At the crossroads
These veterans are listed in order of immediacy to perform to keep their standing with the team and guarantee either their return in 2007 or a spot on the roster in 2006: 1. RB Kevan Barlow: To his credit, Barlow was having a better 2005 than his numbers would suggest before injuries cut short his season, and he ingratiated himself with the new coaches with improved maturity, work ethic and willingness to learn. The potential Barlow displayed while rushing for 1,024 yards and averaging 5.1 yards a carry in 2003 still is brewing beneath the surface, and he will get another chance to display it behind and improved offensive line this season. But it's now put up or shut up time for Barlow, who must produce after two years of relative failure. If he doesn't, Frank Gore, Michael Robinson, Maurice Hicks & Co. are waiting in the wings, and there is no reason to keep Barlow around for the final two seasons of the five-year deal he signed in 2004. 2. C Jeremy Newberry: Newberry said recently that "I want to go out and play a full season (in 2006); my goal is 16 games," but nobody really knows for sure if the two-time Pro Bowler ever will play another snap. Newberry had major microfracture surgery on his troubled right knee late last year and he has started only 11 of 32 games the past two seasons because of injuries. Entering his ninth NFL season, there is no doubt the old warhorse still has the will and determination to be a force in the trenches, but his body will have to let him do it. Nolan already has said Newberry must practice regularly with the team – he seldom practiced as the season wore on and his knee wore down last year – so that the team's young offensive line can develop the cohesion and continuity it lacked most of last season. If he is unable to do so, that alone could remove Newberry from the team's plans. 3. CB Mike Rumph: The 2002 first-round draft pick is basically coming off two lost seasons, and the impressions he made before the new regime last year were not all good ones. Rumph failed in a brief but worthwhile three-game trial at free safety, then suffered his second consecutive season-ending injury in late September. The Niners are aiming to totally revamp one of the NFL's worst secondaries of recent seasons, and Rumph must stand up immediately if he wants to be a part of those plans, because all he has shown so far is that he's injury-plagued and quite possibly a first-round bust. 4. TE Eric Johnson: Johnson had a career year in 2004, establishing himself as one of the NFL's top receiving threats at tight end with a team-high 82 receptions, the most by a TE in franchise history. But after missing all of the 2005 season with a foot injury – the second time in three years Johnson missed an entire season due to injury – Johnson has a lot to prove to the new coaching staff in 2006, the final year of his contract with the team. And with new top draft pick Vernon Davis around, plentiful opportunities to do so might not come easily. 5. OT Kwame Harris: One of just five 49ers to start all 16 games last season, Harris will be feeling a lot of heat to perform for a fourth-year lineman who ostensibly still is entering his prime. Harris displayed some promising moments in 2005, particularly in run blocking, but his struggles with inconsistency and pass blocking continued, and many expect second-year up-and-comer Adam Snyder to take away the starting position at right tackle this summer. Harris still was the starter there this spring, and he would seemingly be a solid third tackle candidate if the Niners go with Snyder and Jennings as their starters. But Harris' contract is up in 2007, and the 49ers are looking for both better performance and value from him this season. If he can't hold off Snyder – who is versatile enough to play several positions – Harris' days, and certainly seasons, with the team could be numbered. 6. RB Terry Jackson: Jackson has been a valuable member of the 49ers since coming to the team as a fifth-round draft pick in 1999 – a tough, team-first player who has been a stud and leader on special teams while also contributing quality performance as a reserve running back, where he has averaged 4.7 yards per rush and caught 51 passes during his career. Jackson also has had 17 or more tackles on special teams in a season five times, including last year, when he led the team with 21. But the 49ers want to get younger and better, and Jackson will have to fight off youngsters such as Michael Robinson to keep the role he has held with the team for several years. 7. S Tony Parrish: Parrish has undeniably been one of the 49ers' very best players since the day he arrived to take over as the starting strong safety in 2002. But, entering his ninth NFL season, he certainly isn't getting any younger, and his progress this summer will be watched closely after he returns from an injury to his left leg that included a broken ankle, a separation between his tibia and fibula and a spiral fracture that ran about six inches up his fibula. Parrish is in the final season of the five-year deal he signed with the team in 2006, so he must show the 49ers he has still got it to have a future with the team beyond 2006. 8. WR Derrick Hamilton: After virtually a redshirt rookie season in 2004 when he didn't catch a pass, the third-round draft pick was showing his stuff before the new regime before tearing knee ligaments in practice 13 months ago. At the time, Hamilton was running as the team's No. 3 receiver and was headed toward a big opportunity for playing time in 2005. Instead, he missed the entire season, and his recovery from the severe injury has been slow. Meanwhile, the 49ers have added a bundle of fresh new talent at receiver to upgrade one of the weakest positions on the roster, and Hamilton has fallen down the depth chart and perhaps out of the team's plans. The time is now for Hamilton if he wants to prevent a slide entirely off the roster. 9. QB Cody Pickett: Pickett, another 2004 draft choice, displayed a lot of promise at quarterback during his first two summers with the team, but his inexperience and erraticism at the NFL level were exposed when he got a starting opportunity after injuries to several others last season. Now, Nolan already is saying that Pickett may no longer have a future with the team as a quarterback, though he could have value to the team playing several other roles. Pickett still sees himself as a QB, however, and it's difficult to see the team reserving a roster spot for him this season – or seasons to come, for that matter – if he can't significantly help the team in more areas than just potential. 10. WR Rasheed Marshall: Marshall, a fifth-round pick in 2005, is the only non-holdover from the previous regime to be included on this list, because he appears in serious jeopardy of holding onto his roster spot with the team, even though he was a member of Nolan & Co.'s first draft class last year. Nolan and his subordinates are big on building the team by developing the fresh new talent they are bringing in, but Marshall struggled immensely last year in his transition from college quarterback to NFL receiver/kick returner. Those struggles have continued this spring and, while Marshall certainly has the athleticism to make it, he is one young veteran who's already facing an uphill battle to keep his spot on the team.
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