The final 53 49ers: Roster analysis

Linebacker Roderick Green arrived for his first practice with the 49ers on Monday, giving the team the final 53-man squad it will take into the regular season. The Niners figured to be a little more active on the waiver wire before cutdown weekend came to a close, but that didn't happen, so here's SFI's unit-by-unit analysis of the 49ers roster entering Sunday's regular-season opener vs. Arizona.

QUARTERBACK
Starter:
Alex Smith
Backups: Trent Dilfer, Shaun Hill
Position analysis: The 49ers are significantly stronger at quarterback than when the season began a year ago. Smith displayed dramatic improvement in his second training camp and he has meshed well with new offensive coordinator Norv Turner. He appears more comfortable, commands more of a presence and he certainly has a better supporting cast. Smith also has the benefit of sharing the meeting room with Dilfer, a 13-year NFL veteran who is being counted on to help act as a mentor to the youngster. Smith displayed much more poise and game presence during the preseason and the 49ers are anxious to unleash him in the regular season and see how his progress translates to the real deal. Dilfer moved the offense whenever he appeared in the preseason and will be ready if called upon. Hill probably is the best and most experienced No. 3 quarterback the 49ers have had since the late 1990s.

RUNNING BACK
Starter:
Frank Gore
Backups: Maurice Hicks, Michael Robinson
Position analysis: Beginning training camp on equal ground with Kevan Barlow, Gore quickly took away the starting job from the sixth-year incumbent, making Barlow expendable in trade for a 2007 fourth-round draft pick from the New York Jets. Gore is a hard runner who has earned the respect of his teammates with his work ethic and has proven this summer to be both an explosive and hard-grinding runner. Gore, however, has been unable to remain healthy for any length of time. Hicks is the backup, and he has shown an ability to be productive when given an opportunity in a situational role. Robinson, a rookie, has been impressive and looks to contribute as a third-down back and could get some scattered carries in other situations. All three backs run harder than Barlow, who had a disappointing run as the team's starting tailback that began at the end of the 2003 season.

FULLBACK
Starter:
Chris Hetherington
Backup: Moran Norris
Position analysis: When asked Monday - the team's final practice before full-scale preparation for Sunday's opener at Arizona begins on Wednesday - whether Hetherington (the incumbent starter) or Norris will start against the Cardinals, coach Mike Nolan said, "I won't go there. It depends on what we're doing. They're different players. That's why we kept them both. If they were both the same type of fullback, then I think you have a good argument in saying ‘Why in the heck did you keep two guys who just thump?' But we have a thumper and we've got a guy who does a lot of movement stuff in Chris." Since they have so many offensive sets that use just one back, it was a surprise the 49ers kept two fullbacks instead of an extra player at another position, but as Nolan said, both players here have something to offer to several of the team's offensive packages. Norris was impressive this summer as a bullish blocker while Hetherington is an all-around fullback who also can play a lot of the same positions as the team's F-back tight ends.

TIGHT END
Starter:
Vernon Davis
Backups: Eric Johnson, Delanie Walker, Billy Bajema
Position analysis: Despite having two rookies and a second-year player, this unit already is developing into one of the team's strongest. Davis promises to create all kinds of problems for defenses this season because of his unique speed. Kept under wraps a bit during the preseason, he should become a major factor in the passing game from the outset of the season, though it has taken him a while to get on the same page as QB Smith. Johnson is a reliable pass-catcher who has missed two of the last three seasons with injuries and could play as much - and see as many passes thrown his way - as the team's No. 3 receiver. Bajema is a solid blocker, and Walker is an intriguing talent who is trying to find a way to get on the field. He'll be used in ways that will give him an opportunity to shine, and he also is another candidate to take time away from the team's unproven group of backup wide receivers.

WIDE RECEIVER
Starters:
Antonio Bryant, Arnaz Battle
Backups: Bryan Gilmore, Taylor Jacobs, Brandon Williams
Position analysis: Bryant was the star of training camp and has been everything the 49ers hoped for when they signed him. He brings a competitive nature to the team, not to mention the receiver position, that has been sorely lacking in recent seasons. Bryant is clearly the team's top wideout, and nobody has stepped up to be the No. 2 guy. Battle has had difficulty remaining healthy which has made him appear unreliable as a legitimate No. 2 wideout. Jacobs, who came on strong at the end of the preseason after joining the team in mid-August, and Gilmore are the front-runners to round out the top four spots. Williams will earn his keep initially as a return man, but opportunities as a receiver could come sooner rather than later if the others behind Bryant don't produce.

OFFENSIVE LINE
Starters:
LT Jonas Jennings, LG Larry Allen, C Eric Heitmann, RG Justin Smiley, RT Kwame Harris
Backups: T/G Adam Snyder, C/G David Baas, T Harvey Dahl, T Patrick Estes, G Tony Wragge
Position analysis: This unit has the potential to be significantly upgraded from the get-go compared to last year. Jennings played in only three games last season after signing a lucrative contract, but he stayed healthy this summer and the club expects him to have a big season to help solidify the line. A year ago, the 49ers struggled mightily at both tackle spots. Harris appears much-improved after he remained injury-free and could participate in the entire offseason program. If Harris struggles, the club will not hesitate to get Snyder in the lineup. Allen was a key offseason acquisition. Although he is on the downside of his career, his brute force should still be noticeable in the run game. Smiley and Heitmann are solid on the interior. Heitmann is turning into a very serviceable center, as he takes over for injured Jeremy Newberry, and Smiley flashes athleticism that allows him to beat defenders off the ball. While this unit was an overall weakness most of last season, not one position on it appears weak this year.

