Depth takes big hit: Fleck, Cooper out for season

The 49ers have lost for the season two veterans who were slated to be key reserve performers at their respective positions this year.

Coach Mike Nolan announced Tuesday that second-year receiver P.J. Fleck and fifth-year defensive end Chris Cooper each will be placed on the team's injured reserve list and miss the 2005 season due to shoulder problems.

Fleck already has had rotator cuff surgery on his left shoulder. Nolan said Cooper is in the process of determining what kind of surgery he will have to correct his shoulder problem.

Both veterans will be missed considerably on a team that already is lacking in quality depth.

Cooper was running as the top reserve end in the team's new 3-4 defensive scheme behind starters Bryant Young and Marques Douglas. Cooper has experience in the 3-4 and, at 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds, has optimum size for the position.

Cooper proved how adept and productive he can be in the system during the team's preseason opener against the Oakland Raiders, when he recorded three tackles and had two quarterback sacks. He was arguably the best pass-rushing end on the team.

Now the Niners are scrambling for a quality third end to mix into their defensive line rotation. Second-year veteran Tony Brown, who provided several quality minutes at both end and tackle last year, steps in as the top candidate in line. But there has been a big drop-off in performance between Cooper and Brown this summer. Brown has not adjusted to the new system nearly as well.

The 49ers may attempt to slide starting noseguard Anthony Adams over to left end more often now – bringing in burly youngsters Isaac Sopoaga and Ronnie Fields to take his place on the nose – but their already weak pass rush will suffer without Cooper.

Fleck also will be missed as a No. 4 receiver and kick returner.

While veterans Brandon Lloyd, Arnaz Battle and Johnnie Morton have locked down the top three spots in San Francisco's receiver rotation, Fleck had provided a reliable option as the fourth guy and was clearly ahead of the bunch of other young prospects the team has competing at the position.

Fleck, who has had problems with the shoulder before, injured it again during the opening kickoff in the preseason opener against Oakland. But he continued to practice, and aggravated the injury yet again while diving for a pass at practice last week. Nolan said Fleck's surgery "went well," but the soonest the scrappy veteran now will be able to help the Niners is in 2006.

While Fleck was the smallest position player on the team at 5-foot-9 and about 185 pounds, his skill and experience put him ahead of more athletic – and more-highly touted – youngsters such as Rashaun Woods, Rasheed Marshall and Marcus Maxwell.

"P.J. was so far advanced," said Lloyd, who has established himself this summer as San Francisco's No. 1 receiver. "He was very advanced and really creative, and he picked up coached (Jerry) Sullivan's system. He picked it up really good, he picked it up great. It's tough to lose that guy because he was almost like a veteran out there with his skill level, and in third-down situations having him be out there and his craftiness."

It was wide open competition for the one or two roster berths behind Fleck before he was hurt. Now that competition becomes even more intense and significant, because the receiver who emerges as No. 4 will see time in multiple-receiver sets and also will be just a play away from joining San Francisco's regular receiver position.

"It means we just have to try to develop Fred Amey," Lloyd said. "Hopefully, one of those young guys has to step up and make plays for us."

Lloyd gave a cryptic indication regarding who he thinks has looked the best of the young receivers. Amey, an undrafted free agent from Sacramento State, has been impressive during summer camp and also in the preseason, contributing two receptions in last week's preseason loss at Denver.

While the other young receivers have shown flashes, Amey has been the one who has been the most consistent and has shown the most polish. He also has skills as a kick returner, which the team plans to take a closer look at during the rest of the preseason.

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