The minicamp wrap

After adding a six-player draft class to the mix, the 49ers began sorting it all out during the past three days during the team's full-squad minicamp at team headquarters. Here's a position-by-position rundown on roster developments that took place during the event, along with the battle lines that were being drawn for this summer and beyond.

The Niners, with several free agents acquired during the offseason also playing key roles, began integrating the new players into the team's offensive and defensive systems - and executing the detailed offensive system of new coordinator Mike Martz.

The first- and second-unit players got most of the work during team drills in the five practice sessions as the team emphasized instruction and learning and familiarized its front-line players with what will be expected when training camp begins in late July.

Here's a detailed look at some of the action that took place and the pecking order that was established in every area of the team.


QUARTERBACK
A funny thing happened as the open competition between Alex Smith and Shaun Hill began in earnest with Smith's early return to full work: Newcomer J.T. O'Sullivan, a journeyman veteran who has thrown 26 regular-season NFL passes, was announced as a contender for the starting position, too. Read the accompanying story on the SFI home page entitled "A three-man race at QB," for full details.

RUNNING BACK
Frank Gore couldn't wipe the smile off his face. There he is - taking a straight handoff and bursting up the middle. There he goes - taking a pitch and turning the corner. And look! Now he's split out wide in an empty backfield. And now he's taking a swing pass with open field ahead. The reason for Gore's joy and the many different looks he's getting in Martz's offense? Well, Gore doesn't hesitate to voice his pleasure about that. "I think this is going to be a fun offense," Gore gushed. "I think defenses won't be able to put eight and nine men in the box no more." Gore is the main man that Martz's offense revolves around, and while it's a passing system, it's obvious Gore will end up with the football more than any other 49er, maybe even touching it as much as the past two seasons, when he led San Francisco in both rushing yards and total receptions. This year, he'll be catching it more, and he gets a lot of different looks in the receiving game during minicamp. Newcomer DeShaun Foster is now Gore's primary backup, and he displays outstanding burst and power through the holes on running plays. Foster doesn't figure to unseat Gore as the bell-cow back, but he will get his share of touches in the scheme. So what's that mean for Michael Robinson? In his third season, he looks better than last year, when he averaged 4.7 yards on 26 carries as the team's second-leading rusher. Robinson makes his opportunities count, and the 49ers figure to work him in somewhere. And what about second-year player Thomas Clayton? The team's sixth-round draft choice in 2007, Clayton was the NFL's leading rusher during the exhibition season, then was relegated to the practice squad for the entire year once the season started. Now he is showing great quicks and agility, and he spins through holes and eludes defenders. For sure, he will make the 49ers think about keeping four running backs this summer. Fullbacks Moran Norris and Zak Keasey don't see a whole lot of work, perhaps an indication of things to come in the Martz offense, where fullbacks are a low priority.

WIDE RECEIVER
It's a brand new look at receiver for the 49ers. Again. For the second year in a row, the team has two new established veterans on the field, and this time Isaac Bruce and Bryant Johnson are hogging the spotlight - not to mention the passes as they line up as the starters with the first unit, relegating Arnaz Battle - a starter since 2005 and the team's leader in receptions among wideouts each of the past two seasons - to a No. 3 receiver role. And then there's veteran Ashley Lelie, trying to fit in somewhere among this revamped group. Bruce, of course, already looks like a natural fit. Already one of the most prolific receivers in NFL history, Bruce is a longtime veteran of the Martz offense going back to their days together in St. Louis when the "Greatest Show on Turf" took the Rams to two Super Bowls in a three-year span. Bruce looks amazing, showing speed and crisp route-running and catching everything in sight, making an over-the-shoulder grab during team drills that is particularly impressive. He's also getting open all the time and finding the seams in the secondary and the soft spots in zone coverage. He looks like a true No. 1 that the 49ers haven't had since Terrell Owens left town, but he shushes off the suggestion. "You know what? I look at it like this: There's no No. 1 guy," Bruce tells SFI. "We're all No. 1 because we all will have to catch the football at times." And so it is in the Martz offense, where the football is often flying. Johnson, getting a big opportunity with the 49ers after being overshadowed by Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin in Arizona, also is impressive with this big frame going up and getting the football. Battle is Battle - always reliable, always catching the football when it comes his way. And then there's 2007 third-rounder Jason Hill making some catches too, the ball sticking to his hands on the quick hot reads that are prevalent in Martz's offense. Sixth-round draft pick Josh Morgan also is getting a look and making some plays, and Dominique Zeigler - who spent last season on San Francisco's practice squad - continues to make an impression with his tall and slender frame snagging passes that come his way. You've probably heard this one before, but this year the 49ers appear to be getting it right on a unit that clearly was among the NFL's worst last season.

