NFC West: Positional Battles

As training camp approaches, elite players will look to re-establish their dominance over their opponents. Guys on the way up are thinking about taking it to the next level, and the "on the bubble" players are just hoping for roster spots. Meanwhile, the drafted and undrafted rookies get their first taste of the bigs. It's time to look at the positional battles for all four NFC West teams.


QUARTERBACK: Starter - Matt Hasselbeck. Backups - Seneca Wallace, David Greene, Derek Devine, Travis Lulay, Erik Meyer.

Hasselbeck's passer rating plummeted from 98.2 in 2005 to 76.0 last season as his sack total shot up to 34. A sprained knee caused him to miss four games, but the beating went beyond the knee, as he required off-season surgery on his left shoulder. Under pressure, with little consistent rushing to serve as diversion, Hasselbeck pressed at times and his decision-making suffered at times. On the up side, backup Seneca Wallace got his first extended NFL action and the team went 2-2 with him as a starter.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - RB Shaun Alexander, FB Mack Strong. Backups - RB Maurice Morris, Marquis Weeks, A.J. Harris, Kenny James, Joe Rubin. FB Josh Parry, Leonard Weaver, David Kirtman.

Alexander, too, suffered from injuries and the instability across the offensive line. Playing at less than full speed the entire season, his rushing total dropped almost 1,000 yards. Alexander put in a good off-season of training and was leaner and more fit in minicamps than he's been. A wildcard could be Weaver, a former college tight end who catches the ball well.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Marcus Pollard. Backups - Will Heller, Ben Joppru, Leonard Stephens, Joe Newton.

The productive but inconsistent Jerramy Stevens was allowed to leave via free agency when the bother of his off-field issues outweighed his value on the field. Pollard had some 40-plus-catch seasons with the Colts, but after that, the depth is an issue.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Deion Branch, D.J. Hackett. Backups - Bobby Engram, Nate Burleson, Ben Obomanu, Courtney Taylor, Jordan Kent, Joe Fernandez, Logan Payne, Chris Jones, Robert Ortiz.

Branch and Burleson had to be considered disappointments to some degree in their first seasons with the Hawks. Branch gets moved to flanker to make better use of his quickness. Hackett will get a huge boost in responsibility and expectation with the departure of Darrell Jackson. The return to health of Engram, who was sidelined by a thyroid problem much of last season, gives Hasselbeck another very reliable possession receiver.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LT Walter Jones, LG Rob Sims, C Chris Spencer, RG Chris Gray, RT Sean Locklear. Backups -- T Ray Willis, T/G Tom Ashworth, T Jason Murphy, T Kyle Williams, G Floyd Womack, G Mansfield Wrotto, G Steve Vallos, C Pat Ross, C Austin King, C Nick Jones.

Spencer is coming off shoulder surgery and Gray is 37, so this unit remains a concern. The use of Willis at RG may go beyond being just a minicamp experiment as the Hawks try to identify the five best linemen and find ways to get them on the field at the same time.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LDE Patrick Kerney, RDE Bryce Fisher, LDT Chuck Darby, RDT Rocky Bernard. Backups - E Baraka Atkins, E Brandon Green, E Nu'u Tafisi, E Darryl Tapp, T Russell Davis, T Craig Terrill, T Marcus Green, T Marcus Tubbs, T Brandon Mebane, T Lynn McGruder, T Eric Taylor.

Opposing backs seemed to have career days against the Seahawks every Sunday as the defensive line struggled to stay stout against the rush. The big key is the expected return of Tubbs, a former first-round pick. He's recovering from microfracture surgery on his knee, but has looked fit and powerful in his rehabbing. If Tubbs can return to health, a huge issue is addressed. Mebane, a rookie third-rounder, was solid in minicamps.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - MLB Lofa Tatupu, OLB Leroy Hill, OLB Julian Peterson: Backups - MLB Niko Koutouvides, MLB Cameron Jensen, OLB Kevin Bentley, Lance Laury, Will Herring, Marcus Rucker, Marquis Cooper.

Because of the problems up front, the job of bringing down ball carriers fell to this group, and it made for a long season. Peterson got off to an impressive start but his sack totals almost dried up completely in the second half as teams seemed to find ways to solve his rush tactics.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Marcus Trufant, RCB Kelly Jennings, SS Brian Russell, FS Deon Grant. Backups - CB Pete Hunter, CB Gerard Ross, CB Dennis Davis, CB Josh Wilson, CB Kevin Hobbs, CB Omowale Dada, S Michael Boulware, S Mike Green, S Jordan Babineaux, S Patrick Ghee, S C.J. Wallace.

