Peterson primed to play

Two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Julian Peterson returned to practice Thursday with the 49ers, announced himself "about 85 percent" healthy from his nagging hamstring problem afterward, and then was upgraded from questionable to probable for Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins.

While he's still not back at full strength, Peterson said the injury is "not slowing me down for running or anything like that, so it's a good thing."

Peterson hasn't been at full strength since he tore his left Achilles tendon in Week 5 last year against Arizona. He said he was about 90 percent healthy from that injury when the season began, and he immediately had a breakout performance in the season-opening victory over St. Louis, when he recorded a career-high 2.5 sacks.

Peterson continued to play well until injuring his right hamstring in the fourth quarter of the Week 3 loss to Dallas, with his absence late in the game contributing to the Cowboys rallying for a 34-31 victory after the Niners led 31-19 entering the final period.

He has only played five plays in a game since then. That was two weeks ago against Indianapolis, when he quickly found out his leg wasn't ready and coaches pulled him from the game after the five plays. He did not practice during the bye week after that game and did not participate in practice Monday or Wednesday of this week, either, before finally returning Thursday.

"You certainly want your best players on the field all the time, but as we know, you can't control that," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "It's also homecoming to (Peterson) this week, but being out a few weeks doesn't help that much."

Peterson is returning home to play the team he watched growing up as a child. He was born in Washington D.C. and was raised in the area.

"I get pumped up all the time, but definitely for this one," Peterson said.

LACK OF PLAYMAKERS PRECIPITATED RATTAY TRADE: With all of the 49ers' offensive struggles, Nolan figured they needed a quarterback who can create.

Although sixth-year veteran Tim Rattay might be a better player right now than rookie Alex Smith, the 49ers believe Smith gives them a better chance to make things happen. So, Smith will start for the second straight game Sunday when the 49ers face the Redskins at FedEx Field. Ken Dorsey will serve as the 49ers' backup quarterback after Rattay was dealt to the Buccaneers for a sixth-round draft pick.

Less than two months ago, Rattay decisively beat out Smith for the starting job entering the regular season. But after the 49ers lost three consecutive games, Nolan pulled the plug on Rattay as his starter and elevated Smith into the starting role. Nolan said his decision to go with Rattay after two exhibition games had a lot to do with some miscalculations he made about the quality of offensive players surrounding the team's quarterback.

"At the time, I felt that we had a little bit more playmaking ability in our offense," Nolan said. "For example, I thought the tight end was going to be a live target for him. (Eric Johnson) turned out to go on IR, but I thought he was going to be a guy that could make the operation work and get the ball to our playmakers.

"Obviously, with (receiver) Arnaz (Battle) hurt and with the tight end out, we didn't have as much. I found that he (Rattay) was a guy that executed the operation of the offense well, but without a lot of playmakers, his abilities as a quarterback were just as a pocket passer."

With the trade, Nolan has sent further proof that he plans to stick with Smith through all of his struggles this season. Smith had a horrendous debut as the team's starter, throwing four interceptions, losing one of his two fumbles and getting sacked five times in a 28-3 loss to the Colts on Oct. 9.

Nolan said the only thing that can get Smith out of the lineup for the remainder of this season is an injury.

"Alex is the guy we drafted with the first pick and I expect him to be the future of the franchise from the quarterback position," Nolan said.

Rattay was expendable because the 49ers kept four quarterbacks on their 53-man roster at the start of this season. Dorsey began the season as the No. 3 quarterback, and promising second-year player Cody Pickett was the fourth-stringer.

"There was a high-percentage chance that right before the (trade) deadline somebody would be looking for a quarterback," Nolan said. "If you don't get it done now, then you won't get it done later. It just so happened that Tampa Bay was on a real hunt because they had an injury, and a significant one with their starter."

Rattay has a chance to be a factor for the Buccaneers, who lost starting quarterback Brian Griese for perhaps the entire season with a knee injury. Chris Simms will be the first Tampa Bay quarterback to get a chance.

Dorsey, the 49ers' new backup, started seven games last season in place of Rattay. He completed 54.5 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and nine interceptions. While compiling a 1-6 record as a starter, Dorsey's passer rating was 62.4.

Dorsey has not played in a game this season, and he has not seen much practice time either. Generally, the starter takes all of the practice snaps, while the backup runs the scout team.

Dorsey often remains long after practices throwing passes to receivers looking for extra work. He has also regularly seen tossing balls at a net target after practice.

"I've said all along Ken was an odd-man out, but I believe he'll be a very capable backup," Nolan said. "I believe it will take him a few weeks to get into the flow. Hopefully, Alex stays strong and stays healthy, and we won't have to go to Ken any time soon."

ARRINGTON OVERRATED? Nolan said he is not surprised that Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington has seen a dramatic reduction in playing time. Nolan intimated that Arrington, a three-time Pro Bowl player, has been vastly overrated.

"I think perception and reality are a little askew on that one," Nolan said of Arrington being a great player.

"He's OK," Nolan said. "I think they have some other guys playing pretty good in front of him, so they made a change."

