49ers training camp: 8 Poised for a Breakout

The 49ers have been down for all too long, and the coming season will be about picking themselves up again from the bottom of the NFL. Several performers must emerge on both sides of the football to make that happen, and here's a breakdown on eight key players who are poised for a breakout in 2006 as the team prepares for the beginning of training camp later this month.

FRANK GORE: The prevalent buzz around the NFL is that the league expects Gore to become one of the Niners' top young stars in 2006. Given a clean bill of health after offseason surgery to repair torn labrums in both shoulders, Gore could be on his way to becoming the featured back in San Francisco's revamped offense and one of the league's top young rushers. Norv Turner likes to set up the pass by pounding the opposition into submission with a power running game, and the Niners might have the offensive line to do it. Gore certainly appears to be the back to do it, and the 49ers will ride him if he can stay healthy and handle the wear and tear.

ANTONIO BRYANT: His character is in question as he comes to the 49ers, but Bryant's talent is undeniable and he can do big things if the team can get him the football. Given the attitude adjustment of starting over with his third NFL team in his fifth pro season, Bryant appears poised to leave his baggage behind and develop into the legitimate No. 1 wide receiver the Niners have been looking for since Terrell Owens left town.

JEFF ULBRICH: He was among the NFL leaders in tackles last year before his season ended abruptly with a torn biceps in Week 5. After signing a lengthy contract extension, this hard-nosed player is ready to thrive in the team's 3-4 defensive system next to productive tackle machine Derek Smith. The 3-4 scheme will funnel ball carriers toward Ulbrich, who has good size and burst and has developed the tenacity to make plays from sideline to sideline as he enters his NFL prime.

SHAWNTAE SPENCER: He established himself as a legitimate cover corner in his second season last year, and the tools are there for him to take the next step this season. With safety Tony Parrish coming off a leg injury in his ninth NFL season, some expect Spencer to take over as the new leader and top performer in a secondary that has been among the NFL's worst for several years running. Spencer developed a nose for the football last season while making a team-leading four interceptions and 14 pass deflections, and he displayed consistent progress on his ability to make plays on the football.

ADAM SNYDER: After the way he came on strong at the end of his rookie season last year, it might not be long before he gains recognition as one of the top young offensive tackles in the league. To be sure, many expect him to take away the starting position at right tackle from Kwame Harris, who started all 16 games there last season. Snyder has the versatility to excel at guard and can play virtually every position along the line besides center, so there are several places he can show his stuff on a unit that 49ers have worked to upgrade significantly over the past 18 months.

JOE NEDNEY: If the 49ers can get the football past midfield a little more often this year, Nedney has proven he can put the ball between the uprights from virtually anywhere, and he could emerge as one of the NFC's top kickers if given the opportunity. While making 26 of his 28 field-goal attempts last year, Nedney was perfect from between 40-49 yards and also boomed 3-pointers from 52 and 56 yards, which tied Mike Cofer's team record. If San Francisco's offense finally can get it going in 2006, Nedney will be there to roll right along with it.

VERNON DAVIS: He's just a rookie, but his name already is being bandied about among the top contenders for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. He has all the physical tools to succeed immediately, including a chiseled physique and great speed that may already make him the fastest player on the team. If the 49ers can develop other offensive weapons around him, Davis will find more one-on-one opportunities on which to feast, and that could find him putting up productive numbers sooner rather than later. He quickly could become the team's top offensive playmaker and receiving target.

ALEX SMITH: Not a whole lot is being expected of him after his rookie-year implosion, but the 49ers definitely put most of their offseason focus into setting up Smith for success. He was overmatched last season, but the experience of learning under the gun with little talent around him in 2005 could pay dividends this season now that he has settled into his prominent role with the team and has had another year to absorb the system.


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