Minicamp battleground

After adding a fresh layer of talent through the 2006 draft & free agency, the 49ers began to sort it all out during their full-squad spring minicamp the past three days at team headquarters. While several key players were held out of team drills as they continue to recover from injuries and/or surgeries, the battle lines have been drawn and competition for several key roles began to emerge. Here's a look at some of the contentions that will carry over into training camp this summer and beyond.

RUNNING BACK: While Frank Gore (shoulder surgery) and Kevan Barlow (knee surgery) participated in some individual drills but mostly yucked it up on the sidelines during team sessions, Maurice Hicks took snaps with the first team – a role to which he is no stranger after making an impact in starting cameos in both 2004 and 2005 after others ahead of him on the depth chart were injured. Hicks' speed, shiftiness, versatility and emerging veteran experience makes him a valuable backup to the Barlow/Gore duo, and he looked as good as usual in shorts and helmets during the three-day session. But he still couldn't prevent the materializing impression that his roster spot could be in jeopardy as the team moves forward. That's a result of the impressive arrival of fourth-round draft pick Michael Robinson, who got many of the snaps Hicks didn't in team drills and ran with authority and precision while flashing good speed and quick moves with his big, chiseled physique. Robinson was one the eye-openers of minicamp, and it's apparent the 49ers are going to have a crowded backfield and some decisions to make when the real competition begins this summer. Like most observers, coach Mike Nolan was particularly impressed with Robinson. "He handled himself very well and it was evident because he was in on a lot of plays," Nolan said. "He did a wide variety of things for such a short notice for minicamp. It's not like he got a book all week to study. He showed up on Thursday night like everybody else and Friday it was cold turkey." Veteran Terry Jackson also got snaps in third-down situations and, as he has throughout his quality seven seasons with the 49ers, he looked smooth and capable of being productive in the role. But even at this early juncture, it appears certain that Robinson will be on the team's final roster in September. Will that leave room for Hicks and Jackson, or either of them? Stay tuned.

QUARTERBACK: The dynamics at this position will change once Trent Dilfer's knee is healthy enough to allow him to being practicing with the 49ers, perhaps as soon as organized team activities in early June. Dilfer is going to be Alex Smith's backup, and that is that. That changes things for Cody Pickett and Jesse Palmer, because each of them had a realistic chance to stick with the team in the three-way battle for two roster spots when Ken Dorsey still was around. Now Dorsey is with the Cleveland Browns after the trade that brought 13th-year veteran Dilfer to San Francisco, and Pickett and Palmer clearly are fighting for one roster spot. Even that spot could be tenuous if they don't perform, because the team has converted college quarterbacks Robinson at Arnaz Battle around, and they have the capability of filling the emergency No. 3 quarterback role if the team decides to begin the season with just Smith and Dilfer at the position. That leaves a sense of urgency for both Pickett and Palmer, and both of them looked good during minicamp – even better than Smith on some occasions. Pickett displayed a rocket arm and continues to show his athleticism and legitimate skills at the position. But Palmer looked even better. He was smooth in the pocket, displayed nice touch on his passes and impressed with the accuracy of his long throws. If Dilfer weren't around, you'd think the guy might be able to handle the veteran backup QB role the team has been looking to fill since Smith was drafted last year.

WIDE RECEIVER: You have Antonio Bryant and Arnaz Bryant as the clear starters, and then … Well, it's anybody's guess. Veteran newcomer Bryan Gilmore had the lead role as the No. 3 wideout as minicamp began, but while he displays the legitimate skills of a sixth-year NFL veteran, it's eminently apparent that his job can be had by younger, more athletic prospects. That's not to say Gilmore won't make the roster, but the opportunity is there for others to step up and slide him into a No. 4 or No. 5 insurance role at the position. However, second-year players Marcus Maxwell and Rasheed Marshall continued to be unimpressive. The two 2005 draft picks were raw and inconsistent, and Marshall was the recipient of several tongue-lashings from receivers coach Jerry Sullivan after dropping passes and running ambiguous routes. Maxwell's size and athleticism always are eye-catching, but his lack of concentration doesn't appear to be improved over 2005. The logjam at receiver includes Fred Amey (who made some nice catches), P.J. Fleck (who appears to be getting lost in the shuffle), Jason McAddley (can the veteran surprise and make the roster again?) and third-round draft pick Brandon Williams, who appears to be a top candidate for the No. 3 role but didn't get a whole lot of work at receiver during the weekend as he concentrated on fielding punts. Conspicuously limited in the competition was 2004 third-round pick Derrick Hamilton, a top contender for the No. 3 role at this time last year who continues a slow recovery from the torn knee ligament he suffered May 15 a year ago.

CORNERBACK: Shawntae Spencer is locked in at right cornerback, and he is displaying the poised, confident, veteran look of a No. 1 corner. But after Spencer, the competition at the position is wide open and it will be a long time before it shakes out who makes the roster, more less earns the top roles starting on the left side and playing in nickel and dime coverage packages. Veteran newcomer Walt Harris begins the spring as the starter on the left side and, as his 10 years of NFL experience might suggest, he looks like he's been playing there a while. At this point, it already appears that it's his job to lose. Perhaps the most impressive sight in this group was Mike Rumph, who showed some flash in nickel back opportunities. After his failed experiment at safety last year and the foot injury that ended his 2005 season in September, the former first-round draft pick has lost almost 10 pounds from last year and appears determined to resurrect his career. Derrick Johnson, the sixth-round pick from 2005, also exhibited that he will be a player in the competition for several roles. Mike Adams, who ultimately could be the team's starting nickel back and a key player in this competition, remained at free safety – where he started nine games last season – while Tony Parrish (broken leg last November) sat out minicamp as a precaution. Adams was joined at safety on the first-team defense by newcomer Chad Williams, who looked overweight and out of shape, but the real competition here won't develop until later because several of the top contenders at the position were limited by injuries.


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