The contract for 49ers' sixth-round draft pick Thomas Clayton is signed sealed and delivered, according to Clayton's agent. Now that the running back has been inked to a four-year deal, only three members of the team's nine-man draft class have yet to sign deals - third-rounders Ray McDonald and Jason Hill as well as first-rounder Patrick Willis.
Clayton's signing also is a nice segue to looking at what will be some of the top battles in training camp, which kicks off Sunday. One of those battles will be for the No. 3 running back, a position that for the last few years has been filled by Maurice Hicks.
Hicks joined the 49ers in 2003 after being picked up by the Chicago Bears a year earlier as an undrafted free agent out of North Carolina A&T. Typically when a new coaching regime takes over, as Mike Nolan did in 2005, a roster purge follows. All of the non-stars on the team are replaced with players either familiar to the incoming staff or those drafted by the incoming staff.
That Hicks has stuck around into 2007 is proof that, along with guys like Eric Heitmann, Derek Smith and Jeff Ulbrich, he has an excellent work ethic and is well-liked by Nolan. He also has been productive when given a chance to play. His best season came in 2004 when he rushed 96 times for 362 yards. He also made his first career start in a late-season game against Arizona (one of only two 49ers wins that year), rushing an astounding 34 times for 134 yards and a touchdown.
Hicks is a hard runner, is good at catching the ball out of the backfield and last year was the team's primary kick returner. However, he doesn't stand out in any of those areas, and the 49ers will take a long, hard look at Clayton this summer.
The rookie certainly looks the part. He is built low to the ground and challenges Vernon Davis for having the best physique in the locker room. Because hitting and tackling are forbidden during spring practices, it remains to be seen how Clayton hits the line of scrimmage and how well he breaks tackles. That, and how well he performs in pass protection, will determine where he lands in the running-back pecking order or whether he makes the team at all.
However, one thing he was able to show during minicamp and OTAs is that he is very good at catching screens and dump passes, and at 225 pounds, he showed a very nice burst of speed up the sidelines. In other words, it seems like he has at least some of the major attributes needed for a third-down back.
Another attribute is potential. Personnel chief Scot McCloughan thinks that Clayton has what it takes to eventually become an every-down back in the NFL. Hicks has shown he can be very good in spurts, but at a shade over 200 pounds, he might not be durable enough to be considered for an every-down role. He had arthroscopic surgery on his knee in 2005 and has dealt with an array of ticky-tacky injuries (ankle, ribs, concussion) in the last couple of years.
It's hard to predict how many tailbacks the 49ers will keep this season. Because it looks like they will have just one true fullback in Moran Norris, the team certainly could hold onto four tailbacks in Frank Gore, Michael Robinson, Hicks and Clayton. However, they kept just three last season, and with a crowded house at offensive line, linebacker and defensive line, the No. 3 running back very well could be the final running back to make the team.
-- Matt Barrows