Training camp battleground: Wide receiver

The arrival of Johnnie Morton adds a whole new dynamic to the 49ers' situation at receiver. A proven NFL performer now on the downside of his career, the prolific veteran will provide juice to the competition at split end, which has been the only home he has know during his 12-year career. But that's where Brandon Lloyd currently resides as the starter, and there could be a wholesale shakeup of this unit if Morton moves into his job.

Last year, Lloyd asserted himself during the spring as the team's potential No. 1 receiving target at split end, which left veteran Cedrick Wilson to fight it out with established veteran newcomer Curtis Conway for the starting berth at flanker.

This year, with Wilson and Conway no longer in the picture, unheralded Arnaz Battle – with just eight NFL receptions to his credit – has asserted himself as the potential No. 1 target at flanker.

That has left Lloyd to fight it out with Morton at split end, with the loser of that fight likely to wind up in the slot as the third receiver.

Morton isn't joining the 49ers expecting to lose that fight.

"I know what I expect out of myself, and I am going to keep that to myself," said Morton, who ranks 12th among active players – and 34th in NFL history – with 603 career receptions. "I will be the best player that I can be, and if that becomes a starting role, then that is my main goal."

That's exactly the kind of heat San Francisco's new coaching regime wants to put on Lloyd, whose focus, determination and commitment was questioned last season when he recorded 43 receptions for 565 yards and a team-high six touchdown catches – numbers that dwarf the combined totals of all the Niners' other returning receivers.

Though neither Morton or Lloyd is built for the flanker position like the 6-foot-1, 217-pound Battle, both have a clear edge in experience and refined technique, which could find them pushing Battle off the field in standard offensive formations.

But entering camp, the starting battle does not include Battle. That's between Morton and Lloyd, with the veteran needing to clearly prove he's better to take away the job from the younger player.

But Lloyd also is on the spot to hold off Morton.

"Brandon Lloyd is going to have to prove it," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "(Lloyd) is a guy that I do expect more consistent play on a higher level out of him. I think he'll do that. I don't see any reason why he shouldn't. I think the system is in place, and it's just a matter of him working hard and doing it."

Ideally, the Niners would like to see the acrobatic Lloyd and the athletic Battle firmly establish themselves as the starters this summer with Morton solidifying the front-line catchers as the third receiver.

Morton, who definitely still possesses starting quality, figures to possibly get as many snaps as the others once the games begin, but the Niners won't hesitate to put him in the starting lineup if he fights his way past the youngsters currently ahead of him.

As camp opens, there appears to be a big separation between the top three receivers and the other players that fill out the unit. P.J. Fleck, Rashaun Woods, Jason McAddley and rookie Rasheed Marshall are the next in line, and neither seems a serious threat to take away the No. 3 role from the loser of the Battle-Lloyd-Morton battle.


Niners Digest Top Stories