Projection game: 49ers' 2006 lineup

Changes – they are coming for the 49ers. When the team convenes at 49ers headquarters Friday for the start of a three-day minicamp, the holdover veterans will mix for the first time with the new breed of rookies and offseason free agents as San Francisco's 2006 lineup begins to take shape. It will look a lot different than last year, with as many as 12 new players in the regular starting lineup as compared to 2005. Here's a preliminary projection with analysis of what that lineup will look like.

The player on the left is the team's regular 2005 starter at the position, determined by number of starts. The player on the right is SFI's projected 2006 starter as the team heads into Friday's first structured full-squad workout of the year:

QB: Alex Smith --- Alex Smith
RB: Kevan Barlow --- Frank Gore
FB: Fred Beasley --- Chris Hetherington
LT: Adam Snyder --- Jonas Jennings
LG: Justin Smiley --- Larry Allen
C: Jeremy Newberry --- Eric Heitmann
RG: Eric Heitmann --- David Baas
RT: Kwame Harris --- Adam Snyder
TE: Billy Bajema --- Vernon Davis
WR: Brandon Lloyd --- Antonio Bryant
WR: Arnaz Battle --- Arnaz Battle

Analysis: That's what you call an offensive makeover. The 49ers figure to have new regular starters in eight of 11 positions compared to their feeble 2005 offense, which ranked last in the NFL. Gore probably won't participate in this week's minicamp while he continues to recover from offseason shoulder surgery, but expect him to take the featured back role from Barlow, unless the competition for the job he owned in 2004-2005 suddenly spurs Barlow to greater heights that he hasn't reached since 2003. Plan on Heitmann being the center until further notice – it seems iffy at best that Newberry will still be in the plans when it all shakes down by the end of this summer. There will be great competition for playing time along the line with a bunch of talented up-and-comers, particularly at right guard where Baas and Smiley will fight it out with maybe even Heitmann joining the mix. After the addition of Allen, the team said Smiley will switch to RG and begin the spring as the starter there, but we're not buying it. Baas can't match Smiley's speed, but he's a brute force and the better player. Harris will have a hard time holding off Snyder, whom the team wants to remain in the starting lineup now that Jennings is returning from his shoulder injury. Eric Johnson will do his best to show the team he can stay healthy and hold onto the starting TE job he owned from 2001-2004, but it's not going to happen. Expect him to see plenty of time in two-TE sets, however, in which both he and Davis will be used as receivers in different formations.

RDE: Marques Douglas --- Marques Douglas
NT: Anthony Adams --- Anthony Adams
LDE: Bryant Young --- Bryant Young
LOLB: Julian Peterson --- Manny Lawson
LILB: Derek Smith --- Derek Smith
RILB: Jeff Ulbrich --- Jeff Ulbrich
ROLB: Andre Carter --- Corey Smith
RCB: Shawntae Spencer --- Shawntae Spencer
LCB: Bruce Thornton --- Walt Harris
SS: Tony Parrish --- Tony Parrish
FS: Mike Adams --- Chad Williams

Analysis: Don't look now, but we have a suspicion that the 49ers may still attempt to bring in a free agent before training camp who might shake up the starting front three of Young, Adams and Douglas in the 3-4 set. The team has yet to address in the offseason that area, which appears vulnerable depth-wise, and big Isaac Sopoaga easily could move in as the starting nose tackle by the end of the summer with Adams playing a versatile role at all three line positions. Like Davis on offense, Lawson will be penciled in as a starter from Day One and will remain there even if he experiences growing pains. It's not like he has much competition for the job anyway. The team is set in the middle with Ulbrich and Smith, and we're going with Smith as the preliminary starter on the right side, though it may not shake out that way if rookie Parys Haralson displays he can be more than a pass-rushing specialist early in his career. Brandon Moore also will get a look here and will be used occasionally on passing downs to beef up the pass rush, but team would rather groom his as the top backup on the inside rather than committing to him as a starter on the outside, which isn't where his skills are best suited. Perhaps the biggest questions on the entire team are who will start at left cornerback opposite Spencer and at free safety opposite Parrish. There is no less than five names that could have a shot at cornerback, but the team is going with the proven veteran experience of Harris to begin with and then see if any among the logjam of youngsters can take away the position from him. The options are many if Harris doesn't distinguish himself in the role - Thornton, Derrick Johnson, Mike Rumph, newcomer Sammy Davis or even Adams, whom the team would rather have settle in as a versatile nickel back who can be used several ways in multiple coverage packages. The 49ers would like a new face besides Adams at free safety, but that role could go to a strong-safety type such as Williams, since strong safety and free safety are interchangeable positions in San Francisco's defense, and Parrish has displayed he can handle free safety duties. Williams gets the nod there because of his veteran experience, but newcomers will get a look and – like left cornerback – that is one starting position that certainly isn't set yet.

K: Joe Nedney --- Joe Nedney
P: Andy Lee --- Andy Lee
LS: Brian Jennings --- Brian Jennings
PR: Rasheed Marshall --- Brandon Williams
KR:Maurice Hicks --- Maurice Hicks

Analysis: Special teams – in particular, specialists Nedney, Lee and Jennings – were the one area of the 49ers that could be considered both stable and dependable in 2005, and that's why there won't be much change here. Nedney is a top-flight kicker – the best the 49ers have had in a decade – Lee is adequate and improving at punter and Jennings is simply one of the best in the business. The big change here will be in the lineup of returners, which could change completely after last year's miserable results. Williams developed into one of the top punt returners in college last year, and the team is very high on him taking over that role and providing San Francisco some firepower in it this year. He also could wind up returning kickoffs, though the team first wants to see how much he can contribute as a complementary receiver. Hicks is a good kickoff returner, but it remains to be seen what will happen in a backfield shakeup now that some rookies have been added to the mix, and he might be fighting just to make the roster. But if he's on it, Hicks will be used again here.

Niners Digest Top Stories