NFC West: Positional Analysis

Between minicamps and training camp is when roster dreams loom largest. Undrafted free agents and NFL Europe candidates hope to transcend the practice squad, or the final cuts. Meanwhile, high draft picks struggle with the weight of expectation. It's a good time to review how all four NFC West entrants look positionally, with training camps just days away.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Matt Hasselbeck. Backups -- Seneca Wallace, David Greene, Gibran Hamdan.

Hasselbeck is a two-time Pro Bowl passer in the prime of his career. He has full command of the offense and the full confidence of teammates and coaches. He makes the offense go. The team is keeping an eye on the free-agent market in case an experienced veteran backup comes available. Wallace would probably remain in the No. 2 role. Adding a veteran might free up Wallace to dabble at receiver or punt returner, something Wallace did briefly during the playoffs last season. Greene needs a strong training camp to stay with the team. He hasn't been particularly impressive in minicamps. Hamdan flashed potential in Europe this spring, but a broken ankle could keep him out of training camp. Seattle is strong at the position unless something happens to Hasselbeck.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Shaun Alexander and Mack Strong. Backups -- Maurice Morris, Leonard Weaver, David Kirtman, Ran Carthon, Jimmy Dixon, Josh Scobey, Marquis Weeks.

All Alexander does is produce. Critics like to pick apart his running style. They say he isn't tough enough and doesn't run hard enough. Too bad nobody can stop him. Alexander has five consecutive seasons with at least 15 touchdowns. His yardage numbers are on the rise. Working behind a veteran line and a veteran fullback helps quite a bit. Strong probably has one more good year in his soon-to-be-35-year-old body. Weaver is a beast waiting in the wings. The former undrafted free agent is big and athletic, with a flair for running the ball. Seattle needs him to continue developing as a blocker, something that doesn't come naturally to him. Kirtman might one day become a perfect fit for the offense, but he'll have a hard time earning a roster spot as a rookie.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Jerramy Stevens. Backups -- Itula Mili, Will Heller, Mike Gomez, Brock Edwards, Keith Willis.

Stevens can't be stopped unless he stops himself the way he did with all those drops in the Super Bowl. People forget that Stevens scored Seattle's only TD in the game, and that the Steelers had no clue how to deal with him. The question now is whether the dropped passes become a recurring theme in clutch situations. Stevens is also recovering from knee surgery that might keep him out until deep into training camp. This is a contract year for Stevens, so he needs to step up. Mili was once a quality starter. Health problems hurt him last season. Seattle needs him to revive his career after management decided not to invest in Ryan Hannam, who signed with Dallas in free agency. Heller was signed to replace Hannam, but he isn't the same player.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Darrell Jackson and Nate Burleson. Backups -- Bobby Engram, Peter Warrick, D.J. Hackett, Skyler Fulton, Keenan Howry, C.J. Jones, Maurice Mann, Ben Obomanu, Taco Wallace.

Seattle has good depth at the position now that Warrick looks like he's on the way back from knee surgery. Warrick caught 79 passes for the Bengals in 2003. He has a chance to catch 40 or 50 balls in this offense particularly now that Jackson's health is a concern. Burleson has good yards-after-catch ability. He'll have a chance to supplant Jackson as the primary receiver on this team. Engram proved last season he can flourish as a starter. He'll probably return to the No. 3 role, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Engram was one of the league's best third-down targets a few years ago. He can become that again.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- Walter Jones, Floyd Womack, Robbie Tobeck, Chris Gray, Sean Locklear. Backups -- Chris Spencer, Ray Willis, Tom Ashworth, William Henry, Rob Sims, Jeff Bolton, Lance Reynolds, Pat Ross.

The line probably peaked last season with Jones, Steve Hutchinson and Tobeck all representing Seattle in the Pro Bowl. Hutchinson is gone to the Vikings. Tobeck is 36 and fighting off the inevitable ascension of Spencer, a first-round pick in 2005. He probably has one more good season left, as does Gray, the 36-year-old right guard. Locklear has the skills to hold down the right-tackle spot for years to come. He can also slide into a guard spot if Womack can't stay healthy. This should still be one of the league's better lines, but it won't be the same without Hutchinson. And if this is the year they switch to Spencer at center, Hasselbeck will have to carry more of the burden in making sure Seattle gets into the right protections.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- Bryce Fisher, Chuck Darby, Marcus Tubbs, Grant Wistrom. Backups -- Chris Cooper, Jeb Huckeba, Robert Pollard, Kemp Rasmussen, John Syptak, Joe Tafoya, Darryl Tapp, Darrell Wright, Rocky Bernard, Russell Davis, Craig Terrill.