TIGHT END
If you think Gore is loving the Martz offense, you should see Vernon Davis. The guy is salivating as the football comes his way down the field instead of the short catch-and-be-instantly-hammered routes he seemed to always run last year. "The matchups on linebackers and safeties with Vernon is pretty substantial," Martz says, and Davis continually gets open during camp when it's the former and not the latter trying to cover him. Davis also shows his spunk during the first day of camp, getting in a tangle with linebacker Parys Haralson, and tossing the 260-pound Haralson to the ground like a bag of seed and then ripping of his helmet and chucking it way down the field. But all is good afterward as the two are quickly separated and just call it a moment in the heat of battle. "You got guys out there competing like Parys, he's out there competing," Davis says. "Some guys kind of over-compete when there's no need to. He was just coming at me and I got a little emotional." Davis spends time on the sideline with coach Mike Nolan talking it over, though Nolan doesn't appear to be giving the talented tight end much admonishment. "Parys was really the one who started the fight, but as you saw (Davis) was the one who made the biggest scene," Nolan says. "So, he has to be smarter than that." And, perhaps, Haralson needs to think about picking fights with someone other than the strong-man Adonis Davis, who backs down to no one. "If I had to put my money on somebody," Nolan says, "I have a strong hunch who I would put my money on. Although the other guy (Haralson) has got good toughness, he might need to pick on somebody else." Also picking passes out of the air - but not nearly with the frequency of Davis - are holdover veteran tight ends Delanie Walker and Billy Bajema, who both figure to see more work in the airwaves in the Martz attack. Both are impressive complements to Davis, and the 49ers look as in good shape at this position as any other on the team.

OFFENSIVE LINE
David Baas tore his right pectoral muscle lifting weights a week before minicamp, an injury that required surgery, so that opens the door at right guard for veteran Tony Wragge and second-round draft pick Chilo Rachal, who both get a lot of work at the position, with Wragge the tentative starter, but the talented rookie already pushing hard. The line has been significantly revamped since the end of last year, with Joe Staley - after his impressive rookie season of 2007, when he started all 16 games at right tackle - now anchoring the unit at left tackle. That has pushed former left tackle Jonas Jennings over to the right side, and while Jennings appears OK with the switch - and, in fact, he looks in pretty good shape after coming back from another season-ending injury suffered last year - he refuses interviews to talk about the switch, or any other subject for that matter. With no Larry Allen around, Adam Snyder is now starting at left guard with solid Eric Heitmann - the team's most consistent lineman over the past few seasons - planted again in the middle as the starting center. It's a unit that works together a lot during the camp as the 49ers try to develop a bit of continuity with Baas out until training camp. Veteran Damane Duckett gets a lot of reps at right tackle as Jennings sits out an afternoon practice, with newcomers Quasim Mitchell and Jeb Terry also getting significant work with the first two units as the 49ers look for some veteran depth for their line. Fourth-round pick Cody Wallace works with the second unit at center, but it's obvious he has a long way to go to catch up with Heitmann.

DEFENSIVE LINE
Justin Smith, San Francisco's $45 million prize in free agency, makes an immediate impression as the new right end in the team's 3-4 scheme. He's a bull, and he never seems to be out of position. He also displays good mobility, and the possibilities are exciting as he moves around in the scheme and also gets a look on the 3-4 edge. "It's going to utilize Justin's talents and it's going to fit into the things that we do, so it's a good marriage," Nolan says. Aubrayo Franklin, who disappointed the team by not taking part in the offseason workout program, returns as the starting nose tackle, but his days enjoying that status could be numbered with first-round draft pick Kentwan Balmer's emergence at left end, which could push Isaac Sopoaga inside on the nose. Sopoaga begins camp as the starting left end, but Balmer spends a lot of time there, and he looks like a natural for the position. Sopoaga, coming off a breakout 2007 season that earned him a $20 million re-up with the team, is going to play somewhere, so the battle between Balmer/Sopoaga/Franklin for the two positions next to Smith in San Francisco's base front should be a good one this summer. Big Ronnie Fields continues to look good and he'll be a factor inside in the line rotation. Veteran Atiyyah Ellison and 2007 third-round pick Ray McDonald are the others getting the most repetitions along the line, but they don't make the impression of the others ahead of them. Melvin Oliver and Joe Cohen, both coming of knee injuries that ended their 2007 seasons before they even started, watch from the sidelines to play it safe in the final stages of their recoveries. They'll both return to full duty in training camp.

