Niners at the center of a problem

The 49ers are considering insurance plans at center, where two-time Pro Bowler Jeremy Newberry's recurring knee problems are casting a shadow of doubt on his 2005 season and perhaps even his career. The Niners aren't anxious to use talented rookie David Baas in the role - he is being groomed for regular duty elsewhere - so they must make preparations for the realistic possibility that Newberry's knee can't hold up.

Newberry, who said he was as healthy as he had been in several years following the 49ers' minicamp earlier this month, is having persistent problems in his troublesome right knee that swelled up again after recent practice sessions.

"There's not much cartilage left in that knee," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said.

Newberry, a seven-year veteran and the leader of the offensive line, missed 15 games last season with knee and back ailments. Without him, the 49ers'line struggled, surrendering 52 sacks and managing just 3.5 yards per rushing attempt.

Newberry was optimistic his problems had been solved, but he is again experiencing knee problems. He and Nolan have met with team doctors concerning his condition. Nolan said Newberry has a number of different options available, including resting the knee and hoping it improves on its own. Instead, Newberry has opted to have a surgical procedure later this week that will requre a recovery period of 8 to 10 weeks. Another option is for Newberry to undergo major surgery that would probably keep him sidelined the entire season, but Newberry declined to risk essentially sitting out a second consecutive season.

"He does want to play this year, so it does affect what his decision is," Nolan said. "We will minimize Jeremy's work during training camp to assist with his recovery. This should allow him the opportunity to play this season, something that Jeremy has stated he wants to do."

The 49ers do not have a proven backup behind Newberry currently on their roster. Last season, journeyman Brock Gutierrez started 15 games. Up to this point, the 49ers have not expressed any desire to re-sign Gutierrez, an unrestricted free agent.

The team has used guard Eric Heitmann at center during their organized team activities, and Nolan said the club plans to sign a veteran free agent.

"June 1st will be big for us," said Nolan, referring to the date that veterans are often released for salary-cap purposes.

WHEN THE 49ERS DRAFTED versatile offensive lineman Baas with the first pick of the second round, they figured they were getting a guard who could play right away while also serving as a backup center to Newberry. With Newberry's availability this season - or at least the start of the season - now in question, Nolan believes it is much too early to entrust Baas solely with the center position. The center is the leader of the offensive line, and must make all the line calls.

"I'd like to have experience at the center position," Nolan said. "I'd be nervous if that position was a rookie, but Baas will work in there."

Heitmann, who started all 16 games at left guard and has since been switched to right guard, is now taking first-team snaps at center. Scott Peters, who played seven games with the Giants in 2003 and spent most of last season on the 49ers' practice squad, is also seeing extensive time at center.

The 49ers are in the market for offensive linemen to add depth. Ideally, Nolan would like to find a proven center who can be signed for the right price.

"We are still looking to add an additional lineman or two," Nolan said. "A swing guy is what we want, to go between center and guard. Baas will do that in time, but right now it's safer to say he'll spend most of his time at guard."

If Heitmann proves he is the best option at center, the 49ers would likely start Baas at right guard and second-year player Justin Smiley at left guard. But it would also leave the team hopelessly thin on the offensive line before dipping into the veteran market for some depth.

JUST BECAUSE THE 49ERS' coaching staff and front office have changed, don't expect the organization to ever welcome back receiver Terrell Owens as long as Nolan is around.

When asked on the 49ers' flagship radio station, KNBR, whether Nolan would want Owens on his team, the coach said he does not believe Owens is the kind of a person who can fit into a team-first atmosphere.

"I don't think he's a good player for a team. It is a team sport and I believe Terrell is too much of an individual for my type of football team, anyhow," Nolan said. "I think he's a tremendous player but it is a team sport, and I'm looking for team guys right now as we put this thing together."

NOLAN HAD A CHANCE to sign veteran David Boston to a minimum-salary contract but ultimately decided that the embattled receiver did not fit into his idea of what he wanted his team to look like. Boston re-signed last week with the Dolphins.

"I just didn't think he'd fit what we're trying to do, building wise," Nolan said. "I was impressed with our meeting and had we not drafted anybody, we may have thought about it more seriously. As it turned out, we did take some in the draft, so numbers-wise we felt good. There's no sense of 'we didn't act quick enough' or anything."

CORNERBACK MIKE RUMPH, WHO missed 14 games last season, has finally returned to lifting weights after undergoing bone-graft surgery on his right forearm in April. Rumph sustained a season-ending broken arm Oct. 3 while trying to tackle Rams' running back Steven Jackson. The injury was not healing properly, which forced surgery as an alternative measure.

Rumph has faithfully attended every practice and meeting during the team's minicamps and organized team activities as the 49ers switch to a new 3-4 scheme. There is still a possibility Rumph will switch positions before the start of the season.

"I talked to coach (Mike) Nolan about it early on. I told him I thought I was a good corner and I wanted a chance to prove myself there," Rumph told "All Coach asked of me is would I consider making the move to safety. Throughout the process, I've been paying as much attention to both positions as I can. The bottom line is that I'll do whatever it takes for us to win."

WITH THE SWITCH TO the new 3-4 defense, the starting defensive ends of recent seasons find themselves in different spots. Rush end Andre Carter has been moved to outside linebacker, where his role will be as a pass-rush specialist. And John Engelberger finds himself battling for a roster spot.

Engelberger, who started 31 games the last two seasons, is considered too small to be an every-down defensive end in a 3-4. At about 265 pounds, Engelberger appears better-suited at defensive end in a 4-3. The 49ers signed free-agent Marques Douglas to be the starting defensive end. Douglas also has the versatility to move to the nose in pass-rush downs.

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