Injuries will test the depth on the inside. Tubbs and Bernard are coming off surgeries. Neither will be ready for the start of training camp. Both will be counted on for the regular season. Adding Davis was huge for the defense. He's a big-time interior defender and a potential starter even if Tubbs and Bernard are healthy. Not that the starters matter so much at tackle. Seattle rotates four men at the position. The end position is one injury away from having problems. Wistrom and Fisher are more than adequate as starters, but Wistrom is coming off shoulder surgery. If he misses games, Seattle will need second-round choice Tapp to play before he's ready. The Seahawks need Wistrom and Fisher to stay healthy if their defense is finally going to crack the top 10.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- Julian Peterson, Lofa Tatupu, Leroy Hill. Backups -- Niko Koutouvides, Cornelius Wortham, Evan Benjamin, Isaiah Kacyvenski, Lance Laury, Kevin Bentley, D.D. Lewis.

The starting three have a chance to form the best combination in the league. Tatupu was a Pro Bowl player as a rookie. Hill had 7 1/2 sacks in limited work. Both must avoid sophomore slumps. Tatupu should be fine; he's already the leader of the defense through his strong personality and top-notch play. Adding Peterson could put the defense over the top. Seattle already led the league in sacks last season. Tatupu is a very good blitzer in doses. Hill and Peterson have top-shelf pass-rush skills. Lewis is the odd man out, not a bad thing given his injury problems. Depth behind those four is spotty at best. Kacyvenski can play all three positions, but none at a starting level. He'll make the team on the strength of his special-teams play and because he's the kind of guy teams want in their locker rooms.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- Kelly Jennings, Ken Hamlin, Michael Boulware, Marcus Trufant. Backups -- Mike Green, Kelly Herndon, Jordan Babineaux, Reggie Austin, Lance Frazier, Brandon Haw, Kevin Hobbs, Gerard Ross, Jimmy Williams, Etric Pruitt, Oliver Celestin, Shaunard Harts.

There's been a lot of talk about whether Seattle should do what it takes to sign Ty Law. Adding the veteran corner would make a lot of sense after Seattle released Andre Dyson. Then again, the Seahawks have proven that youthful enthusiasm goes a long ways on defense as long as the talent is there too. Jennings will be asked to start. If he's another Tatupu or Hill, Seattle could be set on the corners for years to come. Trufant has first-round ability and this might finally be the year it shows on the field. He participated in all offseason conditioning and minicamps for the first time in his career. In the past he was always rehabilitating an injury, forcing him to enter the season at less than full strength. Safety is a bit of a question mark because Hamlin and Boulware are coming off injuries. Hamlin thinks he'll be OK after missing most of last season with a fractured skull. Boulware has missed time after ankle surgery, a bad thing for Seattle given that Boulware needs all the reps he can get after making the conversion to safety from linebacker. Don't be surprised if Green makes some starts in his first season with the team. Babineaux provides security at corner and safety. He was a play-making force in spot duty last season.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Josh Brown, Ryan Killeen, J.P. Darche, Gabe Lindstrom, Ryan Plackemeier.

Brown is the kicker almost no matter what. That's not a bad thing, either. He has proven mostly reliable on field goals while improving his kickoffs despite tough conditions at Qwest Field. Darche will probably stick around again because he's a reliable snapper and Seattle isn't holding a roster spot for a return specialist. The punting job will probably go to Plackemeier, the rookie. He's unproven, but that isn't always a bad thing; last year the team went with Leo Araguz, who had proven to be mediocre over the course of his career. At least Plackemeier has some potential.


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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Kurt Warner. Backups -- John Navarre, Matt Leinart, Rohan Davey, Jeff Otis.

When Warner was healthy, he strung together 300-yard games reminiscent of his glory years. But Warner, 34, who signed a three-year contract in January, has played 16 games only once in six years. Leinart, a gift in the draft at No. 10 overall, at some point probably is going to play as a rookie. Leinart was regarded as the most ready of the three quarterbacks in the opening round. But it remains Warner's job as long as he can do it, and Leinart's is to learn from him and be ready. Navarre, a seventh-round pick in 2004, about whom Coach Dennis Green has raved for two years, will be hard pressed to be anything but the third quarterback.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB Edgerrin James, FB Obafemi Ayanbadejo . Backups -- Marcel Shipp, J.J. Arrington, Roger Robinson, Damien Anderson, James Hodgins (FB).


