Thirteen camp battle fronts: Where they stand

The 49ers got back at it Monday with the start of their exhibition schedule clear on the horizon. As the team prepares to open the preseason Friday against Chicago, here is how each of the 13 prominent training camp battles for starting positions and key supplemental roles is coming into focus, along with our projection how each battle will ultimately shape up when the dust settles in September.

Tailback: Frank Gore has been wowing everybody with his display of power, burst and sure moves in the open field, but he was stuffed each time he touched the ball in Saturday's scrimmage and never had much of an opportunity to show his stuff. While Gore has been giving coaches many reasons to put him in the featured role, incumbent starter Kevan Barlow looks much swifter and surer making his cuts and decisions after shedding 10 pounds in the offseason and appears to be hitting holes with more focus and purpose. Gore is more explosive, but both players have been assignment-sharp and performing well in camp. While Gore has been a camp standout, it's Barlow who started Saturday's intra-squad scrimmage and remains as the lead man with the first unit.
SFI projection: Many would like to anoint Gore as the starter here and now based on the promise he has shown and the potential he offers. But it appears Barlow is hanging onto his starting role and the team plans to keep him there as it develops its rotation strategy for regular season. Unless Gore clearly grabs the starting role and runs with it during the preseason, expect Barlow to have it during season opener Sept. 10 vs. Arizona.

Right cornerback: Veteran newcomer Walt Harris has been unspectacular as the starter, but he clearly is holding off former first-rounder Mike Rumph, who continues to be hit-and-miss in coverage and appears in danger of being cut. It now appears the real challengers to Harris's starting slot are Sammy Davis and Derrick Johnson, who both have something to offer at the position. The preseason will go a long way toward determining whether the 49ers stick with Harris as their regular on the right side or make a change when the regular season begins.
SFI projection: It appears the 49ers are committed to going with Harris to begin the regular season, but he's no lock with the season opener still a month away.

Right tackle/right guard: An interesting development has taken place in Adam Snyder's charge to take away the starting position at right tackle from Kwame Harris – Snyder may be closer to taking away a starting role from Justin Smiley at right guard instead. Harris has been solid so far in camp and has clearly made strides in his pass blocking, his significant weakness, and seems to be gaining the confidence of coaches who indicated the jury still was out on him after the 2005 season concluded. Snyder offers a lot at RT, too, and the 49ers need to get him on the field, though they seem content for now on developing him as the top backup at each of the four guard and tackle positions. The first week of training camp was spent with Snyder rotating in with the first team at both RT and RG, where Smiley is a sparkplug but still doesn't seem to have the team sold because of his inconsistency.
SFI projection: The focus now seems to be on the Snyder/Smiley competition at RG, with it coming down to what the team is looking for at the position – the quickness of Smiley or the better size and pass blocking presented by Snyder. Again, preseason play will be huge here, and if Harris falters when the live bullets begin, the 49ers easily could decide they need Snyder more at RT than at RG.

Left outside linebacker: Parys Haralson has been making a strong surge at the position, and the rookie's flashes of talent both rushing the passer and making plays in coverage have been impressive. Brandon Moore has been steady and solid, but he doesn't flash the play-making skills of Haralson. Corey Smith also is making plays and shouldn't be counted out of the mix here.
SFI projection: Everybody's anxious to see what Haralson can do when the preseason games begin. The 49ers know what they have in Moore and Smith, so expect the veteran Moore to remain the starter when the season begins. But both Haralson and Smith will contribute, and Moore might feel one or both of them nipping at his heels for playing time before the season gets very old.

Punter: Fourteenth-year veteran Tom Rouen keeps blasting away, sending his punts high and deep on a consistent basis and, all of a sudden, looking like a real threat to Andy Lee's roster spot. Lee, however, has been solid if unspectacular, though you sometimes get the impression he's feeling the heat of Rouen's presence, which is the reason Rouen was signed in the first place. If this wasn't a legitimate battle for the regular role when training camp began, it certainly is now.
SFI projection: While Rouen probably has looked better than Lee in camp so far, it's difficult to believe the 49ers – who are looking to grow with young players – would dump a young punter who has shown progress in his career in favor of a veteran at the end of his career. This one's still too close to call, and a lot will depend on how each fares during the preseason, particularly how Rouen handles the tricky winds in two summer games at San Francisco's Monster Park.

No. 3 quarterback: Jesse Palmer clearly has taken the lead here over Shaun Hill, whose inconsistent play and unimpressive passing sometimes makes one wonder how he lasted four years on the Minnesota Vikings roster. Palmer looks to be every bit what a NFL team looks for in a veteran No. 3 quarterback, even if that might sound like a backhanded compliment.
SFI projection: Palmer might be a lock for this role, based on 2006 performance so far. However, there's the possibility the 49ers – who may run into a numbers problem when they determine their final 53-man roster – won't even keep three quarterbacks on their final roster since they'll keep players at other positions (Arnaz Battle and Michael Robinson, for instance) who can play quarterback in a pinch. If they do keep three QBs, which still seems probably if not likely, No. 3 is looking to be Palmer.

