This week and next, I'll be going over what I consider the Top Seven training camp battles to watch this summer. I've already looked at the back-ups at two positions - running back and safety. Today's battle pits a couple of wide receivers - Marcus Maxwell and Bryan Gilmore - against each other for the final spot at that position.
Right off the bat, some of you are asking why I haven't included Ashley Lelie in the might-not-make-the-squad mix. After all, Lelie hardly ran a practice route this spring before succumbing to a slow-healing quadriceps pull. And he didn't exactly win a lot of fans at previous stops in Denver and Atlanta.
However, Lelie was a fairly high-profile free-agent signing by the 49ers and he provides something the team really doesn't have at this point - a speedy down-field threat. Lelie makes the team in my opinion, but with a caveat: If his quadriceps continues to keep him on the sideline, he'll be out of here. Remember, Mike Nolan doesn't tolerate malingerers. Just ask Ahmed Plummer.
We know that Darrell Jackson, Arnaz Battle, Jason Hill and Brandon Williams - a third-round draft pick last year, after all -- are virtual locks to make the 53-man roster. Assuming that the team keeps six receivers (They kept five last year), that leaves Gilmore and Maxwell in a fight to make the team.
Nobody is entering camp with more momentum than Maxwell. He was an absolute beast in NFL Europa (R.I.P.) this spring, helping his team to a championship and coming home with a gaudy 17-yards-per-catch average and a league-leading seven touchdown catches. He seems to be everything the 49ers want in a receiver - a big, physical guy who can help out in the running game and who can outmuscle defensive backs.
When I asked personnel chief Scot McCloughan if he was surprised by Maxwell's success this spring, he said he wasn't. McCloughan, who watches every practice, dubbed Maxwell the 49ers' Scout Team MVP last season. Maxwell, he said, is a hard worker and is faster than you might expect. The only thing he really lacks is experience.
But success in Europe doesn't mean a player is going to flourish in the NFL. You only need to think back to running back Jamal Robertson who in 2002 was the Offensive MVP of NFL Europe. How many yards did he rack up that fall with the 49ers? Zero. Maxwell's performance in Germany is a little like that of a college player's who put up huge numbers in the Mountain West. That is, you have to take into consideration the caliber of the competition.
Gilmore, meanwhile, is easy to overlook. He's a quiet, business-like guy in the locker-room and he didn't put up big numbers on the field last year despite making three starts. However, he's a hard worker with speed, and he might be a nice Plan B at split end should Lelie get nicked (what are the chances of that?) during the season. It also should be noted that with Lelie and Darrell Jackson hurt during spring practices, Arnaz Battle was the de facto starter at flanker and Gilmore was the starter at split end.
Perhaps most importantly, receivers coach Jerry Sullivan is very fond of Gilmore. Their teacher-pupil relationship began with the Arizona Cardinals and then migrated to the Miami Dolphins. And when Sullivan joined Mike Nolan's staff in San Francisco, it didn't take Gilmore long to come here, too. Nolan thinks that Sullivan is the best receivers coach in the game and values his opinion greatly.
Gilmore also is an asset on special teams, something a team needs from its sixth receiver. Should Maurice Hicks fall victim to the number's game at running back, Gilmore also could step in as a kick returner.
This battle is too close to call and depends on whether Maxwell can parlay the momentum he built overseas into an impressive training camp. If he puts up big numbers in the preseason, he'll be very difficult to cut. And if he is cut, it's hard to imagine him not being snapped up by another team.
-- Matt Barrows