That quarterback competition between Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick that absorbed so much newspaper ink (and Internet ink) this summer? Pssst. It's like the Yeti or Kevin Costner's hairline. It doesn't exist. Smith has received the lion's share of first-team repetitions during training camp and he has started both preseason games so far. He's the starting quarterback despite the fact that Jim Harbaugh won't announce it as such.
Ah, but there are some intriguing competitions that are ongoing. The 49ers starters promise to play at least one series in the third quarter Saturday, and it will be interesting to see who lines up where and for how long. Here are the closest competitions in my eyes:
Cornerback: Shawntae Spencer vs. Tramaine Brock vs. Tarell Brown.
This one depends on Spencer's hamstring. Early on, the 49ers sloughed it off as a minor problem and didn't think it would keep Spencer, who is the most seasoned cornerback on the team, out for long. But Spencer aggravated the injury Aug. 14 and now the team is hesitant to rush him back. He is unlikely to play Saturday and the hope is that he can play in the preseason finale Sept. 1.
I still believe that Spencer ultimately will start even if he's not healthy enough to go early in the season. However, the door is wide open for Brown or Brock to steal that spot. Brown is quick and fast and has far more experience than Brock. But he's been injury prone over his career, and the 49ers have limited him to nickel packages in recent seasons. Brock has been one of the more pleasant suprises of training camp. He's bigger and more physical than Brown. But he has very little regular-season experience. He had a minor role in three games last season, including in the 49ers' secondary meltdown in Green Bay.
Center: Adam Snyder vs. Jonathan Goodwin.
When the 49ers signed Goodwin, it seemed as if the Snyder experiment would end very quickly. After all, Snyder hadn't played center before in his career while Goodwin was the starting center on the Saints' Super Bowl team. That Snyder has remained the first option at the position shows how much faith the coaching staff has in him there. Goodwin also has been working with the first-team offensive line, but not as much as Snyder. It will be interesting to count the snaps for each in Saturday's game. My guess is that Goodwin ultimately will start at the position, but the 49ers seem in no hurry to move Snyder out of the lineup.
Outside linebacker: Parys Haralson vs. Aldon Smith
The bottom line here is that all three of the top outside linebackers -- Ahmad Brooks, Haralson and Smith -- will rotate through the positions this year. Brooks and Haralson can play both on the right and left side. Smith has been limited to the right side. Look for Haralson to be the Week 1 starter with Smith playing on third downs. If Smith continues his progress, it will be hard for the 49ers to keep him on the sideline at the start of games.
Wide receiver: Ted Ginn vs. Braylon Edwards.
This one is interesting because there are all sorts of outside factors at play. Edwards obviously is a starting-caliber receiver. The 49ers have not had a wideout as physically gifted and as physically imposing since Terrell Owens (or perhaps Antonio Bryant). Edwards leads the team in receiving yards after two preseason game despite not starting either game and taking part in only a handful of snaps. But Edwards also is facing a suspension at the start of the season stemming from a DUI incident earlier this year. There is a good chance he will miss at least the Sept. 11 opener. Meanwhile, Michael Crabtree likely will be just returning from a foot injury at that point, and his status is uncertain. All of which means that Ginn will be counted on to have a big role early in the
season. It makes sense for him to continue to line up with the starting unit.
Fullback: Moran Norris vs. Bruce Miller
The 49ers are giving Miller, the rookie, every opportunity to take this job and he is making the most of his chance. He had a solid game as a blocker Saturday and also showed something that Norris has lacked in recent yers - nimbleness as a pass catcher. Miller took a swing pass from Kaepernick and in one motion took it upfield for a first down. Miller also has more special teams value than Norris. It's not a lock that Miller will knock Norris, an 11-year veteran who is very close to Frank Gore, off the roster. But Miller's own roster spot seems fairly secure.
Third tight end: Konrad Reuland vs. Nate Lawrie
On most teams, the third tight end battle is no big deal. But as Stanford fans will attest, Jim Harbaugh gives each of his tight ends plenty of playing time, sometimes in the same formations. Lawrie (6-6, 255) is a big, strong target who has played in the league five years. Reuland, meanwhile, has been the trash man of training camp, scooping off the ground every poorly thrown pass in training camp. He's been dubbed "Novacek" for his pass-catching prowess. Still, the 49ers feel Reuland needs to add more strength to be more effective in the running game. This also could be a position that the 49ers fill early next month when teams start trimming their rosters.
-- Matt Barrows