Fields could hit it on nose for Niners

The first four players selected by the 49ers in the 2005 NFL draft will all be starters for the team someday. But fifth-round pick Ronald Fields might beat them to it. The burly rookie from Mississippi State, the biggest prospect ever drafted by the Niners at 322 pounds, may be the most ready-made player on the roster to handle noseguard in the team's new 3-4 defensive scheme, since holdover veterans Anthony Adams and Isaac Sopoaga will be learning the position on the fly this spring and summer.

Fields, on the contrary, starred as a two-gap tackle at Mississippi State, where he shifted between noseguard and right defensive tackle while making 36 starts during a four-year career that culminated with All-Southeastern Conference honors last season.

That experience – not to mention his skill at the position – could give Fields a nose up on the competition when the battle for starting honors at noseguard begins next Friday's at the Niners' three-day, full-squad minicamp.

Could Fields start for the Niners as a rookie?

"Sure he can, without a doubt," coach Mike Nolan said.

After trading away their fourth-round pick to move up in a late Day 1 draft move, the Niners were a bit surprised to see Fields still on the board when it came time for them to make their first pick of Day 2 at the top of the fifth round. Fields had been projected as a possible first-day pick by several prognosticators and was among the top 10 defensive tackles on most draft boards.

That allowed the Niners to grab a player of both high value and positional need, while also picking up another team captain/leader/high-character type coveted by Nolan.

But perhaps the biggest consideration in the selection is that Fields gives the Niners the closest thing they have on the roster to a true noseguard. There have been questions about Adams and Sopoaga since the moment Nolan announced in early February that the team would be switching its standard 4-3 defense to a 3-4 scheme.

"I think I would fit right in perfectly," Fields said. "A new team and new coaching staff doing some rebuilding in the 3-4. Yeah, I would be good in the 3-4 as a noseguard because that is what I am good at. I think I can come in and step up my game and play right away."

When Fields says play right away, he means as a starter. When asked if he saw himself easing into the role as a backup, Fields replied, "No, I'm aiming for a starting role."

He may be the one rookie of San Francisco's 11-player draft class who can challenge earliest for a starting role, because when Nolan says there will be open competition at noseguard, he really means it.

Adams, the starting left tackle in the team's old 4-3 last year, is a player who relies on quickness and seems too small to start on the nose at 6-foot and 300 pounds. Sopoaga has the size and power at 6-foot-2 and 321 pounds, but his technique still is so raw that sushi could qualify as a barbecued delicacy in comparison.

And besides, Sopoaga is something of a rookie himself after missing the enitre 2004 season with a broken vertebrae in his back. The previous 49ers regime knew it would take some time to develop Sopoaga when he was drafted in the fourth round last year; the new regime found that to be true at the team's minicamp for holdover veterans earlier this month.

Sopoaga often appeared lost and out of place in the new scheme during the three practice sessions on April 2-3, looking like a player who will have to be taught the position from scratch. He may be better when the pads go on and he can use his brawn, but at this point, he's still a project.

And, his health still is a major concern. After his unforeseen back problem of last year, which Sopoaga hid from team doctors before he was drafted, the Niners can't really be sure what to expect.

"Soaps has to stay healthy," Nolan said. "He's got a clean slate to work. He's been working great in the offseason. As a healthy player, he's extremely strong at the point of attack. I would expect him to play well for us. Again, it will remain to be seen. You have to be healthy to get on the field."

Nolan is well aware health isn't the only issue with Sopoaga.

"I would rather not say he's raw," Nolan said. "He's had a year to adapt. I expect him to be further along. Last year's injury set him back and you can say he's a rookie again, but he is strong at the point. The man has a lot to offer when he's out there. I would sure like to see him on the field. As stout as he is, they don't knock him off the ball."

The same, of course, can be said of Fields.

"He's very tough and can handle the toughness that goes on inside," Nolan said. "Ronald Fields, right now, I want to see how he will affect us on first and second down. A big, strong guy that can work into that rotation as a rookie would be great for us."

So would a big, strong guy who can start. That's a role that won't be handed to Fields, but – like a lot of positions on this team in 2005 – it is out there for his taking.

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