Putting projected starters in their place: Part I
24 – C Eric Heitmann: Jeremy Newberry won't be ready for the start of training camp, and also might not be ready for the start of the season, which means Heitmann – currently No. 1 on the team's depth chart at right guard – will move over and be the starting center. Heitmann handled the switch well during the final weeks of the team's spring workouts, but he's an unknown quantity at center after starting at left guard his first three NFL seasons. 23 – LG Justin Smiley: The switch to the left side should better accentuate Smiley's skills after a rocky NFL debut last year at right guard. He needs to get stronger and work on his pass blocking to be effective after a rookie season during which he experienced some rough on-the-job training during his nine starts. The potential is there; now it's time for Smiley to realize it. 22 – NG Anthony Adams: Adams had his moments as a starting defensive tackle last year, but he appears a little undersized at noseguard, and how well he holds up at the position will be key in the team's new defensive scheme. He'll have to rely on quickness and leverage, and also will get in-house competition at the position from youngsters Isaac Sopoaga and Ronnie Fields. 21 – RG David Baas: Baas could have future Pro Bowl potential, but it's not easy even for highly-regarded rookies to step in and immediately rule in the NFL trenches. Just ask Smiley. Baas could zoom up this list as the season progresses, but right now – considering he figures to be one of the team's few rookie starters – it's not fair or accurate to rank him any higher. 20 – RT Kwame Harris: It's put-up time for the team's 2003 first-round draft pick who has yet to live up to his potential so far during two pro seasons. The move back to the right side – where he played in college and high school – could bring out the best in Harris and best highlight his solid run-blocking skills. But after missing spring workouts due to shoulder surgery, he still has a lot to prove, and third-round draft pick Adam Snyder is lurking if Harris again struggles. Note that offensive linemen hold down four positions in the bottom five in these rankings, a reflection of a unit in transition that was one of the NFL's worst last season after being one of the league's best so many seasons before that. 19 – RC Shawntae Spencer: He was San Francisco's best healthy cornerback by the end of his rookie season last year, and the 2004 second-round draft pick could continue that progress on the edge this season. But right now, he still is learning on the job, though his cover skills already might be the best on the team. After producing a solid pro debut last year – perhaps the best of the team's rookies – Spencer will be striving for consistency when the real work begins in July. 18 – P Andy Lee: The 49ers couldn't have asked for much more from their 2004 sixth-round draft choice as a rookie last year, as Lee added the kind of stability at punter the team hadn't seen in at least six seasons. He ranked 10th among NFC punters with a 41.6 average, hitting at least one 50-yard kick in 10 games, and gave every indication he can and will continue to improve. 17 – LC Ahmed Plummer: Plummer once was considered one of the top young cornerbacks in the NFL, a distinction that earned him a $25 million contract last year. Now league observers are wondering if he can hold up to the rigors of the job after developing a serious neck problem that forced him to miss the final 10 games last season. He has looked good this spring, and could finally be headed toward a breakout season, but a reverse scenario also is possible. 16 – QB Tim Rattay: Rattay's status as the team's starting QB of the present and/or future has taken a lot of bashing because of his multiple injury problems and inconsistent play in 2004, and not many expect him to hold off No. 1 draft pick Alex Smith for long at the position. But he has quietly remained healthy and performed well this spring, and his experience counts for something – perhaps even another chance to prove he can be an effective NFL starter. Then again, if Smith develops rapidly, Rattay's return to backup status could come as soon as September. 15 – K Joe Nedney: Nedney has proven he can get the job done when healthy, hitting 34 of 38 field-goal attempts for two teams in 2000, and then scoring 111 points for Tennessee two seasons later. But injuries have forced Nedney to miss all but one game the past two seasons, which – for a kicker – raises some big, waving red flags. However, Nedney gives the Niners a big, strong leg they haven't had for a while at kicker, and his experience and production provide potential to make him a hit at the position for a team that could give him a lot of opportunities to make a difference in 2005. 14 – RILB Jeff Ulbrich: The gritty, heady, disciplined Ulbrich had his best pro season last year, tying Derek Smith for the team lead with 167 tackles and making significant strides in pass coverage. It would seem that Ulbrich maxed out his potential last year, but if he can continue to play at that level in the team's new 3-4 scheme, there will be big smiles all around. Better athleticism would push him higher on this list, but his production speaks for itself. 13 – TE Eric Johnson: Had a career season last year while leading the team with 82 receptions and establishing himself as one of the 49ers' top offensive threats. He recorded those numbers without much help from the team's wideouts last year, but he'll be used differently this season as the team moves more toward a power running game. He'll be expected to provide better blocking at the position, an area of weakness he really needs to work on.
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