Williams not going away at WR

Don't forget about Brandon Williams. Seemingly an afterthought in the 49ers' plans at WR this year after a do-nothing rookie season, the team's 2006 third-round draft pick was a primary target during the Niners' May minicamp, wearing a new number and a newfound confidence that he can become a factor at a position where his roster slot no longer is guaranteed.

Williams pretty much got a roster pass last season - even though he never caught even one pass and rarely got on the field as a receiver - because his primary role was as a kick/punt returner on special teams. Williams failed to distinguish himself in that role, averaging just 6.7 yards on 22 punt returns, which placed him next to last in the NFC rankings.

And, even though the 49ers were weak at receiver last season - No. 3 WR Bryan Gilmore finished with just eight receptions, while starters Arnaz Battle and Antonio Bryant combined for only 99 - Williams couldn't make a dent in a passing game that was in dire need of another receiving weapon throughout the season.

But the 49ers never got down on Williams or his ability, and the diminutive 5-foot-11, 175-pounder - Williams looks even smaller - says he's chalking up his rookie season to experience.

It was a new Williams zipping around on the practice field earlier this month, using his quickness to get open on underneath routes and showing sure hands while snagging, by one estimate, nearly 20 receptions during team drills in the three-day event.

"It's a maturation process," Williams said. "I know the offense a whole lot better, so it's thinking for me. I can just go out there and know where I have to be. Now, I can focus on reading the defense. That will help you 100 times more, just knowing the routes and knowing what you have to do, and know what's going to happen to you, so you can change the situation."

Williams knows he needs to change the situation that made it appear he wasn't ready to compete as a receiver at the NFL level season after becoming the leading receiver in University of Wisconsin history during his prolific college career.

So, first thing's first. Williams changed his uniform number. After wearing 17 on his back as a rookie, he now has taken over No. 81, a number that comes with some history. The last three players to wear those numerals for the 49ers were Terrell Owens, Rashaun Woods and Antonio Bryant - and everybody knows how those three guys ended up disappointing the 49ers in one way or another.

"It's all about perception," Williams said. "I wanted a receiver number. I want to be perceived as a receiver. There's some good and bad (history of the number). I'm not going to relive it. I'm going to make the new history of it."

That is easier said than done. The 49ers added veteran Ashley Lelie in free agency as a field-stretching replacement for Bryant. Then they spent a third-round draft pick on a receiver for the second year in a row when they selected Washington State's Jason Hill, who by size alone looks more ready to contribute as a rookie than Williams did. Then, one day later, the team traded a fourth-round draft pick to Seattle to acquire veteran Darrell Jackson, an expected starter who instantly pushes Williams down another notch on the depth chart at flanker.

Suddenly, Williams - who finished last season fifth on San Francisco's five-receiver depth chart - doesn't necessarily find himself in a battle for playing time in 2007. He finds himself in a battle just to make the roster. Of course, this year, those two battles may be intertwined.

And Williams, to be sure, appeared to be a different receiver at minicamp, where he looked like one of the team's most improved players over the season before.

"I know he's competing and he wants to be one of our starting guys," Niners coach Mike Nolan said. "Right now, he's our returner as well as trying to compete to be one of the receivers, whether it be the slot position or outside."

That's an advantage Williams will carry with him into training camp - the team still is high on him as a return man, and expects its third-round investment to pay off in that area this year.

But Williams also sees himself as a receiver, and after his apprenticeship season of 2006, says he's ready to make a splash. He knows he better, too. His career with the 49ers may depend on it.

"You have to learn this stuff," he said. "You're not just going to wake up and just know everything about the offense, and you're not just going to be able to know how they're going to want it to be done. You have to get up to tempo and get up to the physicality of the game - all that stuff. I just don't think I was all the way ready yet (last season). It just wasn't my time to be out there. I wasn't explosive enough, I wasn't ready to step into that role and be a guy who could be depended on down in and down out."

And this year?

"I would love to be in the top three (receivers)," Williams said. "I want to be accountable and dependable. If they need me to play, then they can count on me making this play. That's where I want to be. If they need me to come in, and somebody gets hurt, or I need to come in on third down, and that's my role, then I want to be able to fulfill that role."

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