Training camp battleground: No. 3 receiver

On his way to retiring as a 49er later this year, Jerry Rice could see himself catching another pass or two, and you've really got to wonder if he could be SF's No. 3 receiver in 2006 behind starters Antonio Bryant & Arnaz Battle. Rice won't be, but what the 49ers have now is journeyman veteran Bryan Gilmore and a whole bunch of unproven young guys that will get a shot at him during training camp.

In six NFL seasons, Gilmore has only 38 receptions, but he is averaging 14.0 yards on those catches, and his speed and field-stretching ability were evident this spring, something the 49ers didn't have in 2005. That could be a nice complement for the starters, and Gilmore definitely has more polish than the half-dozen youngsters who are lumped behind him with no clear frontrunner for the No. 4 role.

Well, the 49ers did spend their third-round draft choice on Brandon Williams, the leading receiver in University of Wisconsin history, but they'd be happy just to see him take over the punt return duties and make his impact there while working in as a No. 4 receiver.

But that's not to say Williams can't challenge Gilmore, and Williams (202 catches, 2,924 yards, 14.5 average at Wisconsin) definitely will get a look when the pads go on among a group that includes second-year receivers Marcus Maxwell (2005 seventh-rounder), Rasheed Marshall (fifth-rounder), Otis Amey and third-year veteran Derrick Hamilton (2004 third-rounder). The latter four all have shown the team potential, but that foursome has combined for a total of one reception for minus-1 yard in the NFL.

That must mean something, but the Niners did not bring in any other veterans to challenge for playing time after Bryant and Gilmore – who both arrived as free agents – opting instead to bring in Williams as the other top newcomer to challenge for playing time at the position.

Gilmore certainly is faster than No. 3 man Johnnie Morton was last year, and while Morton's accomplished experience wouldn't be a bad fit here again, the Niners instead want youngsters to step forward, because San Francisco hasn't developed any of the receivers drafted by the team the past three years – and that includes 2004 first-rounder Rashaun Woods, a wasted top pick.

The 49ers want that to be different this year, and Williams displayed some promise with his fresh talent and ability to get open in the spring. You've got to believe that Hamilton has something to show after missing all of last season when he was the frontrunner for the No. 3 role in the spring before ripping up his knee a few weeks before spring drills ended.

And he'd better, because it was not a good idea to be dunking basketballs – or even playing basketball – in public competition just one day after the 49ers completed their spring organized team activities in June, since Hamilton was held out of those very drills to make sure he makes it to training camp healthy. If Hamilton can ever get his head together, he might be a factor here. If not, this will be his final look.

But he's getting a look here, as are several others who've done nothing in the NFL, a testament to how weak the 49ers have been at receiver since 2003 starters Terrell Owens and Tai Streets both left the team after that season as free agents.

In 2004, third receiver Curtis Conway had 38 receptions, primarily because he started almost as much as the two regulars in front of him. Last year, No. 3 receiver Morton had 21 receptions.

The Niners are looking for more from their third receiver this year. And if no one steps up… Well, pass-catching tight ends Vernon Davis and Eric Johnson will both get their opportunities to shine in the passing lanes, and they could wind up looking like better third options. Or first options, for that matter.

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