The worrisome week that was

Things to wonder about while catching up on a worrisome week that was for the 49ers.

DERRICK HAMILTON WAS ONE of the primary reasons coach Mike Nolan was so pleasantly encouraged – and surprised – by the 49ers' young corps of receivers after the team's first month of workouts. Hamilton's progress and potential also factored into the decision to focus on other areas of need with the team's high draft picks instead of going after a potential game-breaking receiver with a Day 1 selection.

So, yes, it was a blow to the Niners' plans at the position when Hamilton went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during an "organized team activity" practice Wednesday, mainly because the team was counting on Hamilton – with his rangy size and long-striding, slashing speed – to provide a dimension San Francisco doesn't have with any other receiver currently on the roster.

But the loss of Hamilton, probably for the entire 2005 season, shouldn't be over-emphasized. The fact is, the Niners were calling him their preliminary No. 3 receiver at this point based primarily on his potential rather than production. While Hamilton has added some polish to his game, he still remained raw, and it was his athleticism and potential to stretch defenses that intrigued the team's new coaching staff, not the fact he had established himself as a capable receiver.

Before he was hurt, Hamilton still was having problems latching onto passes consistently in practice, and that's usually the No. 1 criteria for a receiver establishing himself on the depth chart. While Hamilton very well could have moved into the No. 3 role Nolan had talked about for him during the team's May minicamp, he hardly had secured that slot in the offensive game plan at this point, and it was going to take some big improvement from Hamilton in upcoming months for him to be there by the start of the season.

HAMILTON WILL UNDERGO SURGERY some time next week, after the swelling subsides in his knee and doctors get a better idea how severe the tear is. On the day Hamilton was hurt, Nolan said "we hope his recovery allows him to contribute at some point in 2005," but nobody should count on that happening, particularly if his injury is a complete ACL tear.

The Niners will know better of Hamilton's status after his surgery, but it's probably a good idea to scratch him from their 2005 plans right now, since he'll be working on a wounded appendage even if he is somehow able to come back in November or December – after missing six months of instruction and experience that he desperately needs to develop. No, any ideas of Hamilton being a factor on this team should be shelved until 2006.

That's unfortunate, but it's realistic. The fact is, the Niners were going to need to bring in another experienced veteran receiver in June anyway to compete with Hamilton and Rashaun Woods and, probably, move ahead of each of them for the No. 3 role behind projected starters Arnaz Battle and Brandon Lloyd.

Nolan himself said, "(wide receiver) was on the list before (Hamilton's) injury and it will remain on the list," of pressing needs the Niners need to fill in the final phase of free agency that begins after June 1 cuts. "I guess that you could say (Hamilton's injury) pressed the issue a little further."

But not really. If the Niners planned on going into training camp with their current collection of young receivers, they were fooling themselves. They have to add a veteran who has had some measure of NFL production – and that was case even before Hamilton was hurt.

THE NINERS BEGAN THAT search Friday when they brought in three-year veteran Jason McAddley, formerly of the Tennessee Titans, for a workout and physical. But they're looking for a veteran with a longer track record of proven NFL production. Expect the team to wait until after all the June 1 cuts before it makes any decisions on which receiver to sign. Or, now that there's a whole new slot to fill in the receiving pecking order, that could be receivers, as in plural. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and if the Niners aren't feeling just a little desperate at receiver right now, they should be.

OF COURSE, WOODS COULD change all that in a hurry by finally stepping up and asserting himself as the talented, legitimate receiver he was supposed to be after the Niners drafted him in the first round last year.

While Woods was publicly dogged earlier this month when Nolan basically said he still considered him a rookie, while also indicating Hamilton and P.J. Fleck have moved ahead of Woods on the depth chart, some team insiders believe that was only a façade to light a fire under the disturbingly lackadaisical Woods and push him to contend for a starting role or, at the very least, the No. 3 job.

Physically speaking, Woods still has looked like a better, more polished receiver than either Hamilton or Fleck this spring. But Woods' problems appear to be all mental. To the angst of coaches, he still runs the wrong routes, still looks confused in the passing lanes, sometimes not even looking back for passes at the right time as defenders swoop in to intercept them.

It's both puzzling and unsettling to see Woods' lack of development, particular now that receivers coach Jerry Sullivan is on the scene, but the 49ers aren't going to soft-glove him. By publicly declaring that he may currently be no better than the team's No. 5 receiver, the 49ers have challenged Woods to finally begin tapping his potential.

