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July 23, 2012
Biggest training-camp battle may be for No. 2 quarterback

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Looking for 49ers training-camp competitions? You have to go to the bottom of the roster to find it. All but one starting job -- right guard -- appeared wrapped up by the end of the spring. And even that guard spot may not be much of a competition considering that Alex Boone is a.) relentless about nailing down his first NFL starting job and b.) needs all the practice repetitions he can get after playing tackle most of his life.

There are indeed true competitions and there are players battling for their NFL lives. But those dramas mostly involve the last three or four spots on the team. Some of the August intrigue:

1. Who's No. 2? Jim Harbaugh was clear that Alex Smith not only is the No. 1 quarterback but that he's put distance between himself and No. 2. Right now the top backup is second-year player Colin Kaepernick, and the final pecking order probably will be: Smith, Kaepernick, Josh Johnson and Scott Tolzien.

But those last three spots aren't set in stone. By now, coaches know how their quarterbacks look in non-padded practices. The next step is evaluating them in live drills and, more important, in the four preseason games. The pressure is on strong-armed Kaepernick to prove he deserves that No. 2 spot.

2. Battle of the bulk. It's clear that Frank Gore won't have the workload he's had since becoming the featured running back in 2006. What's unclear is how those non-Gore carries will be divided this season.

Second-year player Kendall Hunter and second-round draft pick LaMichael James are assured spots on the team while Rock Cartwright could win one based on his special teams ability. Brandon Jacobs' and Anthony Dixon's spots, however, are fuzzier.

Jacobs appears reborn after a sometimes contentious career with the Giants, and he could be an asset if Gore, injured in each of his last five seasons, goes down again. But the acquisition of Jacobs and James also has seemed to spark something in Dixon, who to this point has not been able to marry his undeniable skills with focus and commitment.

3. Commitment to Kyle. The 49ers wide-receiver cupboard, bare last year, has a lot more items in 2012. Randy Moss, Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins have all but locked up spots. It's also difficult to see receiver-return man Ted Ginn not earning a job given the disaster that befell the 49ers on special teams when he missed the NFC Championship game.

That's five spots -- the number of wide receivers the team carried last year. If they go with six, Williams appears to be in a good position. He is intent on redeeming himself after his January punt-return blunders, and he has the backing of teammates and the team's owner. Others in the mix for the sixth spot include Brett Swain, Joe Hastings, Chris Owusu, Nathan Palmer and Brian Tyms.

4. The Fantastic Fours. When rosters are as loaded as the 49ers', it's sometimes all a newcomer can do to win the No. 4 spot at a position. That's the case at outside linebacker where seventh-round pick Cam Johnson is trying to hold off journeyman Eric Bakhtiari and undrafted Kourtnei Brown. If Johnson's recent knee surgery returns him to his 2010 form, the 49ers will have found a steal in the seventh round. 

Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver currently have the first three spots at cornerback. The No. 4 position -- a big one if there is an injury to Nos. 1, 2 or 3 -- is between Tramaine Brock and good-looking newcomer Perrish Cox. Cox also has potential as a punt returner.

The first three safety spots also are set with Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner and C.J. Spillman. The fourth spot could go to sixth-round pick Trenton Robinson. However, undrafted Michael Thomas looked sharp during spring drills. Mark LeGree and Cory Nelms also figure into the mix. One or more of these players also could land spots on the practice squad.

Others: Demarcus Dobbs, Ian Williams and Will Tukuafu all won backup jobs on the defensive line last year. It's hard to see the 49ers keeping all three again this year. Williams could be the odd man out. Then again, the two players ahead of him at nose tackle, Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean Francois, both are in the final year of their contracts. ... Tight end Konrad Reuland catches every pass that comes his way; Nate Byham, however, remains the superior blocker ... 

-- 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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