Niners jettison Walker, add fourth Smith to roster

It appeared Aaron Walker's place on the 49ers roster was saved this week because of starting TE Eric Johnson's uncertain injury status. Actually, Walker was just kept around until the Niners could scour the waiver wire to see if they could come up with something better. They think they did in Trent Smith, immediately making a claim after the Baltimore Ravens cut him loose. And so, Walker becomes the second player from the Niners' 2003 draft class to be dumped by the team in the last seven days.

The new coaching regime wasn't satisfied at all with Walker, the 2003 fifth-rounder who had limited blocking skills and failed to make much of an impression in other areas this summer after catching 18 passes for 231 yards in his first two seasons with the 49ers.

The timing of the move seems a little strange, since it now appears Johnson will miss the first two games of the season to give his foot injury more time to fully heal. Rookie Billy Bajema, one of the team's seventh-round draft choices this April, likely will slide into the starting role, but the Niners have no true tight end already experienced in their system to back him up, though Steve Bush will likely slide over from fullback and handle tight end and H-back duties.

The Niners decided it wasn't much risk to lose Walker and quickly grabbed Smith, whom coach Mike Nolan knows from his days in Baltimore. Smith was the Ravens' seventh-round draft choice in 2003, but he has yet to play in the NFL. He went on injured reserve after breaking his leg in his first preseason game, then went on IR again last season with complications from the injury.

Smith (6-foot-5 and 245 pounds) had a standout career at the University of Oklahoma, where he set school career (154) and single-season (61 in 2001) records in receptions for a tight end. He's a downfield threat with good hands and route-running ability who also had a school-record 16 career touchdown receptions.

Trent joins three other Smiths on the roster – quarterback Alex, linebacker Derek and defensive end Corey.

PRACTICE SQUAD TODAY: THE 49ers' eight-man practice squad was completed Sunday and will be announced Monday after all the player contracts have been signed. If they cleared waivers, the Niners were planning to bring back the only two draft picks they cut Saturday – seventh-round cornerback Daven Holly and seventh-round receiver Marcus Maxwell – along with center Norm Katnik and perhaps others from their list of 15 cuts Saturday.

NOLAN HEADS INTO THE season with the kind of confidence one would not expect from a man who inherited the worst team in the league.

"Just because we went 2-14 (last season), we don't have to can the whole thing," said Nolan, who has stated repeatedly this summer he believes the 49ers can win the NFC West.

The 49ers should get an immediate indication how they stack up in the division, as they open the season at home Sunday against the Rams. Their toughest game of the season comes in Week 2 when they travel to Philadelphia to play the Eagles.

THREE KEYS TO SEASON

1. The offensive line must show dramatic improvement. No primary starter from last season returns at the same position on the offensive line. The 49ers signed free-agent left tackle Jonas Jennings and they hope to have center Jeremy Newberry back from injury. The other three linemen -- left guard Justin Smiley, right guard Eric Heitmann and right tackle Kwame Harris -- are back at different spots. The 49ers believe they can be a power-running team, but the onus is on the line as much as it's on running back Kevan Barlow.

2. The pass rush has to take the heat off the secondary. The 49ers don't have much depth behind starting cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Shawntae Spencer. The club's new 3-4 scheme will have to generate a consistent pass rush to prevent opponents from routinely striking for big plays. Outside linebackers Julian Peterson, Jamie Winborn and Andre Carter will have to use their quickness to come off the edge to harass quarterbacks. Defensive end Bryant Young should benefit from the new scheme, as well.

3. Quarterback Tim Rattay has to avoid the big mistake. Rattay, who beat out top overall pick Alex Smith for the starting job, has shown in the past he can be a quality player when he remains healthy. However, most of Rattay's struggles last year came at inopportune times. Seven of his 10 interceptions came in the fourth quarter, along with three lost fumbles. In order to keep Smith on the sideline, Rattay has to protect the ball better than he did a year ago.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

WR Arnaz Battle: A year ago, he was the team's top special-teams performer. Now, Battle has earned a job as the starting flanker. Battle's athleticism gives the 49ers a lot of flexibility, as he spent most of his time at Notre Dame as a quarterback. Battle will likely continue to return punts, too.

LB Andre Carter: He has switched from a defensive end in the team's old 4-3 scheme to linebacker in the 3-4. This is Carter's contract year, so he will have all kinds of incentive to put together a big year. With the 49ers' shaky situation at cornerback, Carter will be counted upon to return to his 2002 form, when he recorded a career-high 12.5 sacks.

NT Anthony Adams: His ability to hold down the interior of the line will help determine whether the 49ers can stop the run. Adams looked to have some problems at the point of attack during the exhibition season. Adams might also be used this season on offense, as a fullback on short-yardage situations.

LT Jonas Jennings: Many believe the 49ers overpaid when they awarded the former Bills lineman $12 million in guaranteed money. There was little question, however, that the club needed to sign a left tackle in free agency, and Jennings was the best player available. His ability to keep quarterback Tim Rattay upright will be a key to the offense's production.


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