Finishing what they started: The free agents

Whether a result of injuries, merit or predestination, seven rookies or second-year players have worked their way into the 49ers' regular starting lineup by December who weren't there at the end of September. Some will be staying a while. But not all of them. The 49ers must soon determine where the spare parts that have been their 2005 fill-ins fit into the team's grand scheme for major improvement in 2006. Today: A look at the young free agents who have dented the starting lineup.

MIKE ADAMS

Position: Free safety

How acquired: Signed by 49ers as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2004. Spent first eight games of last season on team's practice squad and the final eight games on San Francisco's 53-man roster.

When entered starting lineup: Took over as the starting free safety in Week 4 after Nolan quickly recognized that moving cornerback Mike Rumph to safety was a failed experiment.

Pros and cons: Adams has been one of San Francisco's top defenders this season, making an impact as the team's nickel back before moving into the starting lineup at safety. His interception late in the fourth quarter sealed the team's Week 1 victory over St. Louis. His speed and quickness as the last line of defense have been an asset as opponents rarely get behind him. Adams was second on the team in tackles before spraining his knee in Week 13. By the end of November, he had developed into a leader in San Francisco's injury-ravaged secondary. He still is learning the techniques of the position and has not yet developed the ball-hawking mentality and vision of a play-making free safety. Sometimes gets caught out of position and tends to rely too often on his speed to make up for mistakes. Does not have optimum height or range for the position.

Where he fits in 2006: Adams has proven himself as a legitimate NFL player with a breakthrough second season, and he very well may find himself back as the starting free safety if the 49ers do not upgrade at the position during the offseason. He was learning on the job throughout 2005 and has the skills and potential to develop into a quality player. At the very least, Adams will vie for a prominent role in coverage packages and on special teams if he does not remain a starter.

BEN EMANUEL

Position: Strong safety

How acquired: Signed by 49ers to their practice squad on Oct. 4 after being released from the Carolina Panthers practice squad on Sept. 16. Was selected in fifth round of 2005 NFL draft by Carolina.

When entered starting lineup: Made his first NFL start as an outside linebacker when the 49ers opened the game in a nickel defense in Week 9 against the New York Giants. Moved in as a regular starter at strong safety two weeks later after Tony Parrish suffered a season-ending leg injury in Week 10 at Chicago.

Pros and cons: Big hitter has great size and has displayed good reaction skills and ability to break on the football while it's in the air. Was a three-year starter at free safety in college at UCLA, so he has experience in deep zone coverages. Ability is raw, but Emanuel has enough speed to compete when not asked to stay with the faster wideouts. Like most rookie defensive backs, he has been slow to absorb the intricacies of complex coverage schemes at the NFL level.

Where he fits in 2006: When Parrish went down, Nolan opted to go with Emanuel over second-year veteran Keith Lewis, who has been in the San Francisco system much longer. That indicates Emanuel's potential is highly regarded, but he still is something of an unproven, unknown quantity who won't start ahead of Parrish but could be his backup. If Emanuel can make the roster as a reserve next season, he could be a top contributor on special teams while being given an opportunity to develop for more extensive opportunities on defense down the line.

BRUCE THORNTON

Position: Cornerback

How acquired: Signed by 49ers to their practice squad on Sept. 22 after being waived by the Dallas Cowboys on Sept. 8. Was selected by Cowboys in fourth round of 2004 NFL draft.

When entered starting lineup: Two weeks after being elevated from the 49ers' practice squad, Thornton took over as the starter at left cornerback in Week 5 and then remained there even after sixth-year starter Ahmed Plummer – the regular at the position – returned from ankle surgery in November.

Pros and cons: Has quality coverage skills and can be left alone on the edge in man-to-man situations. Has excellent technique and can turn and run well with all receivers. Was a find for the 49ers after Plummer went down and quickly moved past veteran Willie Middlebrooks and rookie Derrick Johnson on the cornerback depth chart to become a steady contributor in the team's secondary. Thornton struggles at times to stay with assignments in zone coverages. He stands barely 5-foot-10 and can be out-jumped and out-muscled by bigger receivers. Has displayed play-making skills but must keep focused to be a consistent player.

Where he fits in 2006: The 49ers were so impressed by Thornton's immediate impact in their struggling secondary that they signed him to a one-year contract extension midway through the season. Whether he truly is a quality starting talent remains debatable, but Thornton clearly has been San Francisco's most effective cornerback behind right-side starter Shawntae Spencer in 2005. He'll be playing somewhere next season in secondary coverage packages, perhaps as the team's top nickel back or as a transitional starter while the team develops a newcomer with more upside potential. Given that opportunity, Thornton could make it his position to lose.

TOMORROW: The young draft picks


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