With James, the threat of the run is restored to a one-dimensional offense. When combined with what was statistically the best passing game in the NFL, prospects become very real that the unit could rival those with which James played in Indianapolis and Warner played in St. Louis. Shipp, the Cardinals rushing leader three of the past four years, should be a fine complement. Shipp is a big body who is most effective between the tackles. Arrington, the second-round pick in 2005 to whom the Cardinals tried to give the job, falls another notch on the depth chart as he tries to shake a disastrous rookie season. And that might be a good thing. He was not ready. Now he can develop without pressure. Robinson set an NFL Europe rushing record but will be hard pressed to be above fourth on the chart.

TIGHT ENDS: Starters -- Leonard Pope. Backups -- Eric Edwards, Adam Bergen, John Bronson, Andy Stokes, Ben Hall, Alex Shor.

Pope, an athletic 6-foot-7 target, might make the greatest immediate impact of the entire rookie class. He gives the team a weapon it has not had -- a big, fast, target up the seam -- to complement the Pro Bowl outside receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, and to help open the running game for Pro Bowler Edgerrin James. Pope, with his blocking skills, is the complete package. Edwards is a good blocker but can't catch. Bergen is a good receiver but can't block.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin. Backups -- Bryant Johnson, Todd Watkins, LeRon McCoy, Carlyle Holiday, Troy Walters, Zamir Cobb, Damarius Bilbo, Greg Lee.

Fitzgerald and Boldin have a combined five years in the league and already both are Pro Bowlers. And 2003 first-round pick Bryant Johnson is an able third wideout. Fitzgerald broke Boldin's two-year-old franchise record for catches in a season (Boldin also topped his old number). And they did it when foes knew the Cardinals had to pass because they couldn't run. The knock on them is that none is really a burner. The team is hopeful a fourth receiver emerges who is both the deep threat they lack and can double as the return man.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Leonard Davis, LG Reggie Wells, C Alex Stepanovich, RG Milford Brown, RT Oliver Ross, Backups -- Deuce Lutui, Nick Leckey, Elton Brown, Jeremy Bridges, Alan Rueber, Dante Ellington, Rolando Cantu, Fred Wakefield, Shawn Lynch, Kyle Schmitt.


This unit clearly was the weak link. Lutui was drafted on the left side and free agent Milford Brown signed to play the right, ahead of Elton Brown. Veteran Wells may move to center to compete with Stepanovich, a 16-game starter in 2004 as a rookie but slowed last year by injuries. At the very least there will be competition for the jobs. Outside, the team appears destined to start the same pair of tackles, Davis on the left and Ross on the right. Both were underachievers in 2005.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LE Chike Okeafor, NT Kendrick Clancy, UT Darnell Dockett, RE Bertrand Berry. Backups -- Kenny King, Calvin Pace, Antonio Smith, Gabe Watson, Tim Bulman, Jonathan Lewis, Langston Moore, A.J. Schable, Tyler King, Anton Palepoi.

Getting the injured players back will be the equivalent of another round of free agency. Berry returns from injury to harass passers. Opposite him will be a battle between Okeafor and either King or Dockett. Dockett has been a two-year starter at "under" tackle, but he is undersize and now faces strong competition from King, coming back from two seasons missed to wrist surgery. King and Dockett can double outside, and one of them, likely Dockett, will make that move. Free agent Clancy or fourth-round pick Watson, who had first-round talent but fell because he often dogged it at Michigan, will replace departed long-time nose tackle Russell Davis.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- SLB Karlos Dansby, MLB Gerald Hayes, WLB Orlando Huff. Backups -- James Darling, Isaac Keys, Lance Mitchell, Darryl Blackstock, Lawrence Pinson, Brandon Johnson, Mark Brown.

