The minicamp wrap: Defense and specialists
DEFENSIVE LINE The 49ers finally have the strength and size up front they need to make their 3-4 scheme work. The addition of free-agent Aubrayo Franklin has given the team a true starting nose tackle, and he's taking the first-team reps with Marques Douglas at right end and Ronnie Fields at left end in place of venerable Bryant Young, who is excused from minicamp to attend the funeral of former 49ers linebacker Kevin Mitchell. Young will assume his starting position when he returns, but Douglas will face competition on the other side from Fields - who continues to come on after a promising second season in 2006 - and good-looking rookie Ray McDonald, a third-rounder who could become a factor this summer. "Aubrayo has been a good addition to the defensive line," Nolan said. "Ray McDonald has been a nice addition. The (Joe) Cohen kid might give us some depth inside, too." Big Isaac Sopoaga is backing up Franklin on the nose, with fourth-round selection Cohen showing some ability to play there and also shift outside to 3-4 end. Melvin Oliver, the rookie surprise of 2006 with 14 starts, certainly will be in the mix when the pads go on in July. LINEBACKER Derek Smith, after undergoing surgery Feb. 26 to repair a condition that limited the range of vision in his left eye, already is back in action and assuming his position as the "Mike" inside linebacker. Smith says he has permanent damage in the eye, but says his vision now is fine and he won't encounter the problems that adversely affected his play last season. A bigger problem Smith may encounter is holding off first-round pick Patrick Willis for his starting position. Willis looks a little tentative as he learns the defense, but his speed and talent are obvious and he'll be pushing for more than just playing time in August - he'll be pushing for a role as the opening-day starter. The pecking order is pretty well established at the other inside "Ted" linebacker slot, where Brandon Moore is becoming the rock of the entire defense. Former starter Jeff Ulbrich is backing up Moore now and appears in danger of losing his roster spot, but he has a fine minicamp and clearly displays that he's not ready to be put out to pasture. Newcomer veteran Colby Bockwoldt and holdover Hannibal Navies - both versatile players - will factor into the equation across the board at linebacker, though Navies appears to already have lost his role on third downs to Willis. On the outside, Manny Lawson and newcomer free agent Tully Banta-Cain both show the potential to be showcase forces in the 3-4 scheme. Lawson has gained about 10 pounds since last season and his speed and range are impressive. He follows the opposing tight end in most formations, allowing Banta-Cain to rush from the weak side. Lawson and Banta-Cain have the look of impact players, but the Niners have two youngsters behind them - rookie Jay Moore and Parys Haralson, who missed most of his rookie season last year with injuries - who also shine with pass-rushing potential. Moore, at 6-foot-4 and 274 pounds, is particularly impressive, showing that he can move well on the outside and probably won't have to lose any weight while making the conversion from defensive end in college. CORNERBACK Nate Clements, the $80 million man, makes a quick first impression. After the 49ers made him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history a few months ago, the team's prized free agent comes into camp and quickly establishes himself as the centerpiece of the secondary, sticking to all receivers and making plays in coverage. There will be no competition this summer at his position. The same likely is true on the other side, where 12th-year veteran Walt Harris is coming off an outstanding Pro Bowl season, but Shawntae Spencer could have something to say about that after he returns from surgery to remove bone spurs in his foot. Spencer watches minicamp from the sidelines in crutches, but the team says he'll be ready for training camp. Marcus Hudson, raw as a rookie last year, clearly has made strides and could challenge for the No. 3 role, though a Clements-Harris-Spencer pecking order at the position - potentially the strongest the team has had in more than a decade - appears unlikely to change. Veterans B.J. Tucker and Donald Strickland make their presence felt enough to let everybody know they're still around, and fifth-round pick Tarell Brown also gets his share of repetitions, though he looks green and is obviously behind the others. SAFETY After paying big money to Michael Lewis in free agency, the 49ers planted him immediately in the starting lineup at strong safety, and he certainly looks the part with his superior size and physical presence. But Lewis doesn't look nearly as good in coverage - the weakness in his game - and he still needs to find his niche in the San Francisco system. Lewis' arrival moved Mark Roman to free safety and erstwhile starter (and special teams standout) Keith Lewis to the bench, but the 49ers still are finding ways to get Keith Lewis onto the field as a swing safety. Fourth-round pick Dashon Goldson, who played both safety and cornerback in college, is being tried at safety, where he makes a strong impression with a few standout plays in coverage, possibly giving him the inside track to the team's fourth safety slot entering training camp. SPECIALISTS No competition here. After the 49ers matched the six-year offer sheet punter Andy Lee signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers earlier this year, the fourth-year veteran comes out and shows everybody that he deserves the deal, blasting high, deep and hanging punts throughout the weekend. His first punt of minicamp was a wind-aided 80-yarder, and he continued to hit monster kicks on a regular basis. The team gave free-agent pickup MacKenzie Hoambrecker a lot of work at kicker during each session, but he's no challenge to veteran Joe Nedney. Curiously, the team gave a minicamp tryout to long-snapper William Delahoussaye, but since the 49ers already have one of the best in the business in veteran Brian Jennings, it's unlikely Delahoussaye will make it to training camp.
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