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August 31, 2011
The battle for the bottom of the roster

The top of the 49ers roster is beginning to take shape. Jonathan Goodwin and Tarell Brown appear set to start the regular season at center and cornerback respectively. Thursday's preseason finale will give coaches and evaluators one last chance to answer the remaining questions at the bottom of the roster. Here's where some of those questions lie:

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Wide receiver - The first four spots are set with Braylon Edwards, Michael Crabtree, Joshua Morgan and Ted Ginn. Kyle Williams, the team's leading receiver in the preseason, should be an easy choice for the fifth spot. Williams is quicker than anyone else on offense, he's shown toughness this preseason and he can back up Ginn on punt returns. The question is whether the team keeps six receivers and if Lance Long, Dominique Zeigler or sixth-round pick Ronald Johnson gets that sixth spot. Johnson and fellow rookies Chris Hogan and Joe Hastings are practice-squad eligible; Long and Zeigler are not.

Offensive line - The question here is whether the team keeps 10 offensive linemen on the active roster like it did at the start of last season. If so, the choices are easy. Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Jonathan Goodwin, Chilo Rachal, Anthony Davis, Alex Boone, Adam Snyder, Tony Wragge, Daniel Kilgore and Mike Person all would make the team. The last three, however, likely would not suit up on game days, which means the team wouldn't necessarily need an offensive lineman on the practice squad. If they did, Stanford's Derek Hall probably is the leading candidate. If the team kept fewer than nine offensive linemen, Wragge likely would be the odd man out.

Inside linebacker - The shoe-ins are NaVorro Bowman, Larry Grant - who is looking more and more like a quality free-agent pick up - and some guy named Patrick Willis. Keaton Kristick and Blake Costanzo are gunning for the last spot. Kristick, who put on weight and gained strength in the offseason, is probably better at linebacker. But Costanzo is the better special teamer, and that's where the emphasis on this roster spot will be. Both Kristick and another inside linebacker, Alex Joseph, are eligible for the practice squad.

Defensive line - The first five spots are set with Justin Smith, Isaac Sopoaga, Ray McDonald (who has looked very good in the preseason), Ricky Jean Francois and Will Tukuafu. The fight is among three undrafted rookies - defensive end Demarcus Dobbs, nose tackle Ian Williams and nose tackle Sealver Siliga - each of whom show real potential. Williams has been playing both defensive end and nose tackle, which is perhaps a hint that the 49ers plan to keep him on the active roster where he'd need to be versatile in case there's an injury. "Obviously we would keep at least five (defensive linemen) and keep upwards of seven, depending upon how the roster develops," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "Those are decisions that will be made by the end of the week, and all those guys are in the hunt somehow, someway."

Cornerback - The first five spots are set with Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Tramaine Brock, Shawntae Spencer and rookie Chris Culliver. The question is whether Phillip Adams also makes the team. Fangio this week described Adams, who is returning from a scary ankle fracture, as 75-80 percent recovered. Still, young, promising cornerbacks are worth their weight in gold in a pass-oriented league, and the 49ers could be willing to give him a roster spot while he heals.

Safety - Along with the offensive and defensive lines, this is the team's deepest position, even after trading Taylor Mays. The first four spots are set with Donte Whitner, Dashon Goldson, Reggie Smith and Madieu Williams. It's also difficult to see C.J. Spillman not making the roster. He's physical, aggressive, excellent on special teams and appears to be the top candidate to replace Whitner, who spends a lot of time in the box, if Whitner were to get hurt. Coaches appear eager to give sixth-round pick Colin Jones a spot on the roster. He's on every coverage-unit team, but has not made a splash as a coverage player. You have to wonder whether Curtis Taylor and Chris Maragos - who, unlike Jones, also have value at safety - would have made a bigger mark on special teams if given the same opportunity as Jones.

Tight end - Rookie Konrad Reuland is ahead of Nate Lawrie here, but the 49ers aren't bowled over by Reuland's blocking ability. They'd rather let him develop on the practice squad. The team will be scanning the waiver wire this weekend for a tight end who blocks.

-- Matt Barrows



MATTHEW BARROWS

Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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