Consider this a total makeover as even the lone returner, Marcus Trufant, is switching sides. Grant and Russell are expected to be more assignment correct than Ken Hamlin and Boulware, last year's starting safeties. Jennings gets the start at right corner in his second season, but rookie Wilson will press for time in the nickel.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters - K Josh Brown, P Ryan Plackemeier, LS Derek Rackley, K Tyler Jones, P Kyle Stringer.
Brown came through with four game-winning kicks last season and his value was recognized by the Seahawks franchising him.


QUARTERBACK: Starter - Matt Leinart. Backups - Kurt Warner, Shane Boyd, Toby Korrodi.

Leinart answered questions about both his arm and his mobility after moving unexpectedly into the lineup in Game 5 as a rookie. Yet he wasn't sharp initially in workouts with the new coaching staff and needed the off-season to sharpen his fundamentals and learn a new offense. He suffered no structural damage to his left (throwing) shoulder when sacked in Game 15 vs. Denver but he missed the finale because of the AC joint injury. He did not need surgery. His right shoulder had popped out on a sack in the preseason finale, so his shoulders are a concern. Yet Leinart quickly showed he belonged. He set a franchise record for passing yards by a rookie (2,547). He passed for 200-plus yards in eight of his 11 starts. His 405 yards passing at Minnesota set an NFL rookie record. Leinart became the Cardinals first rookie quarterback to get a win as a starter in nine years. Leinart became the only QB in NFL history to pass for two touchdowns in the first quarter in each of his first two starts. His backup isn't bad, either: Kurt Warner. Boyd and Korrodi have yet to show that they are NFL material worth developing as the third QB.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - Edgerrin James, FB Terrelle Smith. Backups -- Marcel Shipp, J.J. Arrington, Steve Baylark, FB A.J. Schable, FB Tim Castille, FB BranDon Snow, FB Roshon Vercher.

James, who had minor off-season knee surgery, solidified himself as one of the highest performing backs in the game by rushing for 1,000 yards despite not having a 100-yard game until Game 12. There are questions beginning to creep up about whether he is slowing. James is no longer a threat to break many long runs. He'll have a new line, rebuilt with more physical players. The plan is to run a lead fullback - free agent pickup Smith -- in front of him. James hasn't run behind a fullback in some time. James figures to get a healthy dose of the 600 or so rushes that Coach Ken Whisenhunt plans to call. Behind James is Shipp, a big-bodied back capable of moving a pile, who found a niche last year as the short-yardage/goal-line rusher. They're a formidable 1-2 punch. Whether Arrington can add anything is up to the 2005 second-round pick. So far, he hasn't shown much although he has the breakaway speed James and Shipp lack. Arrington may emerge as the third-down back if he convinces coaches he is tough enough.

TIGHT END: Starter - Leonard Pope. Backups - John Bronson, Troy Bienemann, Ben Patrick, Tim Euhus, Alex Shor.

Pope is 6-8 and athletic, the perfect target to work the seam to complement a fine group of wideouts, or make play-action passing work, or brutalize a shorter defender on the goal line. But he has to prove that he can block. Pope started last season as a rookie and after the Cardinals failed to significantly upgrade this position in free agency, Pope again will be the main guy. Seventh-round pick Patrick is also big, but raw and he missed a large portion of his vital initial spring and summer work to a hamstring injury. But Patrick had a second-round grade by some scouts. Bienemann, despite never having played a down in the NFL, may be the sleeper of the group. He caught coaches' eyes in voluntary work.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald. Backups - Bryant Johnson, Steve Breaston, LeRon McCoy, Todd Watkins, Sean Morey, Matt Trannon, Ahmad Merritt, Greg Lee.

