Is Corey Smith fit for starting slot?

Corey Smith began the spring designated as a starter at outside linebacker for the 49ers, but as the fifth-year veteran said, "You never know where people are going to end up." And that's particularly true for Smith, the rugged defender who this year has a golden opportunity to make a name for himself and win a job at a vital position that's there for the taking in the San Francisco lineup.

As the Niners continue to re-tool their defense in the methodical transition to Mike Nolan's 3-4 system, Smith is getting prime consideration for regular playing time at one of the most crucial positions in that defensive scheme.

With 2005 starters Andre Carter and Julian Peterson both long gone from San Francisco's rebuilding project after signing rich free-agent deals elsewhere, there are huge voids on the edges next to returning middle linebackers Derek Smith and Jeff Ulbrich.

First-round draft pick Manny Lawson will fill one of them. On the other side? Well, it was Smith – the one that goes by Corey – who was lining up opposite Lawson with the first team when the 49ers began their spring workout sessions with their early May minicamp.

And with that role came some pretty big expectations for a team looking to pump up its pass rush and improve on its dismal 2005 showing, when the 49ers ranked dead last in the NFL in total defense.

Both OLB positions are somewhat interchangeable, with either side blitzing on the pass rush on any given play. And pass rushing might be the best thing Smith brings to the position.

"On the outside, where Andre Carter was (last year), I would like to believe that will either be Corey Smith or Manny Lawson, one of the two," Nolan said. "Brandon Moore gave us a good show last year on the pass rush, so he'll be in that package on the outside. We're giving (Smith) every opportunity to be on the field. So we'll see if it's strong or weak (side). A lot of that depends on the defensive call. I would hope he would play a bigger role this year. We'll see how it goes."

Smith, a natural defensive end who was signed off Tampa Bay's practice squad in December of 2004 and then played in one late-season game with the 49ers that season, impressed the Nolan regime last year with a strong performance in training camp and preseason, when he led the Niners with four sacks.

"He did a real nice job in preseason last year, and then we moved him into the full-time linebacker spot, so some of the coverage things are a little bit off for him," Nolan said.

So Smith mostly watched and learned from the sidelines in 2005 as Carter and Peterson each started 14 games at outside linebacker. After Jamie Winborn was traded in early October, Moore stepped up as the top reserve on the outside (he also started eight games at inside linebacker) and Smith saw scant action on defense, finishing the season with just one tackle.

But Smith was one of San Francisco's top special teams performers – he was fourth on the team with 13 tackles on those units – and the 49ers liked what they saw of Smith's defensive development in practice. So much so, that they signed him to a three-year, $1.825 million contract extension last December that included a $75,000 signing bonus and $275,000 in guaranteed money.

That deal let everybody know Smith was a part of San Francisco's future plans, and him running with the starters in May was further proof.

"It's a great opportunity for me, and I'm out there competing," Smith said. "I worked hard last year, stayed healthy and everything, and now I'm just trying to take the opportunity and run with it."

His conversion from defensive end to outside linebacker is taking some time. At the end of San Francisco's organized team activities in June, the Niners moved Moore back outside with the first-team defense in the place that had been occupied most of the spring by Smith.

The Niners, however, would like to keep Moore – who signed a five-year, $8 million deal with the team in March – as the top backup at both inside linebacker positions, and Nolan said not to read too much into who is playing with what unit in June.

"The depth chart and the amount of reps guys get right now is not really a critical thing at this time," Nolan said last week at the finish of the team's organized team activities. "It's really about them getting familiar about how we run things. So at this point the amount of repetitions, I wouldn't read anything in to it because it's insignificant."

The significant repetitions begin when training camp starts July 28, and Smith said he'll be ready to make his starting bid.

"Wherever they put me, wherever the opportunity comes, I'll be ready for it," Smith said. "I can bring some things. I can bring what I've learned (about the position), and I can bring speed from the edge."

Smith said the knowledge he gathered while learning to play linebacker last year will help him emerge at the position this year.

"Watching people like 'Dre and Julian kind of prepared me, seeing what they were doing, how they handle certain things, and how they look at film," Smith said. "I just sat back and watched and learned from those guys. It was like I was being a rookie last year, just watching those guys, looking at what they do, and seeing if it's going to pay off this year. Hopefully, it will."

The 49ers sure hope so. Many believed the team might bring in another proven veteran free agent to compete at the position, and that certainly still could happen before training camp begins. But it hasn't happened yet, and Smith sees his chances to make it in the NFL are better as a linebacker in a 3-4 system than they ever would be at defensive end, the position he primarily played during his first three NFL seasons and in college at North Carolina State, where he finished his career with 30 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks.

"You look at the NFL today, and defensive ends are like 6-foot-3 and almost 300 pounds," Smith said. "I'm 6-2 and 250, you know what I'm saying? But that experience (at defensive end) taught me to be more aggressive. A lot of linebackers, they're more concerned with pass options and stuff. I've been going against 300-pound offensive linemen.

"As a linebacker, I can go out and cover, fake like I'm going to cover, blitz and things like that. Just mixing it up a lot. It's a very flexible position in this system. I kind of like that, being versatile and everything. Dropping in coverage is still something I'm getting used to, but it's not something that's out of my league."

The question now is if starting in the NFL is out of Smith's league. He and the 49ers are about to find out.

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