DEFENSIVE LINE
Starters:
LDE Marques Douglas, DT Bryant Young, DT Anthony Adams, RDE Melvin Oliver
Backups: NT Isaac Sopoaga, DE Ronnie Fields
Position analysis: The defensive line lacks a lot of bulk and, for that reason, might not allow the 49ers to play the 3-4 defense that Nolan desires. Young is still the team's best down lineman, whether he's playing DT in a 4-3 or DE in a 3-4. He recorded all eight of his sacks last season in the first seven games of the season. Douglas will start and play defensive end as a run-stuffer. Adams does not have the girth the 49ers would like from a nose tackle, but he can be effective in at DT in a 4-3 scheme. Oliver, a rookie, has been a pleasant surprise and will begin the season as a starter. The team's personnel here still is much better suited to the 4-3 scheme, like it was last year, which makes sense for the 49ers to add Oliver to the starting lineup rather than go with a fourth linebacker who could perhaps match Oliver as a speed rusher but would give up some 40 pounds against the run.

LINEBACKER
Starters:
WLB Manny Lawson, LILB Derek Smith, RILB Jeff Ulbrich
Backups: ILB/OLB Brandon Moore, ILB/OLB T.J. Slaughter, OLB Parys Haralson, OLB Roderick Green
Position analysis: With Haralson hurting entering the season - the impressive rookie will miss at least the first two games with a foot strain - and the team releasing Corey Smith - the veteran was a starter on the outside heading into June - the 49ers are thin on the outside. But claiming Green off waivers, a player that Nolan has worked with in the past, could improve matters here and allow the Niners to move back to more 3-4 sets. Green will be given an immediate look and Nolan said "I'm considering him. He could play," when asked if Green could move into a starting role opposite rookie Lawson. An impressive first-round draft pick, Lawson is one of the only pass-rush threats on the team, yet he spent most of his summer working on his coverage skills. Lawson has adapted well to his new role and appears ready to hold his own if not make an early impact. Smith and Ulbrich team up well together. They are not stout in the run game, but they are solid and are rarely out of position and fly to the ball to make stops. Moore began training camp as a starter in the team's 3-4 scheme, but it looks as if he will take a backup role in the base defense and shift to DE in nickel situations. This unit was something of a disappointment in the summer, but the Niners are hoping for better things as the young talent progresses and the group continues to mesh. When Haralson returns, he could become a starter and he and Green could key a return to a true 3-4.

CORNERBACK
Starter:
LCB Shawntae Spencer, RCB Walt Harris
Backups: Sammy Davis, B.J. Tucker, Marcus Hudson
Position analysis: Spencer is back practicing with the team after suffering a slight hamstring tear in mid-August and he will be ready to start the season opener. He clearly is the team's best cornerback, and veteran Harris has been solid on the opposite side, making the 49ers feel they are better here going into the regular season. Harris is doing it more now on knowledge and instincts rather than physical skills, but all the Niners are looking for at this point is someone who can capably hold down the position while younger players develop further. Davis has displayed some good coverage skills, Tucker has strong potential as a nickel back, and Hudson has the size and skills to be groomed as a future starter. The Niners made some big changes here over last year as only Spencer and Tucker are holdovers. Four cornerbacks on the final 53-man roster last year - Ahmed Plummer, Bruce Thornton, Derrick Johnson and Kris Richard - have been released since February. Another holdover from last year, Mike Rumph, was traded in August.

SAFETY
Starters:
SS Tony Parrish, FS Mike Adams
Backups: Mark Roman, Keith Lewis, Chad Williams
Position analysis: Nolan continues to say there's a slight possibility of changes before the season begins, but expect holdover starters Parrish and Adams to be in the opening lineup as the starting safeties. Roman, however, might be on equal ground with both of them and will rotate into the lineup. "There will be a little bit of rotation in there," Nolan said Monday. "It won't be so much of a sub-base rotation, but it may actually be the reps." The Niners have experienced some problems with their safeties this summer and will not be afraid to rotate until two mainstays emerge. Williams could find time in that mix also. Parrish is returning after missing seven games with a broken ankle. Although still very good in run support, he appears to be showing some signs of slowing down in coverage. Adams, Roman and Williams should all play important roles, either as starters or in the team's sub packages. Lewis will be the new leader of the team's special teams with Terry Jackson gone, but the 49ers may consider using him close to the line of scrimmage in situational roles to take advantage of his hitting ability and instincts. Beyond Spencer, most of team's NFL-ready talent and experience in the secondary is at this position.

SPECIAL TEAMS
Starters:
K Joe Nedney, P Andy Lee, LS Brian Jennings, KR Maurice Hicks, PR Brandon Williams
Unit analysis: Nedney had a fantastic first season with the 49ers, and he gives the team reason to believe this area should be solid. The competition at punter went to the end of the exhibition season with Andy Lee beating out Tom Rouen, essentially because he is 15 years younger. That might be a disappointment to some who saw Rouen boom kicks and place them with expertise this summer, but it was the right move for the team in the long run, and Lee is more than just adequate at this point in his career. The 49ers have one of the best long-snappers in the business in Jennings. The 49ers need some work in the return game, but they're hoping Williams will be sure-handed on punts, as he was in the preseason when he also showed some good decision-making and ability to make good returns when given some space. There is a chance rookie Delanie Walker could emerge on kickoff returns as well. Hicks has good ability in that area, but has not broken off consistently good returns since 2004.


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