Niners now 'Nolanized'

Only 24 of the 72 players the 49ers had under contract at the end of the 2004 season remain with the club as the team embarks into the heart of training camp. The 49ers have been Nolanized, but second-year coach Mike Nolan knows his team still has a long way to go.

"We're not there yet," Nolan said when asked if he has a lot fewer questions about this team that the one he took to training camp as a first-year coach. "In about a year, two, three or four, it will be easier to narrow down. What I like about this year's unit more than last year is that there is more competition right now ... and it's real."

The 49ers believe they have added better players at every position, including at quarterback. Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft returns, but Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey and Cody Pickett have all been traded since the beginning of last season.

Veteran Trent Dilfer is now the backup quarterback who will double as Smith's mentor.

"He's made us better because he's better than the situation we had a year ago," Nolan said of Dilfer. "If he were here a year ago, he would probably be the guy. I don't expect him to tell Alex a lot of stuff. I expect him to show Alex by example."

The 49ers finished with a 4-12 record last season in Nolan's first season as head coach, and the pundits really have no reason to believe the club will be dramatically improved this year.

Many of the 49ers players are aware that they are pegged as one of the worst teams in the league again.

"I think some guys pay attention to that and they talk about it a lot," 49ers linebacker Jeff Ulbrich said. "I could care less – good or bad – what everybody thinks. In the end, it comes down to what we do. Because if the stories about us are good, you don't want to get cocky. And if they're bad, you don't want garbage like that to bring you down."

Camp has gotten off to a good start for the 49ers. For the first time in recent memory, the 49ers placed no players on the physically-unable-to-perform list to open camp. Moreover, all of the teams draft picks were signed and participated in the opening drills, including first-round picks tight end Vernon Davis and outside linebacker Manny Lawson.

"Those young players have to play for us, and play early," Nolan said.

Nolan believes the Niners will have better competition among themselves to sort out most of the positions on the field. Whereas a year ago, many of the starters were not pushed to maintain their jobs, this year it's different.

"With last year's competition, some of it was taken care of by seniority," Nolan said. "With the quarterback position, Tim Rattay got the position because he was the only one that had really played before. This year, I like to think the positions will be won by the best player, however young or old he is. The young guys that come in will either take somebody's job or make someone else better by pushing them."

A lot of the focus will continue to be on Smith, who was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 draft. Smith is the only quarterback on the roster who spent the entire year with the club last season.

Rattay was traded to the Buccaneers in the middle of last season; backup Dorsey, along with a seventh-round pick, was dealt to the Browns for new backup Dilfer; and third-stringer Pickett was sent to the Texans on the eve of training camp for a conditional seventh-round pick. This year, veterans Jesse Palmer and Shaun Hill are competing for the No. 3 role.

"I think our entire football team has gotten better," Nolan said. "I feel good about that."

Competition will also be stiff on the offensive line, as Nolan envisions the starting unit and three backups who suit up on game days to be quality NFL players. The 49ers had a difficult time fielding a competent starting lineup most of last season due to injuries and a lack of depth.

The 49ers added some depth at safety early in training camp by signing Mark Roman, a full-time NFL starter his last three seasons. Roman, whom the Packers recently released, will compete with Mike Adams and Chad Williams for a starting job.

CAMP CALENDAR: The 49ers break training camp on Aug. 22. They will not hold a scrimmage. Nine dates are open to the public. Each of the nine open practices feature interactive games and player autograph sessions for fans The remaining open practices are scheduled for Wednesday, August 2 (4:00 p.m.), Friday, August 4 (4:00 p.m.), Saturday, August 5 (3:00 p.m.), Monday, August 7 (4:00 p.m.), Wednesday, August 9 (4:00 p.m.), Sunday, August 13 (9:40 a.m.) and Tuesday, August 15 (4:00 p.m.). To obtain tickets, fans must register online at Tickets are awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis.


BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Kwame Harris vs. Adam Snyder for starting RT – Harris has taken a big lead in the battle for the starting job, as offensive line coach George Warhop likes what Harris has to offer. Many observers believed Snyder had a good chance to unseat Harris, but Snyder is now splitting time at RT and RG. Snyder, in essence is competing for two positions, which makes it unlikely he will emerge with either job. But Snyder could become a valuable backup, a player who could be the first person off the sideline at any of the guard or tackle positions.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: WR Antonio Bryant – Bryant has gotten off to a great start in his first camp with the 49ers with several big catches down the field. Bryant has shown the potential to be a deep threat for Smith, something the 49ers' offense lacked last season. The team is happy with Bryant, who takes over as the top wideout from Brandon Lloyd, who was traded to the Redskins in the offseason.

--- TE Vernon Davis, the No. 6 overall pick, is seeing a lot of action with the first-team offense. He has already showed glimpses of his speed and strength on the practice field with his ability to catch balls in traffic and turn upfield. He is expected to start from Day 1 of the season.
--- OLB Manny Lawson stepped immediately into a starting role. He is getting comfortable playing in the system and showed superior speed on the edge in the initial non-padded practices of camp. Lawson is expected to put up good sack numbers as a rookie.
--- WR Brandon Williams is showing good aggressiveness as a wideout and as a punt returner. Williams is good about going and getting the ball and not letting it bounce in front of him on punts. He also has been aggressive going after passes.
--- TE Delanie Walker is learning blocking technique after playing wideout in college. Walker took pride in blocking DBs, now he has to make the adjustment to taking on ILBs. He also has looked good in the passing lanes.
--- RB Michael Robinson continues to look good as he competes for a role as the third-down back. Robinson was one of the team's more impressive players during the offseason program.

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