The battle fronts
Quarterback: This might not currently be the hottest battle in training camp, but it certainly is the most consequential. Alex Smith exceeded expectations during the first two weeks of camp, but his recognition problems surfaced during the preseason opener against Oakland. He never saw defensive schemes that came anywhere close to this in college, and that will be the biggest challenge he faces this year. Still, Smith's natural ability and sense of the position clearly are there, and he certainly still is in the running to be the opening-day starter, though incumbent Tim Rattay clearly is more NFL ready and looked sharp and smooth in the preseason opener. Rattay is anxious to show he can be more effective and more durable than last year, and if things don't start clicking for Smith a bit more quickly in the preseason now that a few more regulars are returning to the lineup, Rattay may get that chance. Edge: It still belongs to Smith, but Rattay is closing the gap considerably as a viable alternative. Noseguard: Anthony Adams has displayed a lot of spunk and ability to pick up the position, and coaches have been pleased with his versatility and proficiency in making up for his size deficiencies with leverage and technique. But Isaac Sopoaga, after missing his rookie season with injuries, has given several indications that he can be the perfect type of player for the system the team wants to run. The Niners want their noseguard to be a power plug that can be an immovable object at the point of attack, and the 321-pound Sopoaga has shown the awareness needed for the role along with the optimum strength and size. Adams is a lot quicker, and he can frustrate opponents with that style, but it also takes him out of plays once offensive linemen get an angle on him. Edge: Adams, but only as a token starter. He'll begin games in the position, but Sopoaga will play on the nose as much if not more. Wide receiver: With the team high on Arnaz Battle coming out of spring drills, it appeared entering camp that newcomer Johnnie Morton would seriously challenge Brandon Lloyd for the starting role at split end. Instead, Lloyd has clearly emerged as the team's No. 1 wideout, and since Morton is not suited to the flanker role in a West Coast offensive system, the first three spots in San Francisco's pecking order at receiver appear locked in. The real battle is at No. 4, where P.J. Fleck has the experience edge over rookies Marcus Maxwell, Rasheed Marshall, Fred Amey and enigmatic second-year player Rashaun Woods, who all have better size and athleticism than Fleck. Fleck is proving to be too small for any considerable role as he constantly takes a beating, even in practice. Those hits add up, and his health is becoming an issue. That leaves an opening for the youngsters, but – at this point – it's an opening the 49ers are waiting to see if Woods can fill. The Niners are getting impatient, and they can't wait much longer, but they still are reserving judgement until they see what a healthy Woods can do in a game. That leaves the final roster berths at receiver in a mad scramble as the Denver game approaches, and what happens over the next two weeks determines who will stay and who will go. Edge: It's still one of the biggest tossups on the team, but Fleck will hold onto the No. 4 role if he remains healthy, unless one of youngsters can clearly show he is ready for prime time. Tailback: Frank Gore's impressive push at Kevan Barlow's job took a recent week off due to a shoulder injury, but the rookie has looked exceptional at various stages of camp, and the 49ers are waiting anxiously to see what he can do in preseason games, though the team may be cautious to use him against the Broncos while his shoulder continues to heal. This battle pretty much stands where it did entering training camp – the amount of carries each back gets will be determined by their production once the real games begin. That's when Barlow will truly prove himself and his worth in holding onto the position, regardless of how good, bad or mediocre he may look in the preseason. Edge: Barlow. Cornerback: Shawntae Spencer's hamstring injury has changed things at cornerback. The team brought in Willie Middlebrooks to complement projected starting corners Spencer and Ahmed Plummer while expecting him to lock down the open nickel back job. But Middlebrooks has exhibited himself as a much better edge player, rather than playing inside in nickel packages, and that has made the Niners re-evaluate how they want to use him. Spencer might have the best coverage skills of any San Francisco corner, but Middlebrooks has far superior size (6-foot-1, 200 pounds), and this defensive system demands physical play from its corners. Spencer is not an optimum fit for nickel, either, and the Niners certainly want him on the field if he's one of their best two corners. As Spencer regains health, he may start the season as the top backup, ready to step in if either Middlebrooks or Plummer falters. Edge: Middlebrooks. Right guard: The Niners are very high on second-round draft pick David Baas, and they are counting on plugging him right back into the starting lineup to upgrade their offensive line once he is healthy. The thing is, Baas isn't healthy, and since he has yet to step on the field so far, it appears likely he won't play during the preseason. He may be ready to go for the season opener, however, and it looks like the Niners are taking the slow approach to groom him for an increased role come September. His replacement, Adam Snyder, has had a tough time making the early transition from tackle to guard at the NFL level, but he clearly is one of San Francisco's most-skilled offensive linemen. All Snyder needs is experience, and he should get plenty of it once the season begins until Baas is ready to step back into the job. Edge: Snyder.
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