Dansby had a break-out year on the strong side, establishing himself as an elite player who is adept at dropping into coverage to make an interception, or taking on a ball carrier to finish with a punishing blow, or rushing the quarterback and making the sack. In the middle, Hayes, the projected starter, didn't play a down last season but is back from injury to regain the job. On the weak side, Huff was a disappointment after coming from Seattle. Blackstone is moving from the strong side to challenge Huff. Darling, however, might wind up there if Hayes makes a successful return.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Antrel Rolle, CB David Macklin, SS Adrian Wilson, FS Robert Griffith. Backups -- Eric Green, Robert Tate, Dyshod Carter, Jay McCareins, Justin Wyatt, Lamont Reid, Darrell Hunter, Ernest Shazor, Chris Harrell, Jack Brewer, Aaron Francisco.

Rolle, who missed most of his rookie year to a knee injury, and Green was forced by injuries into some rookie-year starts before he was ready. Aging Macklin and Tate are still around but there isn't much quality depth and, for that matter, there remain questions regarding Rolle and Green. Wilson is the league's premier safety blitzer. Aging free safety Griffith will try to hold off unproven challengers.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters -- K Neal Rackers, P Scott Player, LS Nathan Hodel, KR-PR Michael Spurlock. Backups -- Nick Novak, Fered Capshaw, Troy Walters, Todd Watkins, LeRon McCoy.

The Cardinals have one of the best tandems in Pro Bowl place-kicker Rackers and former Pro Bowl punter Player. They're hoping an improved offense gives them and veteran long-snapper Hodel fewer opportunities to show their stuff, though. They got good through too many repetitions. The coverage units were an embarrassment, routinely giving TDs on punt and kickoff returns. Several players with special teams track records have been added. The Cards are in need of a return man, and will look first to Spurlock, Walters, Watkins and McCoy.


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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Marc Bulger. Backups - Gus Frerotte, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jeff Smoker, Dave Ragone

Bulger has spent the off-season learning the terminology in Linehan's offense, and there were some moments of frustration. However, there was a time where Bulger struggled mightily under Mike Martz, but he developed into a consistently productive quarterback. The key will be keeping him healthy after suffering shoulder injuries the last two seasons. This year, a comfort zone exists with the addition of Frerotte. Not only did he help the Dolphins win nine games last season, but he did that in Linehan's offense. The most intriguing battle in camp will be for the No. 3 job. Fitzpatrick exhibited promise at times last season, and might have a slight edge entering camp. However, Smoker has a history in college with Nussmeier, while Ragone played for Linehan at the University of Louisville.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce. Backups - Kevin Curtis, Shaun McDonald, Dane Looker, Marques Hagans, Jeremy Carter, Brandon Middleton, Brad Pyatt, Clinton Solomon, Taylor Stubblefield, Dominique Thompson


One thing hasn't changed under Linehan that was always evident when Mike Martz was the head coach: There are numerous receivers competing for jobs that probably don't exist, except on the eight-man practice squad. Holt remains one of the league's elite receivers, and has a streak of six consecutive seasons with at least 1,300 yards. Bruce is still a threat and keeps defenses honest, but he has to stay healthy. Curtis can become an unrestricted free agent after the season, and opens things up for the offense with his speed. McDonald has shown flashes at times, and might have his opportunities reduced because Linehan won't use four receivers very much. Looker is solid, and is also the holder for kicker Jeff Wilkins. The question is whether that will be enough to retain a roster spot again. The most intriguing of the other six receivers are Hagans and Solomon. A quarterback in college, it is hoped that Hagans can be a threat as a kick returner, as well as catching, running and even throwing. Solomon has excellent size (6-3, 214) and looked good in the off-season. Pyatt has NFL experience with the Colts, but has had injury issues.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Joe Klopfenstein. Backups - Dominique Byrd, Jerome Collins, Alex Holmes, Rod Trafford, Aaron Walker, Jonathan Williams


Flip a coin and go with Klopfenstein as the starter, even though he and Byrd will likely see a lot of time on the field. Both have the ability to get the ball, and Linehan plans to use the tight end extensively in the passing game. The question is whether they will be able to block effectively. Linehan will have his eye out for an experienced blocking tight end during camp, unless someone emerges from the current group. Holmes played eight games for the Dolphins last season, and is said to have potential. Collins is an excellent athlete, who some believe is ready to improve. Walker has previous experience with the 49ers.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - HB Steven Jackson, FB Madison Hedgecock. Backups - HB Marshall Faulk, HB Tony Fisher, HB Antoine Bagwell, HB John David Washington, HB Fred Russell, FB Paul Smith