The view from here is that, privately, the team has expected Woods to be its top contender for the No. 3 role all along, and even challenge for the starting lineup as soon as the second-year pro finally "gets it," which is one thing nobody can do for him.

EVERYBODY CAN AT LEAST rest easy that Nolan steered clear of the Jerry Rice shenanigans from the get-go, saying he'd welcome Rice back into the 49er fold to retire as a Niner, but that Rice had no place among the team's young, growing group of receivers.

Just imagine what, after Hamilton's injury, the clamor to bring back Rice would be like now if he still were available.

Of course, the greatest receiver of all time no longer is on the market, having signed a one-year deal with the Denver Broncos on Wednesday around the exact same time Hamilton was injured.

There are a lot of people out there who believe Rice could have helped this team at receiver even before Hamilton went down. But, people, please try and believe that is not the case.

As a receiver, Rice would have been a distraction who would have not helped this team move forward. Believe me, having been around his greatness in San Francisco for more than a decade, there is no way Rice would have kept silent as a good guy playing a complementary role to this group of young 49ers receivers. There would have been dissent along the way. Guaranteed. And Nolan knows it. You should, too.

So now Rice willingly signs on as a projected No. 4 receiver in Denver. Folks, this is not going to turn out pretty. At 42, Rice might not even make it out of training camp with the Broncos. If he does, he'll be mostly riding the bench watching the action inside the white lines. What is this guy thinking? What is Denver coach Mike Shanahan thinking?

Here's what the situation had deteriorated into for Rice: His agent, Jim Steiner, was sending out form letters to all NFL teams notifying them that the "GOAT" – as in Greatest Of All Time – was available. And still, there were no takers until Shanahan – the Niners' offensive coordinator from 1992-1994 when Rice was in his true superstar form – decided to throw his old buddy a bone.

And some bone that was – the promise of competing for a No. 4 role in Denver.

From this viewpoint, there is only one way to summarize: Jerry Rice deserves better, and this is a sorry way for him to go out

ALSO SCHEDULED FOR KNEE surgery next week is the indomitable Jeremy Newberry and, as much as this guy is a stalwart stud who can play with pain, it would not be a bad idea for the Niners to start making plans for 2005 without the two-time Pro Bowler, too.

In fact, the Niners perhaps should be getting in the mindset of making permanent plans without Newberry.

Let's face it. Newberry's right knee is shot. You've got to have knees to play in the NFL, and even Newberry admits that his right one doesn't "have a lot of cartilage left."

For a lineman, that wouldn't necessarily be a career-ending problem, because the knee braces and taping procedures of today can do wonders to hold together a surgically-repaired knee. But pain is another thing. And Newberry again is experiencing excruciating pain in his knee, and this after just a few spring practices in shorts and helmets.

This is ominous news for the big guy – and the Niners. Because of the cartilage problem, Newberry's kneecap is slipping out of place. He had the same problem last year, and he had surgery to stabilize it after playing in the season opener, but never was able to make it back on the field again.

Now, after resting an entire offseason, the kneecap slips out of place again after a few practices, and Newberry again will undergo surgery to attempt to stabilize the knee. Doctors have given him a 50-50 chance of playing this season.

Those are beginning to sound like the same odds his career may be over. If next week's procedure fails to correct the problem, Newberry is looking at another major surgery to repair the knee – a procedure that will definitely throw out his entire 2005 season – and if that fails, there may not be any other alternatives.

AFTER NEWBERRY'S LATEST SETBACK, the 49ers have been testing Eric Heitmann – their starting left guard the past three seasons – at center in his place. This could be an experiment that saves the cohesion of a young, developing line that could be much better than people expect even if Newberry can't make it back.

Heitmann has taken backup snaps at center since his rookie season, and he knows the position well. He's no Newberry, to be sure, but he potentially could be more than just a stopgap measure at the position, as Brock Gutierrez was last year, when he was forced to start the final 15 games at center in Newberry's place, with results that were less than positive.

The Niners will look to bring in more help for the offensive line after June 1 cuts, but they may have already found their starting replacement for Newberry if he can't make it back. And if he can? All the better. Heitmann will have the rest of this spring and early summer to learn the position and be ready if and when the injury bug hits Newberry again.

And don't think for a minute that moving Heitmann – currently listed as the team's starting right guard – will hurt the team at guard. Rookie David Baas already is competing head-to-head with Heitmann at that position, and he could slide smoothly into the starting lineup by the time September rolls around.

Any line configuration is better with Newberry in it. But the Niners aren't necessarily doomed if he can't make it back to be part of the group.


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