently listed third on the depth chart.

At 6-foot-1 and 217 pounds, Battle runs routes with power and has an explosive burst after catching the ball. He made notable progress as a receiver in 2004 despite his concentration on other areas. This year, he's going to concentrate on receiver first as the early spring months play out .

When SFI asked if it was time now for Battle to focus more on playing receiver, he responded, "Well, yeah, I think so. I got limited reps at receiver (last year). I (got) some learning experiences from that, a couple of catches, getting more in the offensive role.

"But this offseason is going to be key for myself to better myself as a receiver – my routes, catching it, and working with the quarterbacks. I think it just comes with work, running routes, catching the ball, working with those guys. Just whatever – getting any kinds of tips that I can is going to help me out as a receiver, and watching film as well."

Nolan has tossed around the term "open competition" frequently the past few months, and it will apply to practically every area of the roster.

It will definitely apply to receiver, where the 49ers are looking for a big upgrade from a unit that got only 47 (Wilson) and 43 (Lloyd) receptions, respectively, from its starting receivers last year.

The Niners might have some of that upgrade already on their roster. The team appears intent on finding out if that's the case with Battle.

"It's a good problem for myself, being able to do so many things, because it keeps me employed," Battle said, smiling. "Covering kicks, returning (kicks), playing receiver – I'm just taking whatever role they give me, and I'm going to run with it."


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