QUARTERBACK: Starter - Alex Smith. Backups - Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey, Cody Pickett.

Although Smith is the least-experienced player at this position, the 49ers did not invest a No. 1 overall pick in him to watch him carry a clipboard. The club expects him to win the starting job, but coach Mike Nolan will try not to rush Smith onto the field before he is ready. Nolan actually feels less pressure to make Smith the starter now that he has seen his other quarterbacks up close. Both Rattay and Dorsey looked much-improved during the team's offseason program. Dorsey, in particular, threw the ball much better than he did in his first two seasons in the league. Nolan said he expects to keep all four quarterbacks with the team, as Pickett is likely to be added to the practice squad if he clears waivers.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB Kevan Barlow, FB Fred Beasley. Backups -- RB Frank Gore, RB Maurice Hicks, RB Terry Jackson, FB Steve Bush, FB Tony Ficklin, RB Bobby Purify, FB Brian Johnson.

The 49ers did not get much production from the run game last season, as the offensive line was horrible and Barlow did not run with much passion. Even Beasley experienced a down season. One of Nolan's first moves as head coach was to insist that Barlow move his locker back to the other side of the room. He had moved his locker to get away from Beasley, with whom he has feuded for several years. Barlow should be hungry to rebound from a bad season. He also has some motivation, as Gore was drafted in the second round to see some significant playing time.

TIGHT END: Starter -- Eric Johnson. Backups -- Aaron Walker, Billy Bajema, Doug Zeigler.

Johnson broke the team record with 82 receptions for 825 yards from a tight end. He will likely be an integral part of the offense again this season in the passing game. The club, however, needs him to be more proficient with his blocking in the run game. The backup jobs are up for grabs, as two-year veteran Walker has no reason to think he has solidified his job on the roster. Bajema (6-4, 261) should earn his spot on the roster and has a chance to contribute in two-TE formations.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- FL Arnaz Battle, SE Brandon Lloyd. Backups - Johnnie Morton, Rashaun Woods, P.J. Fleck, Rasheed Marshall, Jason McAddley, Derrick Hamilton, Marcus Maxwell, Fred Amey.

This might be the least-impressive receiving corps in the NFL. The acquisition of Morton, who garnered a $150,000 signing bonus, brought some experience to the group. Battle has a lot of talent and big-play ability but has not been given a chance to perform at this level. He is one of the few players on the team who has the ability to catch passes over the middle. If Morton does not nudge out Lloyd for a starting job, he should post decent numbers as the No. 3 man. Woods, Fleck, Marshall and McAddley are vying for the fourth job. Marshall, a successful college quarterback at West Virginia, might be asked to do a little bit of everything. Hamilton is out for the season with a torn ACL sustained during minicamp.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Jonas Jennings, LG Eric Heitmann, C Jeremy Newberry, RG David Baas, RT Kwame Harris. Backups - G/T Adam Snyder, G Justin Smiley, G/C Scott Peters, G Tony Wragge, T Khiawatha Downey, C Norm Katnik, T Tim Provost, T Patrick Estes, T Brendan Darby, G Thomas Herrion.

The offensive line received the most attention at the end of the season, and it is still a work in progress. Because Newberry has only a 50-50 shot of playing this season due to a knee problem, the 49ers are still juggling the pieces to see what works. If Newberry is unable to play, Heitmann will likely make the switch. It is conceivable that the 49ers could start two rookies, Baas and Snyder, at the guard positions. Smiley, a second-round pick from 2004, has to prove his worth with the new coaching staff. The big move of the offseason was the signing of Jennings, who takes over at left tackle. That acquisition also opened the door for Harris to switch to the right side, where he appears to be a much better fit.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LE Bright Young, NT Anthony Adams, RE Marques Douglas. Backups - NT Isaac Sopoaga, NT Ronnie Fields, DE Chris Cooper, DE Tony Brown, DE Corey Smith, DE Scott Scharff, DE Josh Cooper.

The switch to a 3-4 defense means the 49ers had no place for DE John Engelberger, who established himself as a regular starter during his five seasons in the league. It also means that Young will undergo his first position change after 11 seasons in the league. Douglas gives the 49ers a player who is familiar with the new scheme, having spent most of his career with the Ravens, where Nolan was the defensive coordinator. The big competition will take place at the nose, where Adams, Sopoaga and Fields will be in competition for the starting job.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - SAM Julian Peterson, MIKE Jeff Ulbrich, TED Derek Smith, WILL Jamie Winborn. Backups - OLB Andre Carter, ILB Saleem Rasheed, ILB Richard Seigler, OLB Andrew Williams, OLB Brandon Moore, ILB Ray Wells, OLB Max Yates.

Peterson, coming off a torn Achilles' tendon, is the centerpiece of Billy Davis' new defense. He will be able to rush the passer without weakening the rest of the defense in the new 3-4 scheme. The 49ers are taking advantage of its depth at this position to make the change. Winborn is currently listed as a starter at the other outside linebacker spot, but watch for Carter to carve out a role for himself. Carter is one of the team's few bona fide pass rushers, and he is being converted from defensive end. If he remains healthy, he has to provide some big sack numbers for the defense to be successful. Inside linebackers Smith and Ulbrich are solid. Rasheed has been plagued by injuries early in his career, and this might be his chance to show he belongs.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Ahmed Plummer, RCB Shawntae Spencer, SS Tony Parrish, FS Mike Rumph. Backups - CB Willie Middlebrooks, S Dwaine Carpenter, CB Rayshun Reed, CB Derrick Johnson, CB Daven Holly, S Keith Lewis, S Arnold Parker, CB Joselio Hanson, S Mike Adams, CB Allan Amundson, CB Randee Drew. Nolan suggested to Rumph that he switch to free safety, but Rumph at first explained to the coach that he thought he could win a starting job at cornerback. Finally, in the final minicamp Rumph agreed to the move. He is expected to start alongside Parrish in the secondary. Rumph's experience as a corner gives the defense a player who can man cover a slot receiver. Plummer and Spencer have the inside tracks to the starting corner jobs, though Plummer missed most of last season with a bulging disc in his neck. The previous regime feared that he was one hit from walking away from his football career. The acquisition of Middlebrooks, who was an underachiever in his four seasons with the Broncos, gives the 49ers some flexibility. He will compete for a starting job, but should be able to at least nail down a role as the nickel back.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Joe Nedney, P Andy Lee, KR/PR Arnaz Battle, LS Brian Jennings, H Andy Lee, KR Maurice Hicks, PR P.J. Fleck, PR Fred Amey, KR Rasheed Marshall, K Kirk Yliniemi, P Cole Farden.

Nedney has kicked in just one game since the 2002 season because of two serious knee injuries. In 2002 with the Titans, he made 25 of 31 field-goal attempts. He also has a strong leg, which makes him an immediate upgrade on kickoffs over Todd Peterson, now with the Falcons. Lee had a promising rookie season, averaging 41.6 yards on 96 punts, with a long of 81 yards. The return game is up in the air because of Battle's likely full-time role as a starting receiver. The 49ers feel secure with long snapper Jennings, who earned a spot on the NFC Pro Bowl team as a "need" player.

Niners Digest Top Stories