Training camp battleground: Quarterback

SFI takes a look at what should be some of the most competitive and consequential battles for the several jobs that are up for grabs this summer at 49ers training camp. Today: Quarterback

It was only a May minicamp, but 49ers coach Mike Nolan had a terse and pointed response when asked if he thought that the four quarterbacks on his roster already were competing for the starting role at the game's most important position.

"They better think so, or they won't be here," Nolan replied.

And so it was this spring, which served as an interesting prelude to the great confrontation that promises to take place this summer to be the 49ers' starting quarterback to begin the 2005 season.

This promises to be one of the most consequential training camp battles the 49ers have had in quite some time, and it could chart the course of both their immediate present and near future.

Sixth-year incumbent Tim Rattay will take the first snap of camp with the first unit in team drills, but rookie sensation Alex Smith – and, surprisingly, third-year veteran Ken Dorsey – will be lurking in the wings.

The team wants to push Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in this year's NFL draft, into the starting role as soon as possible, but it won't do so at the expense of thwarting his development.

However, Smith appears up to the challenge, which could make Rattay earn the job if he wants to keep it. Dorsey also is playing for a future with the team, making this one position where the summer competition will be hopping.

Even Cody Pickett – "the least experienced of the group," according to Nolan, even though Pickett is entering his second NFL season and Smith is a rookie – has impressed the team's new coaching regime and will be given a legitimate opportunity to make the September roster.

"I'm encouraged by the quarterback position, I really am," Nolan said. "Not just because of the rook, but all the guys. I think our quarterbacks are fundamentally a lot better than anything I saw on film (from them last year)."

But the starting job figures to come down to Rattay and Smith, and it should be a doozy.

Rattay has been locked in while running the offense precisely during the spring, and he has shown the ability to finally stay healthy, a not-to-be-underestimated factor that eluded him last year. His experience as a NFL starter gives him the early edge.

But it's already obvious Smith has size, vision and athletic skills that Rattay can only hope to have in his dreams. And Smith also has more of a leadership persona. Once the offense comes to him, he could be on an even playing field with Rattay by the time preseason games begin in August.

And time, obviously, is on Smith's side. But Rattay will have his chance in training camp to keep that clock from moving forward for a while.

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