The biggest question as camp approached was the future of Faulk. Throughout the off-season, Linehan planned for his presence. However, just before the team's June minicamp, Faulk told Linehan he wouldn't be in attendance, citing a problem with one of his knees. Faulk had February surgery on both knees, and one failed to respond. In the event Faulk is unavailable, the Rams would likely acquire Michael Bennett from New Orleans. Jackson is the starter and has continued to talk about his desire to get the ball. He will, but he has to improve on his 4.1-yard average per carry in 2005 as well as blocking against the blitz. Hedgecock showed promise last season, but it's unknown how much Linehan will utilize a fullback. Fisher is a solid third-down back, and has been productive as a runner and receiver in Green Bay. Bagwell looked intriguing in mini-camps. Smith adds a veteran presence, while Washington will have to do more than having Denzel Washington as his dad.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (Paul Boudreau, Jim Chaney): Starters - LT Orlando Pace, LG Richie Incognito, C Andy McCollum, RG Adam Timmerman, RT Alex Barron. Backups - T Todd Steussie, G Claude Terrell, G Blaine Saipaia, C/G Larry Turner, T Drew Strojny, T Jason Hilliard, T/G Ben Noll, G Tony Palmer, G Mark Setterstrom, C Donovan Raiola


Watchful eyes will be on Incognito and Timmerman as the summer progresses. The left guard job appears to be Incognito's to lose after a solid off-season that saw Terrell do very little because of a wrist injury. Terrell's physical condition is also in question. Timmerman returns from a subpar 2005 affected by several off-season surgeries. McCollum is solid in the middle, and the edges are in good hands with Pace and Barron. Should Timmerman falter, Saipaia could contend, although it took him a while to recover from a neck injury that ended his 2005 season. Steussie provides veteran insurance at tackle and guard. Turner will also compete for a backup spot. Coaches like the potential of rookies Palmer and Setterstrom. The question is whether there will be room on the roster or if one or both will be on the practice squad.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (Brian Baker): Starters - LE Leonard Little, DT La'Roi Glover, NT Jimmy Kennedy, RE Anthony Hargrove. Backups - E Brandon Green, E Victor Adeyanju, E Omar Nazel, T Jason Fisk, T Claude Wroten, T Jeremy Calahan, T Brian Howard, T Tim Sandidge

The middle of the line will see a transformation with the departure of Ryan Pickett and Damione Lewis, the arrival of Glover and the move of Kennedy to the nose. Kennedy has talked of being revitalized with former line coach Bill Kollar gone. Now, he will have to show it on the field, where he should be as effective as Pickett was tying up blockers. Glover brings pass-rush ability to the inside, something that has been absent for a while. That push up the middle should also help Little and Hargrove. Little is entering the final year of his contract, while Hargrove needs to step up and be more disciplined against the run and make plays in pass defense. Green is a high-motor player that provides solid depth. Adeyanju should also contribute as a rookie. Fisk has experience behind Kennedy, with Wroten the most intriguing. If off-field issues are resolved, he has the ability to be a difference-maker. Calahan has shown flashes at times, but will have a tough time making the roster. Sandidge is a candidate for the practice squad.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - SLB Brandon Chillar, MLB Will Witherspoon, WLB Pisa Tinoisamoa. Backups - SLB Raonall Smith, MLB Trev Faulk, MLB Tim McGarigle, MLB Jamal Brooks, WLB Dexter Coakley, OLB Jon Alston, OLB Mike Goolsby, OLB Drew Wahlroos

Witherspoon was the marquee addition of the off-season, and he remains ticketed for the middle, where it is believed he can move around and make plays. On the weak side, Tinoisamoa should be helped by Witherspoon, and make more plays than he has in the past when he had little support. Chillar has the inside track on the strong side, but Smith can't be counted out. He might be the bargain signing of the off-season on a one-year, minimum salary contract. There will be intense competition for backup jobs. Coakley is intent on coming back from a 2005 broken leg, but it's an open question whether the Rams will pay him to be a backup. Faulk, McGarigle and Brooks are candidates in the middle, with Faulk a question because of back surgery that made him a non-participant in the off-season. Alston has enormous potential, and is also seen as a possible safety. Wahlroos has been good on special teams, but this will be a tough battle making the roster.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: CB Jerametrius Butler, CB Travis Fisher, SS Corey Chavous, FS O.J. Atogwe. Backups - CB Fakhir Brown, CB Tye Hill, CB DeJuan Groce, CB/S Ron Bartell, CB Dwight Anderson, S Jerome Carter, S Dwaine Carpenter, S Deandre Eiland, CB Kevin Timothee

