At the crossroads

A season of change is on the horizon for the 49ers in 2005, and that means several of the team's top veteran players have reached the crossroads of their careers in San Francisco. While the new coaching regime has stood solidly behind many holdovers this spring, that will only remain the case if they produce during the upcoming season. Here's a look at returning players who are on the spot in the months to come, in order of immediacy, a list that includes some of the premier names on the roster.

1. RB Kevan Barlow: After Barlow's hugely checkered and disappointing 2004 season, new coach Mike Nolan thought twice before giving Barlow his nod of approval this spring as the team's featured back. Barlow still must earn the job that was handed to him last year, and that will be an ongoing process this summer, but the team is giving him first shot at a role in an offensive setup that has the potential to make him a star (think Jamal Lewis in Baltimore). But Barlow isn't going to get a lot of second chances. The 2005 season is his second chance. And that's why the team used the first pick of the third round in the April draft to select Frank Gore.

2. WR Brandon Lloyd: A lot has been made about what a disappointment 2004 first-round choice Rashaun Woods was last year and again this spring, but the new regime still considers him in the category of rookie status and probably will give him a longer leash to develop than Lloyd, whom the team will be looking for results from immediately. Lloyd is an undeniable talent, but he comes with a tarnished reputation from last season – whether it's deserved or not. It's an obvious message that the veteran receiver the Niners finally decided to bring in to bolster their young and unproven receiving corps – 11-year veteran Johnnie Morton – has played only one receiving position his entire career, the same split end position that's occupied by Lloyd. If Lloyd has intentions of a starting slot in the long-term plans of this offense, he'll have to step up and secure it this year.

3. QB Tim Rattay: The lukewarm support of Rattay as the team's starting quarterback became a little stronger during the spring when he shook off injury problems and displayed his skills and experience in a pro system, something hotshot rookie Alex Smith just doesn't possess yet. The Niners certainly will be pushing Smith for the starting job this summer, but it will still belong to Rattay if he can hold onto it. Signed through 2006, Rattay will be kept around at least that long if he proves he is valuable enough. A Drew Brees-like breakout is unlikely, since the future in San Francisco certainly belongs to Smith, but good, young and experienced quarterbacks are hard to find in the NFL, and Rattay can make an argument he qualifies in all three categories.

4. CB Ahmed Plummer: The 49ers are on the hook for a lot of money with Plummer, who will enter training camp later this month with injury concerns, but the team would consider the unsightly possibility of eating his unamortized bonus money if he can't – or doesn't – produce in a defensive system that puts a lot of demand on its cornerbacks. Plummer has been on the cusp of becoming a quality NFL cornerback, but hasn't really built on his solid sophomore season of 2001 for various reasons. Now's the time, particularly for a team that now will be putting a lot of emphasis on the defensive side of the ball.

5. DL Bryant Young: Nolan and his staff saw the same thing everybody else did on film from the 2004 season – that Young was the best player the 49ers put on the field week in and week out during that forgettable year. But that doesn't necessarily buy him more time with the team beyond 2005 for three reasons: He's 33, has 11 years of NFL wear and tear, and will be moving away from the defensive tackle position at which he earned his reputation as one of the best players of his era. Young's size and skills might be a good fit at left end in the team's new 3-4 system, and it could rejuvenate him as a force to be reckoned with. But he still must prove that to everybody, including himself. Because of his salary structure, he must remain a front-line player to remain of value to the team beyond this season.

6. DL John Engelberger: It doesn't seem quite right to say that Engelberger is on the spot this year after he quietly assembled the best season of his pro career in 2004 and established himself as a competitive, adequate end in a 4-3 system. But there's the rub: Engelberger is a 4-3 end who is being asked to make the switch to a 3-4 end. At 265 pounds, that is going to be difficult for him to do. He is not a good fit to switch to outside linebacker in the new system – as the Niners are doing with Andre Carter and Andrew Williams – so he could become a player without a position in the new defense, which would make him expendable unless he finds his niche in 2005.

7. OLB Andre Carter: Though Carter is being moved outside in the new 3-4, he'll still be put in many of the same edge-rushing situations he played as a conventional 4-3 end during his first four NFL seasons. With a talent such as Carter, who still has plenty of upside despite the injury problems that have plagued him the past two years, you'd think Carter would get time beyond this season to develop and show what he can do in a new system. But, since he'll be put in situations to maximize his skills, and his contract year comes up in 2006, he might need to produce some big sack numbers if he expects big bucks to come from the 49ers in the future.


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