Pro Bowlers Boldin and Fitzgerald form one of the league's top tandems although neither has blazing speed. Boldin was a 2007 Pro Bowl starter, after joining Roy Green (1983-84-88) as the only Cardinals players ever with three 1,000-yard seasons in a career. Boldin is the possession guy, not afraid to go across the middle. Fitzgerald, a 2006 Pro Bowler, just missed a second 1,000-yard year (946) and no doubt would have had it had he not missed three games to injury. Fitzgerald will be moved around in the formation more to create mismatches. He still must improve his route running. Speedy Johnson makes the big-yardage grabs as No. 3 wideout but he should have had even more. He drops too many. Morey and Breaston will compete for the No. 4 position. Morey has experience but not great speed. Breaston has speed to rival Johnson but he's raw as a receiver. He is expected to be the return specialist and compete for the No. 4 wideout spot. Watkins and McCoy also are burners but neither has much experience.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LT Mike Gandy, LG Reggie Wells, C Al Johnson, RG Deuce Lutui, RT Levi Brown. Backups - T Oliver Ross, C Nick Leckey, G Elton Brown, G T.J. Downing, G Jon Hameister-Reis, G Brian Johnson, G Lyle Sendlein, T Brandon Gorin, T Qasim Mitchell, T Elliot Vallejo.

It took the Cardinals nearly three months into 2006 to find a starting group that played well together - and then another three months to tear it apart and start over. The only likely opening-day starter in the same spot where he started the season finale is Lutui, who cracked the lineup at midyear as a rookie. The Cardinals can no longer tolerate sub-standard performance. They can't have Matt Leinart's shoulders popping out from hits on sacks. They can't have Edgerrin James going three months before he has a 100-yard game. So free agent Gandy and first-round draft pick Brown, have been added to improve the tackles. Johnson, another free agent, is the likely starter at center. Brown and Gandy will compete with Ross for the starting tackle spots. The odd-man-out will be a high-quality backup. Wells then goes back to LG. Brown, a 2005 starter who ate his way to the bench last season, has lost weight and is looking like he wants to play again. Leckey ended '06 as a starter and will be a solid backup. There is experience and depth but no chemistry yet. And while there is a nucleus of solid players, none really shines. But with Russ Grimm now coaching the unit, there should be enough talent there to get the job done.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters - DLE Darnell Dockett, NT Alan Branch, DRE Antonio Smith. Backups - NT Gabe Watson, NT Ross Kolodziej, E Chris Cooper, E Rodney Bailey, E Joe Tafoya, T Jonathan Lewis, T Ray Blagman.

There is change afoot at these positions and a great deal of uncertainty as the Cardinals shift primarily to a 3-4 alignment. Dockett is playing a new position. Watson and Branch are unproven, and Smith has been little more than a backup. Dockett, a starter since his 2004 rookie year at "under" tackle, moves to end where he'll be better positioned to use his athleticism and reputation as a playmaker. Smith once terrorized NFL Europe as a pass rusher and finally gets his chance to show that he can do it at this level. The gamble is in the middle, where the team let undersize Kendrick Clancy leave in free agency and put its faith in Branch and Watson, two former underperforming Michigan players. Branch, a second-round pick, is the better talent but Watson, after shedding 30 pounds, may have matured into a threat to take the job. In 4-3 looks, Bertrand Berry, Chike Okeafor and Calvin Pace can move back to end from OLB, with Dockett and Branch or Watson inside.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -WLB Bertrand Berry, ILB Gerald Hayes, ILB Karlos Dansby, SLB Chike Okeafor. Backups - OLB Calvin Pace, OLB Darryl Blackstock, ILB Buster Davis, ILB Brandon Johnson, ILB Monty Beisel, ILB David Holloway, OLB Pago Togafao.

Dansby is an enigma. When he's on the field, there are few linebackers with more athleticism, versatility and playmaking grace. He had eight sacks in his final 11 games, recovering from a slow start caused by thumb, toe and groin injuries. And now he will move inside when the team makes greater use of 3-4 schemes. Coaches say the move plays to his strengths: running and hitting. But in three pro seasons, Dansby has yet to play in all 16 games. Hayes, who emerged in the middle in his first full season as a starter, gives the team more pop -- more size and physical presence - inside than it had known during the Ron McKinnon years. Quality and depth have been issues for years, leading to the move to play 3-4 and minimize the shortage by borrowing Berry, Okeafor and Pace from a deep pool of ends for the outside linebacker spots. Berry and Okeafor are 30 years old, but there's still life. Okeafor led the team with 8.5 sacks, tying his career high. Berry has not made it through either of the past two seasons since his 2004 Pro Bowl year. His durability comes into question. He did little during the off-season while recovering from a torn pectoral muscle. They're both smart and should handle the new duties well. Blackstock will rush the passer in nickel situations. Pace is a solid backup.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Antrel Rolle, SS Adrian Wilson, FS Terrance Holt, RCB Rod Hood. Backups - FS Aaron Francisco, CB Eric Green, CB Matt Ware, CB Darrell Hunter, CB Ralph Brown, CB Justin Wyatt, CB Michael Adams, CB Travarous Bain, FS Will Gulley, FS Brandon Keeler, SS Hanik Milligan.