LINEBACKER
There's a whole new maturity now to Patrick Willis, and that's saying something for a kid coming off one of the greatest rookie seasons ever by a NFL defender. The league's 2007 Defensive Rookie of the Year is now the player around which the entire San Francisco defense revolves, and he is absolutely thriving in the role, making all the defensive calls and hardly making even one misstep during the entire three days of minicamp. The guy is something special, and he shows it even in just shorts and helmets. "I'm more confident now than I ever was during the whole season last year," Willis says. "Now I make the calls with confidence and I know what's going on around me." Does he ever. And what's going on right next to Willis is a battle to replace the departed Derek Smith as Willis' sidekick inside. Veteran Jeff Ulbrich has taken the initiative there, and he is quick to the ball and sticks his nose in everywhere as he fights to reclaim a starting role that he owned for several years before being supplanted by Brandon Moore in 2006. Moore, the team leader in tackles and sacks in 2006, appears to have fallen out of starting consideration as the team now has him backing up Willis. Veteran free-agent newcomer Dontarrious Thomas is fighting with Ulbrich for the strong-side inside linebacker position next to Willis, but that's a battle Thomas is losing during minicamp. Seventh-round draft pick Larry Grant also is getting some reps there and shows some ability. So does newcomer Dennis Haley, who is trying to make his presence known. On the outside, Manny Lawson still is conspicuous by his absence as he rests on the sideline as a precaution after his season-ending knee injury from last year. He'll be back for training camp, and he'll be the starter at strong-side linebacker. Haralson, who ended up starting in Lawson's place last year, remains the starter for now and he looks OK - nothing better. Jay Moore, the 2007 fourth-rounder whose rookie season was washed away by an ankle injury, and holdover veteran Rod Green also are trying to nose their way into the picture on the outside. Tully Banta-Cain, the starter on the right side who was a disappointment last year after coming to the team in free agency, has slimmed down and appears intent on earning his keep - and keeping his position - while making the kind of impact as a pass rusher he failed to provide the team last year.

CORNERBACK
All is good here as Nate Clements and Walt Harris are set to return as quality starters with veterans Shawntae Spencer, Marcus Hudson and Donald Strickland fighting it out for the reserve roles in secondary coverage packages. Tarell Brown, the 2007 fifth-rounder coming off a knee injury, has his work cut out for him to work his way into the mix, particularly with the team taking a long study on third-round draft pick Reggie Smith, who is displaying some rangy skills and could factor in at that position.

SAFETY
Michael Lewis and Mark Roman both are coming off big seasons, and you can see the confidence in the way they move and the way they work together as San Francisco's last line of defense. They are locks to return to their starting positions in 2008, but Dashon Goldson - the 2007 fourth-rounder - continues to look impressive as he picks up where he left off from his solid rookie season, during which he was seeing playing time in coverage packages by the end of the year. Goldson is a ballhawk who makes three interceptions and knocks down a few other passes during the first two days of team drills. He's seeing a lot of time in regular coverage packages and appears to have moved ahead of Keith Lewis as the third safety, though Lewis is still around and making his presence felt. The 49ers give a few undrafted rookie free agents a look here, but they will be hard-pressed to challenge the four returning veterans once the pads go on this summer.

SPECIALISTS
Andy Lee. Joe Nedney. Brian Jennings. That's about all you need to know about who will handle the punting, kicking and long-snapping duties, respectively, for the 49ers this season. They spend some time sharpening their skills during camp, not that they really need to, then spend most of the 90-minute sessions chatting with each other and watching from the sidelines. The 49ers bring in a few scrubs to share the workload with those three this spring and summer, but they have no chance at sticking around beyond the end of August. The new face here is return specialist Allen Rossum, one of the most prolific return men in NFL history, who shows he still has something left by catching kicks and punts efficiently and showing good explosion upfield and burst to the corner on his returns.


Niners Digest Top Stories