49ers should keep Streets as starter

Niners coach Steve Mariucci said Thursday the team hopes to have J.J. Stokes "available and active" for Sunday's game against the Oakland Raiders. But Tai Streets will continue to start in place of Stokes at receiver. And the 49ers are thinking about making that a permanent arrangement even when Stokes returns to full health.

"That's a possibility," Mariucci said. "We have to decide what is best for us all the way around."

With Stokes out the past three games with a sprained ligament in his right knee, Streets has provided a new dimension in San Francisco's passing attack opposite star receiver Terrell Owens. And the Niners' offense has flourished with him in the starting lineup.

Streets has averaged 17.3 yards on his 12 receptions since becoming the starter. He tied his career high with four receptions in his first start Oct. 14 at Seattle. The next week against New Orleans, Streets became the first player other than Owens in San Francisco's past 23 games to lead the Niners in receiving when he had six catches for 80 yards.

Streets added to his growing list of contributions with a 47-yard touchdown reception last week against Arizona, a prime example of the deep threat he has brought to the offense. Everybody is taking note of his impact.

"Tai brings a little more speed on the field," Niners quarterback Jeff Garcia said. "I think he has a little bit more separation (than Stokes) as far as getting away from players down the field. I was always very confident in Tai. He's a receiver who possesses tremendous ability."

Streets attempts to veer away from questions regarding his role after Stokes returns. "I just want to contribute," he said. "Whatever my role calls for, I just want to help this team win and take advantage of the opportunity when the ball is thrown my way."

That's exactly what Streets has been doing, and it's why he should remain in the starting lineup and push Stokes into the complementary third receiver role. Quite simply, the Niners have been more productive with Streets in the lineup while Stokes has been out of it.

In the past three games with Streets as the starter, the 49ers have averaged 375.3 yards and 31 points a game. With Stokes starting, San Francisco averaged 323 yards and 21.8 points through its first four games. Stokes had 13 receptions for 149 yards in those four games before he was injured while making a 51-yard reception Oct. 6 against St.

Mariucci was firm in the weeks following that game that Stokes would return as the starter when healthy. But now the coach isn't so sure. Why mess with a good thing? Even Stokes, in praising Streets' performance in his place, cryptically indicated Streets has been helping the team and deserves the extra playing time he has been getting.

"Tai's performed great," Stokes said. "He's come in and taken over. Tai is a starter, in essence. So I don't think it's shocking to anybody that he's performed so well. There's no reason why Tai shouldn't get playing time. He's performed at a great level and the team hasn't missed a beat."

So there you have it. Streets should remain the starter until there is a reason for that to change. There certainly is no reason to change it now.

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