In reality, Chavous is probably the only sure thing when it comes to who will start. Butler and Fisher were the starters entering camp last year, but injuries doomed them. Butler missed the entire season because of a knee injury, and then injured a hamstring in the off-season. Fisher was bothered by a groin problem all year. He has had a solid off-season, and entering the final year of his contract is intent on being a starter again. When healthy, Butler and Fisher not only were good in pass defense, but they also supported the run. This year, there is better depth behind them. Brown is confident he will be the starter, while Hill, the first-round pick, has tremendous skills. He just can't afford to miss time because of a contract problem. Groce could be doing a free-fall down the depth chart. Atogwe will be competing with Carter for the start at free safety, and the position has to be in better hands than it was last season. Chavous' leadership, as well as playing ability, should be a plus. Bartell is the most intriguing. He improved as he got more playing time, and now could be a swing man at corner and safety.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Jeff Wilkins, P Matt Turk, LS Chris Massey, PK Remy Hamilton, P Andy Groom.


A huge miscalculation was made last season when rookie Reggie Hodges opened the season as the punter. Ligashesky made that call, but Hodges didn't return the favor. He was cut after a horrific performance against Seattle that directly led to the home loss. Bryan barker finished the season, but this summer, Turk is expected to win the job, assuming he is over the groin problem that cost him the 2005 season in Miami. Andy Groom is around in camp, but it will take a major upset for the decision to be made not to go with the experienced Turk. Wilkins remains one of the league's top kickers, and Massey was signed to a new contract to be the long snapper. Questions surround the return game. The Rams hope Hagans is the punt returner and maybe the kickoff returner, too. Curtis was returning kickoffs in the June mini-cap, and Pyatt has ability there if he can stay healthy. The coverage units were better last season, and should improve even more with the added emphasis on bringing in players with special teams experience.


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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
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QUARTERBACK: Starter - Alex Smith. Backups - Trent Dilfer, Cody Pickett, Jesse Palmer, Shaun Hill.

Smith has a lot to prove in his second season in the league after throwing 11 interceptions and just one touchdown. As a rookie, Smith looked unsure of himself and did not exhibit the athleticism that drew the 49ers to select him with the No. 1 overall pick. Smith remains confident that he will show a lot more of his good qualities this season. At least this season he will have some veteran support behind him. Dilfer was acquired in a trade with the Browns for Ken Dorsey to help tutor Smith, who struggled with 11 interceptions and one touchdown as a rookie. Pickett will see action at other positions as he tries to hold onto his roster spot. He disappointed the organization this spring when he opted not to play in NFL Europe.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - RB Frank Gore, FB Chris Hetherington. Backups - RB Kevan Barlow, RB Maurice Hicks, FB Moran Norris, RB Terry Jackson, RB Michael Robinson.

Good competition is expected to unfold between Barlow and Gore. Gore was impressive when he played last season, but he is coming off two offseason shoulder shoulders and his durability is a question. Hicks, the third-stringer, also was impressive when he played. Robinson will look to unseat Jackson as the third-down back. Jackson's hopes for sticking around another season is directly tied to his play on special teams. Veterans Hetherington and Norris will compete at fullback.

TIGHT ENDS: Starters - Vernon Davis. Backups - Eric Johnson, Billy Bajema, Delanie Walker, Terry Jones, Onye Ibekwe, Trent Smith.

Davis comes to the 49ers as the No. 6 overall pick in the draft. He is probably the fastest player on the team, and figures to play a large role in the passing game as a rookie. Johnson had a good offseason after missing all of last year with a foot injury. Johnson could work his way into a lot of two-TE sets. Walker is an intriguing talent who played WR at the NCAA Division II level. Bajema is the most accomplished of all the players here.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Antonio Bryant, Arnaz Battle. Backups - Brandon Williams, Bryan Gilmore, Jason McAddley, Rasheed Marshall, Marcus Maxwell, Derrick Hamilton, Otis Amey, Chris Baker, C.J. Brewer.

