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49ers position battles revisited

8/14/2008

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The position battles we previewed before training camp bear revisiting. We outlined two for each team. We continue with the 49ers:

Quarterback: Alex Smith vs. Shaun Hill

What we said then: Smith might be the logical favorite to win the job, but the 49ers appear determined to make him win it anyway. Smith and Hill are alternating practices as the starter. The arrangement could continue through training camp or until one candidate emerges as a clearly superior alternative. Smith faces a make-or-break season in San Francisco, but his battle with Hill remains the top story line of camp so far.

Despite coming off shoulder surgery, Smith has thrown long with more accuracy than Hill at times this offseason. The 49ers have too much invested in their 2005 No. 1 overall choice to give up on him prematurely. That's one reason general manager Scot McCloughan and offensive coordinator Mike Martz will be among those helping to make the decision.

"The objective is to win games, so the best thing for the organization and everyone here is that the best man wins the job, first and foremost," coach Mike Nolan told reporters as camp opened. "If this is a neck-and-neck battle, that's not a bad thing for us because that means that they're ready. We're about winning, we're not about favoritism."

What we say now: Neither Smith nor Hill seized the job early in camp, leading coaches to give J.T. O'Sullivan a long look. O'Sullivan started the exhibition opener. He continues taking the first-team reps in practice. The 49ers haven't declared a winner in this race, but the organization loses if its No. 1 overall draft choice becomes an afterthought.

"Ted" linebacker: Jeff Ulbrich vs. Brandon Moore

What we said then: Veteran Derek Smith's release after seven seasons with the team cleared the way for Ulbrich and Moore to fight for his spot on the inside next to Patrick Willis. Ulbrich, 31, has started 72 games for the 49ers since joining the team in 2000. But with only 16 starts since 2004, his career could be winding down. Ulbrich's experience, attitude and overall approach to the game weigh in his favor.

Moore has been with the 49ers nearly as long. He has 14 sacks over the last three seasons, but the "Ted" linebacker spends more time doing the dirty work than finishing plays. Dontarrious Thomas, signed from Minnesota in free agency, provides insurance at the position. But he appears more likely to back up Willis than emerge as a candidate to challenge Ulbrich and Moore.

What we say now: Moore didn't impress early in camp, so the 49ers released him. They signed free-agent veteran Takeo Spikes, a former weak-side linebacker in the Eagles' 4-3 scheme. Spikes becomes the favorite to start. Ulbrich, ever the team player, has vowed to contribute in whatever role the coaches ask, including on special teams. The 49ers still do not have a prototypical "Ted" linebacker, though Spikes is a proven player.

Also worth noting

Rookie receiver Josh Morgan has been the most impressive receiver in camp. Newcomer Bryant Johnson continues to miss time with a hamstring injury, while veteran Isaac Bruce is saving his legs for the regular season. Ashley Lelie might not make the team. ... Dashon Goldson is pushing veteran Mark Roman for the starting job at free safety. ... Zak Keasey's special-teams ability might give him an edge on Moran Norris for a roster spot at fullback.