There are few better strong safeties than 2007 Pro Bowler Wilson, the only player in the league who had five sacks and four interceptions last season. He had two 99-yard TDs - on returns of a fumble and an interception - making him the only player in NFL history with two defensive TDs of 99-plus yards in a season. All of that came a year after he'd set a league record among DBs with eight sacks on safety blitzes. Wilson is joined by free agent Holt, a former college teammate. Francisco, a 2007 Pro Bowl alternate on special teams, has the skills to be a starter and will push Holt hard. The weak link of the team is corner, where there is no proven elite player. Rolle, a 2006 first-round pick, hasn't proven himself but there is no one on the roster to threaten him as a starter. Rolle and Green gave up big plays last year. Veteran free agent Hood, a nickel corner most of his career, was signed to play opposite Rolle. Green will battle Hood for the job. Depth and quality at corner are still real issues. The team may try to cover it by playing more zone. Hood or Green will be the team's nickel corner.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Neil Rackers, P Scott Player, LS Nathan Hodell, KR Steve Breaston, KR Michael Spurlock.

Rackers had a record-setting Pro Bowl season two years ago but tailed off in 2006. He remains one of the game's best at touchbacks and field-goal accuracy. Player is many seasons removed from his Pro Bowl year but he remains one of the game's best directional punters. With his ability to nail foes inside the 20, Player is a valued field-position weapon. Hodell is a proven long snapper. Breaston, a rookie, is a burner who in college was nearly unstoppable in the open field.


QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Marc Bulger. Backups -- Gus Frerotte, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brock Berlin.

The only question regarding Bulger is whether he will have a new contract by the start of training camp or the regular season. He is the unquestioned leader of the offense, and has ascended to be one of the top five quarterbacks in the NFL. Frerotte is the perfect veteran to have behind Bulger: someone who understands the system and his role. Fitzpatrick will see a lot of time in preseason games, and at some point the team has to decide if he will be a viable No. 2 behind Bulger. Berlin is likely just a camp arm, as are most fourth quarterbacks.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- HB Steven Jackson, FB Madison Hedgecock. Backups -- Brian Leonard, HB Travis Minor, HB Kay-Jay Harris, HB Rich Alexis, HB John David Washington, FB Brad Lau.

Jackson has set a goal of gaining 2,500 yards from scrimmage, but he'll need a lot of rushing yards to get it done because it's unlikely he'll catch 90 passes again. Still, Jackson is set to once again be the workhorse of the offense. The challenge from coaches will be to not overuse him. Leonard should be a versatile backup, who could spell Jackson when necessary and also be solid receiver. Minor and Harris are probably competing for the No. 3 job, and the decision will likely be determined on special teams. Alexis is a longshot, while Washington appears destined for another year on the practice squad. Hedgecock might be the only fullback retained on the roster, although long snapper Chris Massey could help in an emergency. Keeping one fullback could result in four tight ends making the roster.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce. Backups -- Drew Bennett, Dane Looker, Dante Hall, Dominique Thompson, Marques Hagans, Derek Stanley, Shaine Smith, Nate Morton, Markee White, Lamart Barrett.

This is a group as deep as any in the NFL, yet so few seem to notice. Bruce seems to be written off by someone in the national media every year, but just turns in another 1,000-yard season. Holt should be better than ever after off-season knee surgery. Bennett's size will help in the red zone and on sideline patterns. Looker is very dependable and is also the holder for kicker Jeff Wilkins. Hall could have some special plays designed for him, but coaches don't want to over-expose him, keeping him fresh for kick returns. On another team, Thompson might be able to contribute. But this is a tough group to crack. The same goes for Hagans, who is in his second year of the conversion from quarterback to receiver, and might also have potential as a punt returner. The latter five are probably hoping for a spot on the practice squad.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Randy McMichael. Backups -- Joe Klopfenstein, Aaron Walker, Dominique Byrd, Mark Anelli, Steve Buches.

