The minicamp wrap: Offense
QUARTERBACK As Alex Smith enters his pivotal third season - always a crucial year in the development of any young NFL quarterback - he is firm at the controls of the team's offense after becoming the first QB in 49ers history to take every snap during a season last year. Smith looks like a veteran now, belying the fact he won't celebrate his 23rd birthday until the day after minicamp ends. There is no question that - barring unforeseen injury - Smith will be behind center when the regular season begins in September, so this is all about honing his skills and getting in his repetitions. "As I've said all along, Alex is the real deal," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "He is going to be real good. He is the same guy every day. As he gets better individually and the surrounding cast gets better, he will continue to be a good quarterback. There is nothing since I have been around Alex to lead me to believe he is not." And there's nothing that took place during minicamp not to believe Smith is prepared to make the next step in his progression. Trent Dilfer also gets a lot of time in the huddle and looks like a veteran who is just yearning to get back on the field. Shaun Hill is another veteran who gives the impression he could get the job done if given the chance, though he may get some competition this summer to hold onto his No. 3 job from rookie Luke Getsy, an undrafted free agent from Akron University who has caught the eye of coaches. "The quarterback Luke got my attention," Nolan said. "He can be a good prospect down the road. He seems to handle himself very well." RUNNING BACK Now that Frank Gore is an accomplished Pro Bowl starter, it's all about what's going on behind him at running back. The 49ers give most of the repetitions to other players, but when Gore does get the ball, he absolutely sparkles, looking ready to step it up yet another notch toward greatness in his third NFL season. But a lot of the time he can be seen on the sidelines, getting some individual attention and instruction from running backs coach Bishop Harris. But there's some real competition behind Gore between holdovers Michael Robinson, Maurice Hicks and sixth-round draft pick Thomas Clayton, a chiseled rookie who shows speed and explosive burst. "He caught my eye, because he has very good initial quickness," Nolan said. "He is a stocky guy that is 220 pounds. He has good muscle mass on his body. Other than that, we will get the pads on and see how he runs." They have completely different styles, but Clayton and Hicks figure to be competing for the same roster spot come August. Like Gore, Moran Norris is entrenched as the starting fullback, but unheralded Zak Keasey - who finished last season on San Francisco's practice squad - is making a real roster bid with solid performance. The 49ers have only six running backs on their minicamp roster, and it's not a stretch that all of them could make the team. WIDE RECEIVER This is where things will really get interesting this summer, but it was difficult to get too pumped up about the competition with newcomer Darrell Jackson sitting out minicamp with a toe injury and newcomer Ashley Lelie straining a quad muscle during the first day of practice then sitting out the rest. Jackson and Lelie are the perceived frontrunners to be San Francisco's opening-day starters, so the Niners got a long look at their other receivers. Suddenly, there is a logjam of quality here, and veterans Bryan Gilmore and Taylor Jacobs - though they both hold their own during minicamp - seem in jeopardy of losing their jobs this summer to younger players. That's certainly not the case with Arnaz Battle, who looks like the best all-around receiver on the field. Battle - who led all San Francisco wideouts with a career-high 59 receptions last season - isn't exactly sure where he fits into the team's pecking order at receiver now after being a starter the past two years. And he says he doesn't really care. Wherever he fits, it's not going to change his approach. "I'm never comfortable," he said. "I always feel I have something to prove. I take that out on the football field every day. Whatever I can do, in whatever way I can contribute, that's what I do, go out and give 110 percent and let everything play itself out." Battle's a roster lock, but after him and the veteran newcomers, everything appears up for grabs. In the thick of it are two youngsters picked in the third round by the 49ers one year apart - Brandon Williams and rookie Jason Hill. The diminutive Williams looks like a gnat flying around out there, but he gets open weaving his way in and out of traffic and has a very good minicamp, making almost 20 receptions by one estimate. Williams was a disappointment last year - he finished with zero receptions - so he may need to show he can do more than just return kicks to stick on the roster. Hill had an undistinguished first weekend with the team, showing his rookie inexperience. C.J. Brewer, a practice-squadder last year with talent, also is in the mix, but he faces tougher odds now to make the final roster. TIGHT END Even after losing pass-catcher Eric Johnson to free agency, this is becoming a position of strength for the 49ers, with Vernon Davis flashing all-world talent and potential. The 2006 first-rounder is being shifted and moved around before the snap, and also will be used in the slot to give him 1-on-1 opportunities. He still needs to focus on catching the ball and keeping a level head, but the guy has all the tools for greatness. Billy Bajema is a solid, hard-working, blocking complement to Davis, and Delanie Walker has playmaking potential that can make him a fine replacement for Johnson as a receiving threat. Rookie free agent Zac Herold strained his left hamstring during the final minicamp practice session but will make it to training camp for a look in pads. OFFENSIVE LINE With Jonas Jennings sitting this one out after offseason shoulder and Larry Allen excused from minicamp for personal reasons, Adam Snyder was at left tackle and David Baas at left guard, and things definitely could look worse for San Francisco on the left side. In fact, the Snyder-Baas combo could probably hold its own right here, right now in the NFL trenches, and it shouldn't be long before both are pushing their way into a long stay in the starting lineup. For Snyder, that could be at virtually any of the tackle or guard positions, and he clearly looks like San Francisco's best offensive lineman participating in camp with his fine technique and surge off the snap. In fact, even though he signed that huge contract in free agency two years ago, it makes one wonder if Jennings will have a difficult time holding onto his starting position, particularly if the team can't move Kwame Harris via trade before the season begins. Harris takes a bad rap for not quite living up to his status as a 2003 first-rounder, but he looks solid in minicamp - as most players do in shorts and helmets - and someone will have to beat him out at a right tackle position at which he has started every game the past two seasons. That someone easily could be Snyder, but it doesn't appear at this juncture it will be first-round draft pick Joe Staley, the heir apparent at the position, who's going to need some time to get his technique down at the NFL level. With center Eric Heitmann also resting after offseason surgery to repair his broken tibia, dependable and versatile Tony Wragge took over at center, and he has the look of a top backup and roster lock. With starting right guard Justin Smiley also sidelined after shoulder surgery, the Niners moved tackle Harvey Dahl inside for a look at guard. The other new wrinkle on the line is Damane Duckett auditioning at tackle. Duckett has moved over to the other side of the football after playing defensive tackle last year.
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