Training camp battleground: Inside linebacker

One of the top competitions taking place in 49ers training camp is transpiring right next to arguably the team's best player, Patrick Willis, at left inside ‘Ted' linebacker. That's a position where no fewer than four players have an opportunity to emerge as starter for the regular-season opener in September. SFI takes a look at all the players and factors involved in this hot positional battle.

Regular 2007 starter: Derek Smith
The incumbent: Jeff Ulbrich
The veteran: Brandon Moore
The newcomer: Dontarrious Thomas
The upstart: Larry Grant
The departed: Smith

The setting: San Francisco's middle linebacker position was manned admirably for several years by Smith, the team's leading tackler from 2001-2005 who played at a Pro Bowl level during stretches of that five-year period. He still was playing at a high level at the left inside position when the 49ers began integrating a 3-4 set into their scheme after coach Mike Nolan arrived with a new defensive plan in 2005. Smith's play began to fall off in 2006, then noticeably declined at the end of last season, when Ulbrich replaced him as the starter for two of the season's final three games. With Smith owed a base salary of $3.3 million this year in the final season of a contract he signed in 2006, the 49ers opted to cut ties with 12th-year veteran and released him in March, saving approximately $2 million on the team's 2008 salary cap. He immediately signed a two-year deal with the San Diego Chargers and is currently in line to start San Diego's season opener. "Derek was a good 49er," Nolan said. "(But) you want guys on the field and don't want them stacked behind each other, and that is a little bit of what happened with Derek. We wanted to move forward. We felt we had some guys that could occupy that position, and it would be about the same. There isn't a whole lot of difference between Derek and Jeff (Ulbrich), but there is some. From an overall team standpoint, Jeff is an outstanding special teams player. Derek did a lot of things, but (Ulbrich)'s been more of an impact player in that area for our football team."

The skinny: Former starter Ulbrich, a heady and scrappy veteran, appeared to experience a career rebirth last year after losing his starting job in 2006. Ulbrich plays with intensity, is smart and instinctive and gets to the football with aggression. Ulbrich ran as the starter this spring and appeared capable of handling the job, though he's a bit undersized for what the 49ers are looking for at the position. Size isn't a problem with Thomas, whom the 49ers brought in via free agency during the offseason with the expectations he could compete for the starting position. But Thomas failed to latch onto the position or distinguish himself with his performance during the spring and has been playing predominantly behind Willis at the right inside "Mike" position during training camp. Grant, the team's seventh-round draft pick, is a tenacious player but lacks both size and experience for the role but has been showing flashes of talent and desire throughout the opening week of camp. Moore, the team's leading tackler in 2006 while playing this position, was mysteriously cast as a backup behind Willis during the spring, but San Francisco coaches wisely moved him back to compete at this position to get the team's best players on the field. Moore has optimum size and tenacity for the position but must focus on consistency and is not a particularly good pass defender. The frontrunners through the first week of camp have clearly been Ulbrich and Moore, and they seem to be the two players best suited to give the 49ers both what they need and are looking for from the position in their defensive scheme. There still is an outside possibility the team could bring in another veteran such as Takeo Spikes – whom the team met with during the spring and says it continues to occasionally discuss – but likelihood of that happening now seems highly remote.

Coach's take: "Right now, there is pretty good competition there. Ulbrich is the guy right now. Behind him is Dontarrious as well as Brandon and the rookie Larry Grant. All three of those guys are working in and out at that position. Right now there is no clear-cut (guy), although if I had to start today, Jeff would be the guy." – Mike Nolan

Edge for season opener: Ulbrich

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