Offensively lopsided roster makes sense for 49ers
The numbers say it all. The 49ers' new regime has a clear understanding of where the team's roster needs the most help – and also where its strengths lie. That's why the 53-man roster the Niners settled on Saturday is so offensive-heavy – 28 offensive players and just 22 defenders. That's a roster disparity you seldom see in the NFL, particularly since so many defenders also play on special teams. But Mike Nolan and his cast of assistants know well that the developed nucleus of this team rests on the defensive side of the ball. That's why the team felt comfortable going with just eight defensive backs and just six defensive linemen – making them thin in both those vital areas before the season even begins – while keeping extra prospects on the offensive side that aren't ready to help immediately but could be worth the wait, and the wasted roster space, in the future. Last year, the 49ers had an equal distribution of offensive/defensive players on their 53-man roster entering the regular season – 25 on offense and 25 on defense to go along with a kicker, punter and long-snapper. Give or take a player or two on each side, that's usually how NFL teams attempt to balance their roster. Not the 2005 49ers. The only defender kept on the roster to be groomed for the future is third-string noseguard Ronnie Fields, the team's fifth-round draft choice in April. The other 21 defenders will be expected to either start or be ready to step in immediately at any time. Of those 21, only one is a rookie. Seventeen of the other 20 have either started for the 49ers or elsewhere in the NFL. It's a different story on offense, where the team is looking to grow and develop with a considerably revamped cast of characters on a unit that last year was San Francisco's worst in at least the past quarter-century. Some NFL teams will keep six receivers. Some will keep six running backs. Some will keep four quarterbacks. But it is rare for a NFL team to keep that many players at each of those skill positions in the same season. It's simply a positional overload that teams can't afford. But the Niners need to keep Ken Dorsey around as an experienced No. 3 quarterback – and maybe a No. 2 if necessary. They didn't want to expose athletic, rifle-armed youngster Cody Pickett to the waiver wire, considering he could be pushing behind Alex Smith as the No. 2 as soon as next year. The Niners weren't going to give up on talented fifth-round pick Rasheed Marshall, even though he's not yet ready to help as a receiver and can't yet be trusted to help as a kick returner. They weren't going to give up on Rashaun Woods because, let's face it, they couldn't. Woods was a first-round pick last year and – regardless of the salary-cap hit the Niners would have absorbed had they made the decision to release him (which likely would have forced the team go with fewer than 53 players on its final roster) – you just don't give up on NFL first-rounders after one year. And the Niners certainly weren't going to waive undrafted rookie free agent Fred Amey after everything he showed them during the summer – which was enough to move him up to No. 4 on the depth chart at receiver right here, right now. Several 49ers followers are clamoring that perhaps the team could have released veteran Johnnie Morton in favor of moving up one of the youngsters listed above into the No. 3 role at receiver, but that wouldn't have been a wise move. Sure, Morton didn't do much in the preseason, but he also had nothing – absolutely nothing – to prove to anybody during exhibition games. Morton is here this season as a hired gun to be the established veteran presence this receiving unit simply doesn't have, even with starters Brandon Lloyd and Arnaz Battle. As the season begins, Morton is as necessary a part as many others on the offensive side. An argument could be made the Niners didn't need to keep six running backs, particularly since Frank Gore is around now to collect carries at tailback that don't go to Kevan Barlow and third-down back Terry Jackson. But Maurice Hicks is too valuable as a kick returner and too productive as change-of-pace backfield depth not to keep around. Hicks would have a job in the NFL tomorrow if the 49ers didn't keep him around today. And besides, he might become a nice third-down alternative in the near future if the 49ers find themselves making backfield changes after this season, which is quite possible if certain players don't produce. The Niners also kept a full complement of nine offensive linemen, a group that includes rookie draft picks David Baas, Adam Snyder and Patrick Estes and three others that have two or fewer years of previous NFL experience. Building for the future? You could say that. But the Niners also are building for the now, and that explains the largesse of keeping three tight ends – something the team really doesn't need since versatile fullback Steve Bush also will be seeing time there and in H-back situations. But with starter Eric Johnson's status uncertain – it's looking more and more now like he'll miss the Sept. 11 opener against St. Louis with a foot injury – the 49ers kept both rookie Billy Bajema and holdover Aaron Walker to make sure they don't get caught short at the position in the early going. At first glance, the 49ers' first roster breakdown of 2005 might look uneven and offensively lopsided. But it's all part of the plan to make them better, and for this team, it makes sense. And besides, there always is time and room to make minor changes – a cornerback for a tight end, perhaps? – and something like that could be, and probably will be, happening any day now once 49ers' personnel evaluators scan the NFL waiver wire after Sunday's 1 p.m. deadline to finalize rosters around the league.
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