What we're learning about the 49ers

It's a start. The 49ers still have a long and arduous way to go on their 2005 journey to somewhere, but the team at least has an idea of what direction it's headed after a three-day minicamp that introduced the current roster of veterans to the new coaching regime and its schemes and philosophies. Here's a look back at the weekend that was before the Niners move forward.

--- After gathering Friday for the first team meeting conducted by coach Mike Nolan, then working out the kinks on the field during Saturday's two practices, Sunday's morning finale was much crisper than what took place the day before. "Much cleaner today," Nolan said. "We still got good energy, but it was cleaner as far as the mechanics and everything. Nice job by the guys."

--- Well, not all the guys. Of the 49 returning veterans from last year's final 53-man roster, eight 2004 starters did not participate in practice drills because of various injuries that, a full three months after the season, still are keeping them on the sidelines.

--- One of those starters is quarterback Tim Rattay, who's having minor complications with his surgically-repaired right foot. So much for Rattay's first chance to put his best foot forward in the race to be the team's starting quarterback this season.

--- It's fair to say Ken Dorsey and Cody Pickett did not exactly take advantage of the extra snaps they received in Rattay's absence.

--- Dorsey, perhaps bothered by a recent back ailment, uncorked a series of throws that can be described as nothing short of terrible. The kid has a certain presence in the pocket, but unless those sailing floaters and somersaulting ducks start turning into accurate spirals more often, he is going to fall out of favor with this coaching staff very quickly.

--- Pickett, for his part, sprayed passes all over the field for two straight days. His arm strength isn't in question. His accuracy and decision-making, however, remain big questions.

--- At least the mobile, athletic Pickett looked good turning upfield and escaping the pocket, which San Francisco quarterbacks were forced to attempt often last year with little success.

--- The protection should be considerably improved this year with Jonas Jennings around. The big left tackle, the team's expensive prize in free agency, looks to be all of that.

--- It's just practice in jerseys and helmets, but the wide-bodied Jennings simply engulfs defenders.

--- Conspicuous by his presence at and participation in a pass-protection drill that otherwise featured only offensive linemen: Kevan Barlow.

--- Maurice Hicks will face a serious challenge from somebody not yet on the roster to be Barlow's backup this year, but he certainly won't back down from that fight.

--- Hustling to and from drills – and, especially, in them – with fervor was, once again, the indomitable Bryant Young.

--- Derrick Hamilton already is showing off a lot of his physical skill to the new coaching staff, but he needs to start hanging onto passes more often if he expects to get off the bench or move up the depth chart – or stay on the roster, for that matter.

--- Pesky P.J. Fleck doesn't have that problem. The little scatterbug catches everything – even the tough throws. His size may limit him, but those hands and that quickness give him a legitimate chance.

--- And, finally, on those five young receivers on the roster: After one minicamp, it looks like Arnaz Battle might be the best of them all.

--- Now the Niners will have some fresh video on that group for comparison's sake when they bring in Michigan star Braylon Edwards for a visit to team headquarters on April 11.

--- Miami star cornerback Antrel Rolle also will be visiting the 49ers' facility that day. Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers will visit two days later, and the Niners expect to bring in about a dozen top prospects for visits before the draft.

--- But the team will be traveling for its first individual visit with an elite prospect. A 49ers contingent will travel to Utah on Tuesday to conduct a private workout with Utah quarterback Alex Smith.

--- To illustrate the point that, at this stage, this remains a nameless, shapeless team, the 49ers did not have their familiar "SF" decals on their helmets this weekend, practicing instead in gold shells that were augmented only by a black and red stripe down the middle.

--- Nolan said his players will have to work for those decals. "It's a little bit like a lot of teams do," he said. "When you get ready for that first preseason game, you kind of earn your stripes, so to speak, the decal goes on and you get your helmet."

--- The flip-flop is official: Eric Heitmann, the team's starting left guard the past three seasons, is now the starting right guard. Justin Smiley, who started nine games at right guard last year as a rookie, will take Heitmann's place on the left side.

--- Smiley was going to take Heitmann's place regardless, but the team was hoping to acquire Seattle veteran Chris Gray to become the starting right guard. That's not going to happen now, as Nolan expects Gray to re-sign with the Seahawks.

--- Where does this shuffling leave Kyle Kosier, the team's best offensive lineman last year? For now, starting at right tackle in place of Kwame Harris, who didn't practice because of injury. But Harris gets that job when he's healthy. The question is if he can keep it.

--- Isaac Sopoaga still is raw and has a lot to learn after spending his rookie season on injured reserve, but the Niners are going to force-feed him the finer details of the noseguard position with the determined hope he can contribute there in 2005.

--- For better or worse, the 3-4 defense is here to stay, and it's not going anywhere like last year, when it disappeared after a brief summer trial.

--- The starting 3 in that set as of today: Bryant Young at left end, Anthony Adams in the middle, and Tony Brown at right end.

--- Brown, a tweener defensive lineman at 6-foot-1 and 285 pounds, looks like he might be able to do some damage in this scheme.

--- You can say the same for Chris Cooper.

--- If you think linebacker Jamie Winborn could be undisciplined in the 4-3, wait until you see him flying around on the edge in the 3-4.

--- No need to worry about Julian Peterson being ready for the season. His lower left leg, significantly shrunk by atrophy in January after surgery to repair his Achilles tendon tear, is now looking healthy and almost back to regular size, which is amazing and a testament to how hard Peterson must be working on his rehab to get it there.

--- And, while he certainly is smart enough to not try to do too much too soon, Peterson definitely had a certain bounce in his step as he watched anxiously from the sidelines.

--- Dwaine Carpenter showed a lot more range and feel for the free safety position than he did last year when he kept getting moved back and forth between safety and cornerback.

--- That said, the 49ers need to bring in a legitimate veteran or high draft pick to challenge Carpenter at free safety, and they no doubt will.

--- Andy Lee's right leg is looking livelier than it did as a rookie last year.

--- And, as a whole, this bunch looked much livelier than it did the last time it was together. Amazing, isn't it, what the rebirth of spring can do.


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