The arrival of McMichael should make the entire offense better. An accomplished receiver, McMichael should open things up for the rest of the receivers. The Rams still love the potential of Klopfenstein, and now he will be able to advance at a less pressurized pace, while learning from McMichael. Walker is a solid blocker, while Byrd has worlds of talent if he can ever put it together on a consistent basis. He also has two arrests in the last eight months hanging over his head. It's not out of the question the final roster will include four tight ends if only one true fullback makes the team. Anelli and Buches are longshots at best.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Orlando Pace, LG Mark Setterstrom, C Andy McCollum, RG Richie Incognito, RT Alex Barron. Backups -- T Todd Steussie, G/T Adam Goldberg, G Claude Terrell, C Brett Romberg, T Jeremy Parquet, T Drew Strojny, T Ken Shackleford, C/G Dustin Fry, T Chris Messner, T Anthony James, C Donovan Raiola.

The return of Pace from a torn triceps will be huge for a line that played with numerous combinations last season because of injuries. Pace saw limited action in the off-season, but is cleared to participate fully at the start of camp. Barron needs to cut down on false starts, but he still has potential to be one of the better young tackles in the game. McCollum will be battling Romberg for the starting job at center, but as long as he stays healthy, it's difficult to imagine Romberg beating him out. Along with Romberg, Setterstrom and Incognito were the starters inside at the end of the season and played well. Now, the challenge will be to show they can maintain that level of play for an entire season. The competition for backup jobs will be intense. Terrell returns after missing last season because of a wrist injury. Goldberg has the versatility to play guard and tackle, while the rookie Fry is tough, and can play center or guard. Steussie is a lock for one backup spot. Parquet will be interesting to watch to see what he has left after playing for the NFL Europa champion Hamburg Sea Devils and being named to the league's All-Pro team.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- DLE Leonard Little, DT La'Roi Glover, NT Adam Carriker, DRE James Hall. Backups -- E Victor Adeyanju, E Eric Moore, E Trevor Johnson, E Alton Pettway, E Ryan Willis, T Claude Wroten, NT Clifton Ryan, T Tim Sandidge, NT Keith Jackson.

Coaches will experiment with several line combinations in training camp, and will also try alignments that feature right and left tackles, rather than having a true nose tackle. It's imperative the front office gets Carriker signed in time for most of camp, as he adjusts to playing inside and on the nose. Little should be more productive having Hall on the other side. Adeyanju is a solid third end, but he isn't much of a pass rusher. Moore has a chance to win the fourth end job, but that's a spot the club could be looking to fill by seeing who other teams cut during the summer unless someone unexpectedly emerges. The battles for jobs at tackle will be intriguing. Coaches don't want Glover playing more than 25-30 snaps a game, and they are hoping Wroten is the answer. However, there remain off-field concerns after he was involved in a dispute with a former girlfriend in late June. Sandidge is back after a stint in NFL Europa, where he injured his knee. Ryan and Jackson will get plenty of opportunities to show whether they are capable.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Pisa Tinoisamoa, MLB Will Witherspoon, SLB Brandon Chillar. Backups -- Chris Draft, OLB Raonall Smith, OLB Jon Alston, MLB Tim McGarigle, Quinton Culberson, Kevin McLee.

Get used to it: Witherspoon will be the team's middle linebacker, and it won't be long before critics accept the fact it's a smart move. He'll be able to go sideline to sideline to make plays, rather than be limited to a side of the field if he was on the outside. The key to this unit will be Tinoisamoa staying healthy. He didn't do much during the off-season, and has to prove he can be consistent and stay on the field. Chillar is solid, and comes off the field in passing situations. The versatile Draft can play any position, and could challenge Chillar or be available at Tinoisamoa's spot if he has any injury issues. Wherever he's been, Draft has simply found a way to get on the field. Alston could challenge coaches to find a way to use his talents, but at the least will help the special teams. Smith is also a solid backup and special teams contributor.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Fakhir Brown, CB Tye Hill, SS Corey Chavous, FS Oshiomogho Atogwe. Backups -- CB Ron Bartell, CB Jonathan Wade, CB Lenny Walls, CB Mike Rumph, CB Josh Lay, CB Darius Vinnett, S Jerome Carter, S Todd Johnson, S Andre Kirkland, S Jeffery Dukes.