There appear to be some similarities between the Arrington situation and what transpired with the 49ers and Jamie Winborn, who was recently traded to the Jaguars. The 49ers became frustrated with Winborn's free-lancing on defense. The team blamed Winborn for giving up three touchdowns because of blown assignments in the first three games of the season.

NOT DOWN ON THIS DRAFT: Vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan remains convinced this 49ers rookie class is going to be productive for a long time.

"It's going to be a good draft," McCloughan said, "especially the second day. All the guys on the first day will all be legit NFL starters. I'm excited about the second day guys, especially the two receivers."

McCloughan said he likes what he sees from quarterback-turned-receiver Rasheed Marshall, a fifth-round pick who has yet to catch a pass this season, and practice squad receiver Marcus Maxwell, a big and speedy project who was selected in the seventh round.

KWAME WILL BE OK: The 49ers remain confident Kwame Harris will develop into a good right tackle after he spent his first two seasons in the NFL struggling at left tackle. Harris has shown some inconsistency at his new position, though.

"He's good enough to win with and he's getting better," McCloughan said. "The thing that impresses me about him is that he's a big kid and it's very important to him. He works very hard. The thing that's held him back is he hasn't been able to lift with upper body because of shoulder issues (the last two offseasons). He needs to add that strength in the upper body. Once he does that, he has a chance to be a good right tackle in the NFL.

"He'll go a couple series and be fine, and doing what he's supposed to be doing. I don't know if it's a new system to him or what but then something happens and he'll have a tough series."

WANTED: PLAYMAKERS: One of their big priorities remains trying to find or develop some offensive stars. It's no surprise the 49ers have gone 28 possessions without a touchdown and rank 31st in the league in total offense.

"The thing that stands out the most is a big-time playmaker on offense," McCloughan said. "Brandon (Lloyd) has made some big plays, and he has the potential to be a good receiver, but you don't have the guy who's the go-to guy on third down and he's going to make the play. That's the one thing that stands out the most. There are good football players here, but the depth wasn't as much as you'd like. There was a reason they had the record that they had. You don't blame all that on the coaching."

GET THEM IN THE GAME: McCloughan said he would like to see some of the team's younger players get a chance to develop in the second half of the season to get an idea of which direction the team needs to go next season.

"As a personnel guy I'd like to see some of the young guys get in there and prove they can or can't do it," McCloughan said. "We know that we're building for next year anyway, but we also need to watch the veterans and see if they are a part of this thing because that will show us how we need to attack free agency and the draft next year.

"You have to build through the draft. You have to have two or three drafts where you get some guys who add depth to you and you feel comfortable about moving them up to starters when guys get hurt."

The offensive line is a spot where the 49ers could end up with some youngsters starting before too long.

Guard/center David Baas, the 33rd overall selection, might have been a starter from the opening week but he sustained a torn hamstring while running July 22, a week before training camp. He did not practice with the team until Aug. 29. Also, guard/tackle Adam Snyder, a third-round pick, saw a lot of action at right guard in the exhibition season, but did not crack the team's starting lineup.

"We do have our best guys on the field at this point," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "I'm excited about the future in David Baas, Patrick Estes (a seventh-round pick) and Adam Snyder. (But) I don't think they're at the point right now to unseat anybody."

The offensive line is considered one of the team's liabilities - especially with left tackle Jonas Jennings' potential season-ending shoulder injury - but the 49ers' top personnel executive said the line could turn into one of the franchise's strengths.

"I feel pretty comfortable with the guys on the O-line that we took in the draft and the guys already here," McCloughan said. "I feel it's a solid group with some depth, starting next year."

CODY IN THE MIX: Now that he's back to being the No. 3 quarterback, Pickett might have seen his days as a special-teams contributor come to an end. Pickett has suited up and played special teams in the 49ers' last two games.

Moreover, Nolan has also tinkered with the idea of seeing if Pickett can play some free safety. Pickett has been one of the 49ers' better practice players, as he lines up at wide receiver and safety for the scout team.

"We'll be able to get Cody in the mix, as far as working more at quarterback and not just on special teams," Nolan said. "Although, I'm still undecided on if I'll have him do both."

DORSEY NO WEDGE-BUSTER: Dorsey has been a bit of a forgotten man this season, which he admits has been frustrating. But he said he never considered following Pickett into a prominent role on special teams.

"I'll be a holder," Dorsey said. "I'm not a wedge buster or anything like that."

LONG HOURS REQUIRED: Nolan is reluctant to talk about how many hours he logs at work because he believes it is a part of the job that is unavoidable. He also said he thinks it is something that should not be glamorized.

"Some coaches love to tell everybody how hard they work," Nolan said. "Let's just say I don't believe I get outworked."

Nolan's father, Dick, coached in the league, and he had an opinion about coaches who put in lots of hours.

"Dad said, 'If I'm going against a guy who needs to spend that much time there, then I'm less worried about that ballgame than others,'" Nolan said. "Now my dad was probably a guy who slept in the office too because I hardly ever saw dad. He didn't want anybody to know that. He wanted everybody to say, 'You must be smart, Dick, you're only doing eight-hour days, and you're still beating these guys who are doing 15-hour days.'"

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