What becomes of Arnaz Battle?

He just produced a career season, leading all 49ers wideouts in receptions. He was the most reliable WR on the roster in 2006, a guy who works hard, plays with discipline, blocks downfield, possesses soft hands and has developed nicely into a legitimate NFL receiver. So what happens to Arnaz Battle now that the 49ers have brought in two established veteran WRs to move in ahead of him as starters?

"I don't even worry about it too much," Battle said. "I just go out each day and try to get better."

And that's why nobody should be giving away Battle's slot as San Francisco's starting flanker just quite yet.

OK, that's where the 49ers have decided to put Darrell Jackson when he finally begins working with the San Francisco offense during organized team activities next month. And, to be sure, Jackson is one receiver the 49ers plan to have in their lineup to upgrade their starting talent at a position that has needed that kind of influx for several seasons.

Jackson, acquired in a draft-weekend trade with the Seattle Seahawks, was held out of the team's May 4-6 minicamp with a toe injury, though he probably could have practiced. After leading Seattle's high-powered offense in receptions four of the past six seasons, the 49ers are high on the hope Jackson can give them the No. 1 receiver they've been lacking since Terrell Owens took his show elsewhere after the 2003 season.

The team's other talented newcomer, Ashlie Lelie, led the NFL in average per catch twice in his previous six pro seasons, and he's the obvious candidate to replace Antonio Bryant at split end with his stretch-the-field capabilities. And that's where the 49es currently have him on their depth chart.

Which leaves Battle … well, exactly where?

Despite establishing himself as a productive, team-first player after moving into the starting lineup two seasons ago, there has always been the perception that, when the 49ers finally got good again at wide receiver, Battle would be best suited as a No. 3, complementary-type wideout.

Battle never has been one to get caught up in how good he is or should be, or where he fits in now that the team has added a couple of veterans who previously have established themselves - with varying degrees of success - as NFL starters.

"I've never gotten comfortable," said Battle, whose 59 receptions (for 686 yards and three touchdowns) ranked second on the team behind running back Frank Gore's 61 catches. "I always feel like 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."

As he prepares for his fifth season with the 49ers, the 2003 sixth-round draft pick looked like one of the most assured veterans on the field during the team's minicamp earlier this month. He clearly was the best combination of skill and polish that the team had at wide receiver.

Of course, Jackson didn't participate, and Lelie took part in only one practice session before pulling up lame with a quad injury that kept him out the remainder of the event.

Coach Mike Nolan agrees that the upgrades the team has made at receiver this year - and that includes third-round draft pick Jason Hill - give San Francisco the best group of receivers the team has had since he took control of the franchise in 2005. ("Without question," Nolan says.) But he's not about to give any indication in May where he expects things to fall into place by the time the season begins in September.

"Ashley and Darrell Jackson haven't practiced yet," Nolan said. "The maturity of (Bryan) Gilmore and Arnaz Battle is evident. They know where they are going and what they are doing. They are working in sync quite a bit. When we get the other two guys together it will be interesting to see how much better we are."

Which may be a telling statement, because the 49ers obviously entered 2007 looking to get "much better" at receiver.

Can the team still do that with Battle as a starter? That would mean him getting better, too. Or, perhaps, he just needs better players around him to prove that he can be a solid No. 2 starter. Battle responded well last year, even after Bryant wilted after a strong start and eventually was suspended in December for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy - all factors that led to his eventual release in March.

And that parting of the ways with Bryant after one troubled season left the 49ers scrambling for more talented wideouts to add to the mix. They added at least three by the end of draft weekend. If Jackson and Lelie take over as the starters, there is some belief Hill could challenge Battle for the No. 3 role. Veteran holdovers Gilmore and Taylor Jacobs still are around, though it appears both will be challenged to hold onto their roster spots, more less challenge for one of the top roles in the WR rotation.

Battle just sees it as the team getting better, which is definitely something of which he wants to be part. And he's willing to work for whatever his role in that will be - whether it's a new role or not.

"We've got a lot of talented guys," he said. "Darrell Jackson comes in a proven veteran. Ashley Lelie comes in and he's had some productive years. We have a group of guys, and we're going to go out and compete and fight for spots.

"It just makes this offense more versatile. I think we have the guys in place to be a very explosive offense. The better the offense gets, the better Alex (Smith) gets. I think a lot of guys can benefit from that, and I feel like I'm one of those guys."


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