Training camp battleground: No. 3 quarterback

Alex Smith is firmly in place as the 49ers' starting QB for better or worse in 2006, with Trent Dilfer entrenched as his experienced veteran backup who can be called upon in a pinch. But who's No. 3? That role belonged to Cody Pickett entering the spring, but he since has been caught and passed by others, leaving a training camp free-for-all among three players to decide who will get the job.

The Niners have given serious attention this year to upgrading their backup situation behind Smith, the team's franchise quarterback of the present and future. And that could leave Pickett on the outside looking in this summer, just 10 months after Niners coach Mike Nolan was saying the University of Washington product had a legitimate future as a NFL quarterback after keeping him on San Francisco's roster as a fourth QB.

Now it appears Pickett will either have to light it up during training camp or contribute as a jack-of-all-trades in other areas to keep his roster berth with the team in 2006.

The Niners re-signed Jesse Palmer – who spent three weeks with the team last November – early this year, then brought in fifth-year veteran Shaun Hill when he became available late in the spring. Palmer and Hill both displayed the polish that Pickett lacks during organized team activities in late May and June, and they ostensibly have taken the lead for the No. 3 role heading into training camp.

Hill – who has spent his first four NFL seasons holding a clipboard with the Minnesota Vikings, save two kneel-down snaps at the end of last season – was brought in after Pickett failed to show the kind of progress or development the team had hoped during the offseason. The 49ers wanted Pickett to hone his game and get more seasoning in live game situations this spring, but he declined an assignment to NFL Europe against the team's wishes.

Instead, Pickett remained with the Niners during offseason workouts, and while he continued to display the sheer athleticism that has allowed him to contribute at receiver and safety in practice situations and special teams in games last year, Palmer has shown much better pocket presence and a more accurate arm this spring.

Palmer, in fact, has displayed the best touch and consistency of any San Francisco quarterback this spring. Best known as "The Bachelor" of television fame, Palmer has shrugged off the snickers surrounding his leading-man association with that hit series to make a strong bid to stick with the Niners this summer. Palmer hasn't taken a snap in a NFL game since he played for the New York Giants in 2003, when he played in six games with three starts and finished the season with a quarterback rating of 58.5, but his arm has shown some nice zing.

Palmer was brought in as insurance last November after both Smith and Ken Dorsey were hurt, then was released after Smith returned from his knee injury. Meanwhile, with both Smith and Dorsey on the sideline, Pickett imploded in his two weeks as San Francisco's starting quarterback, completing only 14 of 35 passes for 140 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions for a team-low passer rating of 28.3.

Pickett completed just 1 of 13 passes in a November loss at Chicago, the fewest pass completions in a game by a San Francisco quarterback in the 60-year history of the franchise. Though windy, brutal winter conditions had a lot to do with that performance, Pickett's rough edges and inexperience reading defenses and making adjustments at the NFL level were prevalent, and he didn't play another snap behind center the rest of the season.

He still looks a lot like the prospect with raw potential that joined the 49ers as their seventh-round draft pick in 2004. That lack of progress had Nolan questioning for the first time this spring whether Pickett indeed has a future with the team at quarterback.

Pickett still insists he can play quarterback – and play it well – at the NFL level. He will get one more opportunity at the position when the pads go on at the end of July. But he'll have to show more of the refined qualities displayed by Palmer and Hill this spring to stay in the running .

Palmer, the clear frontrunner for the No. 3 role as training camp looms, can't rest on his strong spring performance and must continue to show that he's worth keeping over two bigger, more athletic prospects in Pickett and Hill, a player whom the Niners are determined to take a long look at this summer.

Adding even more heat to the competition is the fact the 49ers have three converted college quarterbacks on their roster who all starred at the position in college. There has been some speculation that, if both Smith and Dilfer are impressive and durable this summer, the Niners would consider using fourth-round draft pick Michael Robinson as their emergency No. 3 quarterback to free up a roster spot elsewhere.

Robinson – the Big 10 Offensive Player of the Year last year as a quarterback – has been moved to running back with the 49ers. The Niners also can use starting receiver Arnaz Battle and receiver/returner Rasheed Marshall in an emergency situation behind center, though each are less likely to be used at the position and Marshall, in particular, might not even make the team's 2006 roster.

So that leaves Pickett, Palmer and Hill as the three most likely candidates for the No. 3 role, and one thing is virtually certain: The 49ers won't keep four quarterbacks like they did coming out of training camp last year.

With the upgrade in quality behind Smith, three will be plenty. And the three primary contenders for that role all can offer the team something, which gives each a shot in what should be one of San Francisco's best summer roster battles for a reserve role.

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