When Mike Nolan was on NFL Network Wednesday, he hit upon what has become a well-worn theme for the 49ers this offseason – competition. The team’s goal is to build enough talent on the roster so that virtually every position has a training-camp battle this summer. Are they there yet? No, but there are some good fights taking shape. To wit:
1. QB. The 49ers at least want to create the illusions that there’s an open competition at this spot. The truth is that Shaun Hill or J.T. O’Sullivan will have to be dramatically better than Alex Smith to become the opening-day starter. (Tie goes to the franchise quarterback). The 49ers simply have too much invested in Smith, including their reputations, not to give him at least a slight edge. Smith is smart, more physically gifted than his two challengers, and perhaps most important, more hardened after a nightmarish 2007 season. It’s a make or break offseason for the former Ute. He’ll enter the competition with a chip on his shoulder, and perhaps that’s what he’s needed all along.
2. No. 2 WR. You can use a pen to write Isaac Bruce’s name into one starting spot. Better use a pencil for the other. Arnaz Battle, Bryant Johnson, Ashley Lelie, Jason Hill and perhaps a rookie will compete for the job. Who will win is merely a guess, but this much we know: Battle has a tremendous reputation among coaches while the personnel staff thought enough of Johnson to bring him in as a free agent. In all likelihood, the 49ers will use plenty of three-receiver sets in 2008.
3. Pass-rush linebacker. The 49ers have not divulged their plans at the position, but there’s a sense that last year’s starter, Tully Banta-Cain, would be more effective as a situational pass rusher in 2008. If that’s the case, look for Parys Haralson to be the first- and second-down starter. The wild card here is Jay Moore, whose rookie season was washed out by injury. The 49ers also could add a player through the draft. They have taken a long look at Auburn’s Quentin Groves but might have to trade up to grab him.
4. Left tackle. It’s the worst-kept secret in 49erland: Joe Staley will move to left tackle in 2008. But the coaching staff isn’t going to hand him the job. Look for Staley to compete with incumbent Jonas Jennings during the offseason with the loser moving to right tackle midway through training camp. Both have played right tackle in the past and could get up to speed fairly quickly. Their battle at left tackle also will give Damane Duckett (and perhaps a rookie) some much-needed seasoning on the right side.
5. TED. The 49ers are hoping that newly acquired Dontarrious Thomas will come in and seize the position, but no one sounds confident that that will be the case. GM Scot McCloughan said that Thomas – who is fast enough to line up on the outside – was signed for depth as much as anything else. In a perfect world, Thomas and Brandon Moore would push each other all offseason with one emerging as the victor in the preseason. But the 49ers also are sniffing around Takeo Spikes, an indication that there still is room for improvement at TED.
6. No. 3 QB. Walt Harris isn’t going to play forever, and you have to wonder who is his heir apparent. Shawntae Spencer has the most experience of all the contenders, but he’s had trouble staying healthy in recent seasons. Tarell Brown is another option, and the 49ers are hoping he’ll make a big jump forward in his second year. The 49ers and Jets are competing to sign Donald Strickland for 2008 while Marcus Hudson seems more like a nickel specialist than an every-down cornerback.
-- Matt Barrows