Youth movement is in the Cards

Although Niners coach Mike Nolan says his club has more to accomplish this season, the 49ers hope to use the final five games to position themselves for 2006. Nolan has raved about what he thinks was an outstanding draft class, but there have been few clues thus far to suggest his optimism is warranted.

The top pick, quarterback Alex Smith, has played in just four games, struggling mightily in his two starts. Even guard David Baas, who was chosen with the first pick of the second round, has yet to make any contribution.

But the 49ers figure to start leaning on their younger players a lot more, beginning this week against the Arizona Cardinals at Monster Park.

Smith is back in the starting lineup, and Baas joins fellow rookie Adam Snyder on the starting offensive line. Snyder has made two starts at left tackle after earning his first career start at right guard Nov. 13 against the Bears.

"The good thing about Adam is that I think it's safe to say that he would be a starter on the offensive line," Nolan said.

Of course, the 49ers have similar plans for Smith and Baas.

Smith is back in the lineup after sustaining a sprained right knee in the 49ers' 52-17 loss Oct. 23 against the Redskins. One day after the 49ers lost their fourth straight, a 33-22 setback to the Titans, Nolan made the switch to replace Ken Dorsey for a healthy Smith.

Nolan said the quarterback job will remain with Smith for the rest of the season - barring another injury. It will be the team's fifth change at the quarterback position this season. Tim Rattay started the first four games, followed by Smith (two), Dorsey (one), Cody Pickett (two) and Dorsey (two).

Smith says he is much more ready this week than he was Oct. 9 against the Colts when he was making his first NFL start.

"I'm much different," Smith said. "Indianapolis seems like such a long time ago. I feel much more prepared. That game was a big deal. It was my first start at home against an undefeated team. They were the No. 1 defense, so this is much different. I need to get better and I need to improve. I was the No. 1 pick and it was my first start."

Nolan said he is encouraged by the feedback he has received from offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy and quarterbacks coach Jim Hostler about Smith. Even as the backup, Smith was active in meetings and always making suggestions or asking questions about how certain plays could be adjusted.

"There's a tremendous amount of confidence by our offensive coaching staff and (vice president of player personnel) Scot McCloughan that Alex will be a hell of a quarterback in this league," Nolan said.

A longtime defensive assistant before landing the head-coaching job with the 49ers, Nolan said he looks at quarterbacks a little differently. He views them from the standpoint of what kind of fear they strike with defensive coaches.

"Alex has those things," Nolan said. "They (McCarthy and Hostler) reinforced what my beliefs are by saying something that I really don't put much weight into. It makes me feel much stronger about the future of the franchise as well as the quarterback position."

The 49ers had 10 draft picks and the nine remaining players could be in uniform on Sunday. The only draft pick no longer with the team is cornerback Daven Holly, who was among the team's final cuts. The 49ers planned to bring Holly back to the practice squad before the Bears claimed him for their 53-man roster.

The only other draft pick released was receiver Marcus Maxwell, who was then placed on the 53-man roster. Maxwell was promoted to the practice squad three weeks ago after the Packers and Jets made overtures toward signing him to their active rosters.

Of all the draft picks, it appeared Baas had the best chance of starting for the 49ers from the first day of the season. He appeared to be the favorite to start at right guard until he sustained a torn hamstring muscle while working out one week prior to training camp.

Baas missed virtually all of training camp, a setback that made it impossible for him to compete for a starting job. But this week Baas will get his chance, as he finds his way into the starting lineup after center Jeremy Newberry opted for season-ending knee surgery.

With Newberry out of action, right guard Eric Heitmann will switch from right guard to center. That creates the opening at right guard for Baas, who in future seasons could become the team's regular center. Baas played some on offense the last two weeks, but had to leave Sunday's game against the Titans early because of a concussion.

"I feel very prepared," Baas said. "I've been working a lot at center and right guard. I got a few snaps last week. I'm definitely confident and ready to go."

NINERS NOTES

--- Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young recently made the observation to Bay Area reporters that Alex Smith is a "system quarterback" who does not have the ability to create plays on his own.

When the 49ers drafted Smith, Nolan and McCarthy raved about his playmaking abilities. But Smith's college coach, Urban Meyer, said that Smith is "non-functional" until he learns all the ins and outs of the system.

When asked if he considers Smith a "system quarterback," Nolan said, "Early on, yes. As he goes forward, no."

Nolan explained that he sees what Meyer was talking about. Smith is such a meticulous student that he learns everything as it is taught. That approach might cause him to be mechanical in his approach until he absorbs all the intricacies of the offense.

"Once he's got it, he can use his legs and the whole Alex Smith to make plays," Nolan said. "He's not like Cody (Pickett) and can go out and use everything he's got from the beginning and let it fly."

--- If the draft were held today, the 49ers would not be in the Reggie Bush Sweepstakes. They own a 2-9 record, same as the Packers and Jets. The Texans have the worst record in the league and would have the No. 1 pick. But the Packers and Jets would select ahead of the 49ers based on their weaker strength of schedule. Right now, the 49ers would own the No. 4 overall draft pick.

--- Franchise player Julian Peterson might be getting too expensive for the 49ers' tastes. Peterson is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and the 49ers have retained him for one year at a time the previous two off-seasons by tagging him as their franchise player. However, this year it would cost at least $8.7 million to make that commitment.

So is Peterson worth it? He has shown some flashes of being the same disruptive player that he was before sustaining an Achilles' tendon tear last season against the Cardinals. But the club expected him to be a major presence as a pass rusher this season. Peterson had 2.5 sacks in the season opener against the Rams but does not have a sack since.

"All those decisions will be made after the season," Nolan said. "I'll let the last five weeks dictate things like that."

Last week, Peterson failed on a couple notable plays. He missed a tackle on Titans running back Chris Brown on a play that turned into a 41-yard touchdown. Also, he took a gamble on a potential interception that turned into a Titans pass completion on fourth down.

"I got to make plays like that," Peterson said. "My teammates depend on me to make plays like that. It's like we're there and we got to find a way to get that."

--- Because he has no cartilage in his right knee, Newberry will undergo microfracture surgery, in which bleeding is produced in the knee with the hope of creating tissue that can serve as a buffer from the painful bone-on-bone grinding he has experienced.

Newberry endured excruciating pain to play 10 games this season. His dedication has left its mark on Baas, who will start his first NFL game Sunday.

"It's just part of his drive and his competitiveness," Baas said. "I'm sure everybody was hoping that he could make it through the whole season, but he has to do what he has to do. That's a decision that he had to make and it's my turn to step up."

PLAYER UPDATES

--- G Tony Wragge, who was among the 49ers' final cuts before the regular season began, was re-signed to the active roster after the club placed Newberry on injured reserve. Nolan said Wragge is likely to remain with the team the rest of the season.

--- LB Renauld Williams was signed to the practice squad after he spent last week's game on the active roster. Williams saw action on special teams but did not make a tackle.

--- CB Shawntae Spencer is fourth on the team with 53 tackles and he leads the club with three interceptions and 11 passes broken up. Spencer scored his first career TD last week with a 61-yard interception return against the Titans.

--- K Jose Cortez will remain with the 49ers at least through this week as an insurance policy for Joe Nedney's hip and groin strains, which forced him to miss last week's game against the Titans. Nedney didn't practice again Thursday, but he is expected to try kicking again during Friday's session. He is questionable to play against the Cardinals.


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