The 49ers are excited about the work ethic and level of commitment that Bryant brings to the club. The coaching staff was tired of babysitting Brandon Lloyd, and the club dealt him to the Redskins for a third-round pick in '06 and a fourth-rounder in '07. If Battle can remain healthy, he should make big strides. The 49ers are lacking a clear-cut No. 3 receiver, as Williams, Gilmore and McAddley are the top candidates. Marshall, a highly successful college quarterback, has to show this season that he can make the transition to become a productive receiver.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LT Jonas Jennings, LG Larry Allen, C Jeremy Newberry, RG Justin Smiley, RT Kwame Harris. Backups - C/G Eric Heitmann, C/G David Baas, T Kwame Harris, T Harvey Dahl, T Patrick Estes, G Tony Wragge, C Ben Sobieski, T Sam Wilder, T Bobby Harris, T Tavares Washington.

The 49ers added future Hall of Famer Allen, who will start at left guard. Allen should bring a run-blocking presence to a team that needs a good run game to be competitive. The key is LT Jennings, who missed 13 games with a shoulder injury after signing a lucrative free-agent contract. The big competition takes place at RT, where Harris tries to hold off Snyder. Newberry tries to return from major knee surgery, but the club still believes it's a 50-50 proposition. Newberry is more confident, though. He said he feels good, and even dabbled in race-car driving a couple times this summer. Heitmann and Baas will backup at center, while competing with Smiley for the right guard spot.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LDE Marques Douglas, RDE Bryant Young, NT Anthony Adams. Backups - NT Isaac Sopoaga, DE Ronald Fields, DE Melvin Oliver, DE Scott Scharff, NT Bobby Payne.

Young, the team's best pass-rusher last season, begins his 13th NFL season and is not expected to be the dominant player he has been in the past. He led the team with eight sacks last season, but none came in the final nine games. Douglas is solid on the other side. Adams can play end in the 3-4 or nose tackle. The club is expecting a big leap from Sopoaga after tasting his first NFL action last season. Depth is a problem here, as some of the younger players will have to step forward to earn significant playing time in the rotation.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - WLB Manny Lawson, ILB Derek Smith, ILB Jeff Ulbrich, SLB Brandon Moore. Backups - OLB Parys Haralson, OLB Corey Smith, OLB T.J. Slaughter, ILB Jim Maxwell, ILB Zak Keasey, ILB Reynauld Williams, OLB Andre Torrey.

Ulbrich and Smith are solid on the inside, but it's the other positions that have the 49ers worried. Ulbrich returns after missing most of last season with a torn biceps muscle. Smith led the team in tackles and was voted co-MVP of the squad. Lawson, an explosive pass-rusher in college, makes the transition to outside linebacker in a 3-4 to take over for departed Julian Peterson. Lawson must supply a big pass rush as a rookie after being selected with the No. 22 overall pick. On the other side, Moore gets the first shot to replace Andre Carter, who left as a free agent. Haralson, Corey Smith and Slaughter have chances to contribute.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Walt Harris, RCB Shawntae Spencer, FS Mike Adams, SS Tony Parrish. Backups - S Chad Williams, CB Mike Rumph, S Ben Emanuel, CB Sammy Davis, CB Derrick Johnson, CB Bruce Thornton, S Keith Lewis, CB B.J. Tucker, CB Kris Richard, S Marcus Hudson, S Vickiel Vaughn.

Harris has taken the lead to become a starting cornerback. The 49ers signed the veteran during free agency, but hoped they could find a role for him as the nickel back. When the club failed to acquire another starting-caliber corner, Harris looks secure as a starter. Spencer is set on the other side at cornerback. He showed a lot of promise last season during the 49ers' miserable year. Rumph, Davis, Thornton and Johnson are competing for the nickel job. Parrish returns from a broken ankle and will be the starter at strong safety. Williams, Adams and Emanuel compete for free safety, with rookie Hudson already making an impression, too.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters - K Joe Nedney, P Andy Lee, LS Brian Jennings, KOR Maurice Hicks, PR Brandon Williams. Backups - P Tom Rouen, K Luis Berlanga, K Andy Jacas, KOR/PR Arnaz Battle, KOR/PR Otis Amey, KOR/PR Rasheed Marshall.


Nedney was the co-MVP of the team last season, which tells you all you need to know about a team that was held without an offensive touchdown in eight games last season. Veteran Rouen was signed recently to compete with Lee at punter. Long-snapper Jennings is as steady as it gets. The 49ers' return game is unsettled, but Williams will get a long look at punt returner, while Hicks looks like the top kickoff return man.


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