Even with the departures of Travis Fisher and Jerametrius Butler, the cornerback depth is solid. Or it was until the Rams learned Brown will be unavailable for the first four games of the season for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. Brown and Hill were expected to be the clear-cut starters. Now, Bartell, Wade and Walls will vie for both the starting spot at the beginning of the season and the nickel spot. Bartell came on strong at the end of last season, while Walls has considerable NFL experience. Wade will face a rookie learning curve, but he has exceptional physical skills. Lay played in NFL Europa this spring, and will be watched closely, along with Vinnett, an undrafted free agent. Chavous provides leadership to the back line, and Atogwe should improve even more than he did from his first to second seasons. Depth isn't great at safety, after backups Johnson and Carter.

SPECIALISTS: K Jeff Wilkins, P Donnie Jones, LS Chris Massey, KR Dante Hall, K Kevin Lovell, P Fred Capshaw.

There's never a worry with Wilkins as the kicker, and now the punting situation appears solidified after the signing of Jones to a five-year contract. Their presence means Lovell and Capshaw will be hoping to do well so other teams see them in preseason games. Massey has had one bad snap in five seasons, while Wilkins loves having Dane Looker as his holder. Hall is being counted on to be a difference-maker in the return game, leading to better field position for the offense and defense.


QUARTERBACK: Starter - Alex Smith. Backups - Trent Dilfer, Shaun Hill, Luke Getsy.

Smith's production took a huge leap forward last season under offensive coordinator Norv Turner. This season, Smith will have his third offensive coordinator in three NFL seasons. Jim Hostler, who spent Smith's first two seasons as quarterbacks coach, is the new offensive coordinator. Smith spent most of the offseason working on third downs and red zone. Those are areas the team believes it must improve in order to make a playoff run. Smith has a better supporting cast than his first two seasons with the club. He played every snap last season, so veteran backup Dilfer never got into a game. Still, Dilfer proved to be a valuable asset for Smith as he imparted his knowledge on the youngster.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - RB Frank Gore, FB Moran Norris. Backups - Michael Robinson, Maurice Hicks, Thomas Clayton, Zak Keasey, Steve Dildine.

There weren't many who believed Gore had the durability to handle the punishment a featured back endures during an NFL season. Gore handled it...and then some. He led the NFC in rushing while carrying a franchise-record 312 times. Although he has set the goal of breaking the league rushing record, the 49ers need to find someone reliable behind him to take some of his carries. Robinson showed some flashes as a rookie after playing quarterback at Penn State as a senior. Hicks and Clayton will also vie for backup duties. Norris proved to be an effective lead-blocker for Gore.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Vernon Davis. Backups - Delanie Walker, Billy Bajema, Zach Herold.

Davis' blocking was the strong point of his game as a rookie. He missed eight starts due to a broken leg. He caught just 20 passes and dropped several passes along the way. But, based on the offseason program, the 49ers appear determined to make Davis a bigger part of the offense. Davis has the speed to get deep, but he also has the size to be a big target for Smith in the red zone and on third downs. Walker is also an intriguing talent who saw limited action as a rookie due to a shoulder injury. Bajema is a blocking specialist.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Arnaz Battle, Darrell Jackson. Backups - Ashley Lelie, Jason Hill, Brandon Williams, Bryan Gilmore, Taylor Jacobs, Marcus Maxwell, C.J. Brewer, Dominique Zeigler.

Although Battle and Jackson are penciled in at the flanker position, they are expected to emerge as the team's top two wideouts. Battle is going to be difficult to remove from the starting lineup. Jackson has experienced the most success of any receiver on the roster, but he did not take part in the offseason program because of the lingering effects of a turf-toe injury sustained late last season with the Seahawks. Lelie has a chance to be a contributor, but he has been sidelined in the offseason with a quad pull. Hill was a third-round pick, but he might have a difficult time earning playing time in this much-improved receiving corps. Williams has shown good things in the offseason. Gilmore was the No. 3 last year, but he'll have a major challenge to earn playing time.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LT Jonas Jennings, LG Larry Allen, C Eric Heitmann, RG Justin Smiley, RT Kwame Harris. Backups - T Joe Staley, G/C David Baas, G/T Adam Snyder, G/C Tony Wragge, T Patrick Estes, T Harvey Dahl, T Damane Duckett, G/C Sean Estrada, G Nick Steitz, T Tavares Washington.

