Putting projected starters in their place: Part II
12 – WR Arnaz Battle: This might seem a bit high in the rankings for a receiver who had only eight receptions last year and never has started a NFL game. But Battle has established himself this spring as the team's starting flanker – the featured target in the West Coast offense – and his size and skills could make him one of the team's top new offensive threats. He also has breakout ability as a kick returner, but the team hopes not to need him in that role to allow him to concentrate fully at WR, where he has solid potential to prosper. 11 – WR Brandon Lloyd: Lloyd's reputation took some hits last season, but he led the team with six touchdowns receptions and had a solid 13.1 average on his 43 receptions, which is 28 more than the combined total of the team's other returning wide receivers. Lloyd possesses special receiving skills and has gained more polish this spring. The experience he gained while facing double coverage last year should allow him to get open more often, and he should benefit by improvement all around him on offense to become more of a legitimate weapon. 10 – RE Marques Douglas: Quality 3-4 ends are hard to find, which made the acquisition of Douglas in free agency essential in the 49ers transition from a traditional 4-3 set. He is a prototype at the position – big enough to hold up sturdily and absorb blockers against the run, but also possessing the skills to provide good heat in the pass rush. As Douglas hits his prime, the 49ers will give him an opportunity to become a name-recognition player in their revamped defensive system. 9 – FS Mike Rumph: Rumph never before has played safety in the NFL, working his first three seasons at cornerback, where he was displaying fine progress before a broken arm basically wiped out his 2004 season. Rumph was reluctant at first to move from corner, but he seemed to embrace the change after finally returning to practice from his injury. The feeling here is Rumph's size, range, intelligence and ability to both cover and deliver crushing hits will make a considerable impact once he gets comfortable in the position and will allow the 2002 first-round pick to emerge as a prime, playmaking defender. 8 – ROLB Jamie Winborn: The move to a 3-4 scheme could make the flashy Winborn shine even brighter as opposing offenses have to account for him on every play. Winborn finally is adding discipline to his playmaking repertoire, and if he can avoid the injuries that have dogged him throughout his career, he can become a bona fide impact defender who will create even more havoc for opponents than he has in the past. 7 – LILB Derek Smith: Seeking to lead the 49ers in tackles for the fifth consecutive season since he arrived on the scene in 2001, expect big things from Smith in his contract year. The new system will give Smith even more opportunities to make plays and may put him in position for the kind of league-wide recognition that has eluded him while recording 620 tackles the past four seasons, including 356 in 30 games the past two years. 6 – LE Bryant Young: Now entering his 12th NFL season, the old warhorse was San Francisco's best player and team MVP last season, producing rejuvenated performance as the rest of the defense sagged around him. At age 33, he still has some top-level ability left in him, but the big question is how well he'll adapt to moving to end in a 3-4 after so many seasons excelling at tackle in a 4-3. If he struggles in the adjustment, he'll slide well down these rankings. But he says the change doesn't alter his responsibilities much, and it also might accentuate his power and burst on passing downs as he gets an opportunity to rush from more of an edge position. 5 – RB Kevan Barlow: After the fiasco that was Barlow's 2004 season, some will laugh that he is considered this high in the rankings. But beware if you share that sentiment. Barlow has a lot to prove this season, and he knows it. And, while there's a lot of talk about how he'll be challenged for playing time by rookie Frank Gore, Barlow is quietly being set up to succeed in the team's philosophic shift to a power running game. Barlow certainly has the talent, and with the new coaching regime stressing accountability across the board, he could be primed to produce the breakout season many were expecting from him last year. 4 – LT Jonas Jennings: Meet the new rock of San Francisco's revamped offensive line. Jennings now is it, particularly with Jeremy Newberry's status so uncertain. Jennings will add the stability at left tackle the 49ers haven't had since Derrick Deese was around, and he is effective in both run blocking and pass protection. He's already a quality left tackle; if he continues to develop and stays injury free, he could push his name among the better players at that position in the league. 3 – SS Tony Parrish: Parrish was on the cusp of being considered one of the NFL's superstar safeties before a preseason injury dogged him into 2004 and diminished his play until a late-season resurgence. Parrish turns 30 in November, and there is potential for 2005 to be his career year as the new system will accentuate his ability as both a hitter and ballhawk. 2 – FB Fred Beasley: The return to a West Coast offensive system should bring out the best in Beasley, who was just reaching his Pro Bowl potential in 2003 before the previous coaching regime started making changes that diminished his role. Beasley will play a prominent part in the team's new plans, and you probably will notice glee on his face as he's allowed to plough into linebackers again in a power running scheme. Don't be surprised to see him get the ball in his hands a little more often, too. 1 – LOLB Julian Peterson: Peterson might not yet be 100 percent recovered from his Achilles tendon tear when training camp begins, but he's expected to be just about all the way back by the season opener. At full strength, he's the team's top talent and best player, and the new defensive system is tailored to his skills, which could make him even more of an impact force than he was during his All-Pro season of 2003. His versatility and potential are prominent reasons the 49ers are switching to a 3-4 and, after losing most of the 2004 season to the injury, Peterson is hungry and intent on making up for lost time – not to mention showing the new regime he's worth a megabucks, long-term contract he didn't get the past two years as the 49ers' franchise player.
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