Not many starting locks in May

The names began to roll off Mike Nolan's tongue. "Guys like Bryant Young, he's probably pretty much a lock," the 49ers coach said Sunday at the conclusion of the team's first full-squad minicamp. Nolan continued. Marques Douglas. Derek Smith. Jeff Ulbrich. But then Nolan paused. Besides a handful of veterans at other positions, that's where the list ends of 49ers who appear virtually assured in May of starting positions in September, with the competition for many of those jobs thrown wide open.

"Aside from that," Nolan said after naming those four defenders, "this football team has a lot of (competition), which is a good thing. This whole football team, I guess you could say, you can keep going through (to find competition for starting jobs)."

There a few other players Nolan didn't have to mention by name. Barring injury setbacks, two-time Pro Bowler Julian Peterson is going to join Smith and Ulbrich as starting linebackers in the team's new 3-4 defense. Two-time Pro Bowler Jeremy Newberry is going to be the team's starting center.

And it's safe to say that Jonas Jennings will be lining up at left tackle for the first offensive snap on Sept. 11 when the St. Louis Rams come to town for the season opener. Ditto Tony Parrish at strong safety.

But nobody else is completely safe. You'd think that holdover starters such as receiver Brandon Lloyd, cornerback Ahmed Plummer and tight end Eric Johnson would be, but Nolan didn't even appear too sure about that.

"There's a lot of competition at wide receiver; there is no clear-cut guy there," Nolan said, meaning Lloyd and Arnaz Battle – the current starters on the depth chart – will have to continue to assert themselves at one of the most unproven positions on the team.

And while, if completely healthy, Plummer and Mike Rumph would give the Niners potentially a pair of promising starting quarterbacks, that position also is a big question mark due to the injury history of both players and the fact the team still is tinkering with the idea of moving Rumph to free safety.

The team's marginal starter there at the moment is Dwaine Carpenter, who isn't likely to be there on opening day unless he shows a lot more development at the position between now and September than he has show during his first two seasons with the team.

"There will be a lot of competition in the secondary because we don't have a lot clear-cut guys," Nolan said. "There's a couple, but there's a lot of work to be done back there."

Ouch. The Niners are not happy with their secondary, which has been obvious since Nolan first began talking about team personnel in February. Veteran status isn't going to mean much back there. The Niners are going to challenge each of the 12 defensive backs on their roster – it's possible there could be another free-agent acquisition after June 1 – and they're going to give essentially each of them an opportunity. The best four will play, and that's that.

In the middle of the defensive line between ends Young and Douglas, Isaac Sopoaga and Anthony Adams are running neck-and-neck at noseguard, with rookie Ronnie Fields coming up on the outside. Adams started at defensive tackle last year, but Sopoaga has much better size for the noseguard position, and it looks like the team would like him to win the job if he continues to come along as he did this weekend. He'll have to be better than the more refined and experienced Adams, who won't give up the position easily, and that will be one of the best battles this summer for a starting job.

So will be the competition at right outside linebacker between Jamie Winborn and Andre Carter, two of the team's top impact performers who both have been regular starters before.

Nobody needs to talk about the quarterback position, where it's obvious the team doesn't know who it's starter will be until well into summer, and then perhaps not even until the end of the preseason if No. 1 pick Alex Smith develops enough to push incumbent Tim Rattay for the job. And don't look now, but Ken Dorsey threw his hat back in the ring with a strong performance over the weekend.

While again publicly acknowledging that incumbent tailback Kevan Barlow "is still our back," Nolan added, "but you need to shore that (tailback position) up. I think Frank Gore has shown that he'll, at least, give us a good situation at running back that we'll need. Terry Jackson is a very solid back as well. That's a good position where guys are going to play. That's a position that competition will be big."

And where will even bigger and better competition be taking place?

That's in front of the starting quarterback and tailback, where the team is completely revamping an offensive line that was a major weakness last year. Jennings and Newberry are starting locks, but nobody else is. Left guard Justin Smiley, right guard Eric Heitmann and right tackle Kwame Harris are currently penciled in as starters, but they could be replaced.

"The rookies that we brought in, (David) Baas and (Adam) Snyder, are going to compete there and make us better," Nolan said.

If kicker Joe Nedney and punter Andy Lee start getting a little too comfortable in their roles, even they can be challenged. And several players will be getting a legitimate shot to return kicks, since the Niners would like to give Battle more of an opportunity to concentrate on his duties as a receiver this season.

Last year at this time, even after losing 10 regulars from the season before, the 49ers didn't have nearly this much uncertainty in regards to who would be their starters.

It ultimately led to complacency at some positions, where some not-ready-for-prime-time players were handed starting positions by default because the team had no better options, and then the young players behind them on the depth chart weren't pushed hard enough by an unaffecting coaching staff to push those starters to get better or else lose their jobs.

You can be 100 percent sure that won't be the case this year. Welcome to the 2005 49ers, where starters will really have to earn their jobs, then be good enough to keep them.


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