The 49ers feel good about their depth on the line, and there figures to be a good share of competition for starting jobs. In fact, it's not too far-fetched to think that Staley, Baas and Snyder could open the season as starters without much of a drop-off. Staley, a first-round draft pick, will battle Harris for the starting job. Baas is in competition against Smiley. Both Harris and Smiley are in the final years of their contracts without much noticeable progress being made toward extensions. Snyder got a lot of work at left guard, as Allen missed the team's offseason program. The 49ers desperately want to get a full season's work from Jennings, who has been plagued by injuries in his two seasons with the club. When he's healthy, he's been effective. But he hasn't been healthy often, having missed all or parts of 20 games in two seasons. Heitmann, a solid and heady player, is back at center after sustaining a broken leg late last season.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LE Bryant Young, NT Aubrayo Franklin, RE Marques Douglas. Backups - E Sam Rayburn, E/NT Ronald Fields, E Ray McDonald, NT Joe Cohen, NT Isaac Sopoaga, E Darius Sanders, E Zach Anderson.

The 49ers are looking for linemen to be fundamentally sound and do what's expected from them in the defense. Young, the leader of the defense, is back for perhaps his final season after contemplating retirement. Franklin is a 334-pounder who was signed from the Ravens to anchor the line, as the club goes to a 3-4 scheme. Douglas and Fields are expected to split time at right end. Rayburn was a defensive tackle with the Eagles, but he will likely be used to back up Young. Competition should be fierce between Cohen and Sopoaga for the job to back up Franklin at the nose.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - SLB Manny Lawson, SILB Brandon Moore, WILB Derek Smith, WLB Tully Banta-Cain. Backups - ILB Patrick Willis, ILB Jeff Ulbrich, OLB Parys Haralson, OLB Jay Moore, ILB Colby Bockwoldt, OLB Hannibal Navies, OLB Roderick Green, OLB John Syptak, OLB Mark Anderson.

The big competition during training camp is expected to be at inside linebacker, where Smith and Willis will compete for the starting job. Smith is a veteran who is returning after a subpar season. Smith suffered from a muscle strain in his left eye that appeared to greatly affect his play. Willis was the No. 11 overall pick. The club is banking on him getting a lot of playing time in the nickel package, but he also has a chance to see action on first and second downs if he can beat out Smith. Lawson will be asked to rush the passer a lot more in his second season after gaining just 2.5 sacks as a rookie. But most of the pass rush is expected to come from the other side, which now features Banta-Cain, who was signed as a free agent from the Patriots. Haralson and Green have also shown pass-rush ability. Moore proved to be a major contributor after he was elevated into the starting lineup at the midway point in the season. He can move outside to rush the passer on third downs.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Nate Clements, RCB Walt Harris, FS Mark Roman, SS Michael Lewis. Backups - S Keith Lewis, CB Shawntae Spencer, CB Tarell Brown, CB Marcus Hudson, S Dashon Goldson, CB Donald Strickland, S Vickiel Vaughn, CB Sammy Joseph, S Jake Patten, S Jermaine Hardy.

The 49ers made significant improvements in this area with the free-agent signings of Clements and Michael Lewis. The 49ers spent big money to secure both players. They most notable acquisition was Clements, whom the 49ers tried to acquire last year at the trade deadline. He fits into the 49ers' scheme. He is paired with Harris to give the 49ers two quality starting cornerbacks. Harris made the NFC Pro Bowl team a year ago with the best season of his 11-year career. The 49ers have good depth at cornerback, led by Spencer who is entering his fourth season. Roman's production figures to improve this season with quality cornerbacks in front of him. Keith Lewis comes off the sideline now, after making his mark with solid play as a starter last season.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Joe Nedney, P Andy Lee, LS Brian Jennings, KR Maurice Hicks, PR Brandon Williams, K MacKenzie Hoambrecker, P Kenny Parrish, KR Thomas Clayton, KR Michael Robinson, PR Arnaz Battle.

Nedney has found a home with the 49ers after bouncing around through the first eight seasons of his career. Lee showed great promise, as he put together a solid season in a stadium that is known to chew up and spit out punters. The 49ers retained Lee, as they matched the Steelers' offer sheet in the offseason. Jennings is perhaps the finest long-snapper in the business. The 49ers need to get more production from their return game, though Hicks did some good things on kickoff returns. An improved roster means the 49ers should have much better talent across the board on special teams. Top Stories