No. 3 wide receiver: While Brandon Williams is a promising rookie and offers things Bryan Gilmore doesn't, the sixth-year veteran gradually appears to be locking in the No. 3 role because of his consistency, proven performance at the NFL level and ability to stretch defenses with his speed. Jason McAddley and Marcus Maxwell both have shown some things so far in camp, but they figure to be fighting for the fifth receiver role, since Williams is a lock to make the roster.
SFI projection: This is the biggest opportunity of Gilmore's career, and he's making the most of it so far. He should be the team's third receiver come September, unless he's needed in a more prominent role because of No. 2 Arnaz Battle's shaky health status. Another veteran receiving still could come into play here if the Niners decide to make a move via trade or free agency.

Center: You can tell that Jeremy Newberry doesn't like practicing with the second unit, but you also can tell his reconstructed right knee doesn't exactly cooperate with what the two-time Pro Bowler would like it to do. While Eric Heitmann has not been impressive in training camp so far after his fine season last year – when he might have been San Francisco's most consistent lineman through the entire season – it's obvious the team isn't counting heavily on Newberry because of his injury history.
SFI projection: Newberry would be the choice here if his knee holds up and he can recapture his previous form, but only the preseason and the remainder of training camp will tell that, so this one still is too early to call.

Tight end: The battle between Vernon Davis and Eric Johnson is interesting to watch, just because Davis is so obviously talented and Johnson so obviously wants to contribute, earn playing time and show that his 82-catch season of 2004 should be getting more respect from the team's coaches. However, this doesn't really appear to be shaping up as much of a battle, since both players will get significant playing time in the team's new offensive system and both will see action together in many offensive sets.
SFI projection: It's becoming obvious the 49ers won't want to keep either of these players off the field much, and Johnson has become San Francisco's most consistent pass-catcher not named Antonio Bryant this summer. Davis will remain the No. 1 when the season starts, but don't be surprised to see both on the field at the beginning of some if not all games, which technically would make both starters.

Third-down back: The 49ers are force-feeding fourth-round pick Michael Robinson in this role, giving him more carries and opportunities in camp than any of the other veterans vying for the job. Robinson has looked good at times and seems to hold up well to extensive pounding. Maurice Hicks is shiftier and more experienced, and he probably has looked better overall in the role. Veteran Terry Jackson looks fine when he gets an opportunity, but he's not getting many of those so far in camp, which seems to make this a battle between Robinson and Hicks.
SFI projection: The 49ers seem to want Robinson to win this role, but Hicks doesn't want to lose it, and he's the best bet to keep it at this point, though both players figure to make the final roster.

Free safety: When Mark Roman was brought in a week ago, many thought that was the veteran free safety the 49ers were looking for to plug into their lineup, and his presence would allow Mike Adams to be used in other secondary coverage roles. But Adams clearly has looked like the better safety so far, and Roman will have to pick it up to take Adams' starting job away. The other safeties on the roster – the 49ers like to say their safeties can swing to play both the strong and free positions – don't figure to fit into the starting equation.
SFI projection: It's clearly Adams' position to lose now, even with Roman around. The preseason could change things, but it doesn't look like Adams is budging.

Nose tackle: In his third NFL season, it appears every bit that 332-pound Isaac Sopoaga is ready to become a monster in the middle and make his presence felt in the defensive interior. Sopoaga offers size and power that incumbent Anthony Adams simply can't match, though Adams continues to develop as a player and gets the most out of his ability at 6-foot and 297 pounds. Both players have looked good in training camp, so both will be prominent in the D-line rotation.
SFI projection: This position figures to work a lot like tailback – the 49ers will start the incumbent, but look for the backup to play an equal if not larger role. Since Adams also can play end, and may see significant time there in the rotation, look for the latter to happen here with Sopoaga getting the larger share of snaps – if not by much – at nose tackle.

Punt returner: Rookie Brandon Williams has been given first crack at this job in 2006, and he has been showing why in camp, clearly looking better than Rasheed Marshall and Otis Amey – the two rookies who handled the role without much success last year (except for Amey's long touchdown return in the season opener). The 49ers have had a couple of their sure-handed veteran receivers circle underneath punts occasionally in camp, but it seems pretty clear they're going to let one of the youngster open the season in the role.
SFI projection: Williams, all the way. After all, that's why the team used a third-round draft pick to acquire him. Besides that, he's an upgrade over his current competition.

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