Who should stay and who should go at receiver?

On the field before Thursday night's preseason finale at San Diego, 49ers coach Mike Nolan was asked at which positions he'd be watching most closely with the final cutdown to a 53-man roster looming this weekend. "Receiver," he answered without hesitation. It was the only position Nolan mentioned specifically by name, and Thursday's 28-24 loss to the Chargers helped provide some definitive answers regarding a vital unit that has been difficult to evaluate this summer beyond its top three vets.

It has been clear since even before the preseason began 20 days ago that third-year players Arnaz Battle and Brandon Lloyd would begin the season as San Francisco's starting wideouts.

Those two veterans only solidified their status – while also giving promising indications that they can become legitimate playmakers this season – during the four exhibition games. After Battle's fine effort Thursday – three receptions for 64 yards in just two series of action – both starters finished the preseason with 10 receptions. Battle finished with an 18.8-yard average on his catches, and Lloyd went for a 14.0 average on his. They combined for three receiving touchdowns.

The Niners look good – perhaps even better than they could have hoped entering the season – with those two running at flanker and split end with the first unit.

But what goes on behind them?

It's a given that Johnnie Morton will start the season as the third receiver because of his veteran experience, even though Morton hardly knocked anybody socks off during a quiet preseason during which he had just three receptions for 30 yards.

The 49ers are eager to develop one of their young receivers to push Morton for playing time in that key No. 3 role, but those hopes seemed to fall through when the top two candidates entering training camp – P.J. Fleck and Rashaun Woods – both fell off the radar.

Fleck suffered an August shoulder injury that ended his season before it started. Woods had hamstring problems that kept him out of practice and limited him to just one preseason catch before Thursday – and also had many questioning his commitment and suggesting he was a first-round bust that didn't deserve a roster spot.

But the receiving landscape looks much brighter for the Niners now after both Woods and undrafted rookie Fred Amey put on a show of their respective skills against the Chargers.

For Woods, it didn't come a moment too soon. After being a non-entity on the team practically the entire summer, he responded in perhaps his most important game thus far as a 49er. The former Oklahoma State star produced a breakout performance with his job on the roster possibly on the line.

Woods led all receivers with game-high totals of eight receptions for 89 yards, including a 41-yard grab between defenders in the final minutes that led the 49ers to what appeared would be the game-winning field goal.

Woods consistently found openings in the San Diego defense and caught the ball when it came his way. Those were both things the 49ers needed to see.

San Francisco had to find a way to keep Woods on the roster one way or another – because of the massive salary cap hit the team would take if he was waived – but he took care of that Thursday, while also showing glimpses he might be able to help in some capacity this season.

Regardless of what Woods can bring in the regular season, the 49ers have Amey, the biggest surprise of the summer, and he'll begin the season in the No. 4 role after another impressive performance Thursday.

Amey caught three passes for 50 yards, running a smooth corner route to pull in a 23-yard touchdown pass from Alex Smith at the end of the first half. It's not difficult to imagine Amey making those kind of plays once the real games begin, and he may start getting chances early if Morton – who enters the Sept. 11 regular-season opener against St. Louis with 603 career receptions – gives any indications he is playing on his last legs.

So San Francisco's final roster decisions at receiver are easy, right? Lloyd, Battle, Morton – and now, Amey and Woods behind them.

But not so fast.

The 49ers have fifth-round draft pick Rasheed Marshall to think about, and if they expose him to the practice squad, there may be somebody out there with a surplus of bottom-of-the-roster berths who would grab Marshall just do develop his talent for the future.

That's what the 49ers want to do. Marshall clearly isn't ready to help at receiver at the beginning of the season – though he may be able to help in the return game – but the Niners must consider keeping him as a sixth receiver.

They kept six receivers last year, and the No. 6 receiver – rookie Derrick Hamilton – played in only two games and never caught a pass. He was kept around for the future, so it's a do-able situation.

The problem is, the Niners are likely to keep six running backs, and they also appear inclined to keep four quarterbacks. If that happens, it will be almost impossible for them to keep six receivers, unless they go really, really light at some other important position.

While Woods appeared to play himself into a possible role in the 2005 game plan Thursday, rookie Marcus Maxwell – the team's seventh-round draft choice – probably played himself out of any shot at the final 53-man roster.

It was going to be difficult anyway for Maxwell on Thursday – he was going to have to make a spectacular splash while Woods, Marshall or Amey flopped horribly. None of that happened, and the best Maxwell could manage was one reception for six yards to go along with an offensive pass interference penalty for pushing off a defender.

Truth be told, Maxwell looked better than Woods, Marshall or Amey as a receiver during the opening weeks of training camp, and it appeared the Niners were going to have to find a place for him on their roster. But once the games began – Maxwell missed the Aug. 13 preseason opener against Oakland with an injury – his performance hardly was of the same stuff.

That might actually be good for both Maxwell and the Niners, however, since the talent he flashed during training camp won't show up on any preseason game film. That probably will allow the Niners an opportunity to hide him on their practice squad, where he belongs.

So the big question the Niners are facing over the next 36 hours before they make their final cuts is what to do with Marshall. At least Thursday provided a definitive answer about what the team should do with Woods and Amey – and what roles they can be expected to provide in the receiving pecking order for the start of the season in nine days.


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