Heading into training camp, this is a good opportunity to examine where the San Francisco 49ers stand as they prepare for their 2006 campaign. Gone are the days when Pro Bowl caliber players could be found at nearly every position. Gone are the days when seasoned veterans would sacrifice money just for the right to play for the storied franchise. Coaches and fans will see a lot more heated competition as this young team tries to find its identity.

While last year’s 2-14 season was a horrid mess, the 49ers ended the season well, winning their last two games. The first completed a sweep of the longtime NFC West rival St. Louis Rams. The second was a messy overtime win over the lowly Houston Texans. It was a win that took them out of the Reggie Bush competition but added some much needed confidence for the team and for rookie quarterback Alex Smith, who threw his first NFL touchdown during the game.

A lot of things have changed during the offseason. Some of these changes have been an improvement, others have not. Let’s take a look at the effect of some of these changes and where the team stands at each position.

Quarterbacks

The 49ers started four different quarterbacks last season. They started the season with Tim Rattay. After trading him to Tampa Bay, they moved on to their rookie quarterback of the future, Alex Smith. An injury to Smith opened the door for Ken Dorsey. An injury to Dorsey gave Cody Pickett a brief shot, but Alex Smith eventually returned. While fans witnessed some improvement during his final few games, Smith’s one touchdown to 11 interceptions ratio was quite embarrassing.

Word out of 49ers headquarters is that Smith has been working really hard to improve during the offseason. With better protection, more targets and a year of blunders, bumps and bruises under his belt, he should be able to prove some doubters wrong. Then again, any improvement will be welcome. When Rattay was traded during the regular season last year, Ken Dorsey became Smith’s backup for the remainder of the season. Dorsey has since been shipped to Cleveland for veteran quarterback/mentor Trent Dilfer. This is definitely an improvement at the backup position since Dilfer has more advice to offer Smith than Dorsey ever could have.

Behind Smith and Dilfer are Cody Pickett and Jesse “The Bachelor” Palmer, who spent time on the 49ers roster last season. No change there but one will likely be cut prior to the start of the regular season. Palmer had the edge on Pickett during the summer OTA’s. So much of an edge in fact, that the team has suggested to Pickett that he tries for other positions on the team.

Running backs

Kevan Barlow remains the 49ers starter at running back for now, despite some disappointing performances over the last two seasons. While he was on the team last season, the presence of Frank Gore is a definite improvement to the position. There are two things that could come from Gore’s presence on the team. He could light the fire under Barlow and we could see the strong one-two punch that the team has missed since Garrison Hearst was here. The other possibility is that Gore could turn out to be a solid running back and beat out Barlow for the starting position. Fans saw flashes of glory late in the season when Gore was given the opportunity to perform more. In a loss to Jacksonville, Gore rushed 19 times for 79 yards. In a win against St. Louis, Gore split time with Maurice Hicks gaining 68 yards on 10 carries…an average of 6.8 yards per touch. As great as those numbers were, Hicks gained 109 yards on 10 carries during the St. Louis game. In the season finale against Houston, Gore carried the ball 25 times and rushed for 108 yards. If these kinds of numbers carry into the upcoming season, the 49ers could have a solid rushing threat on their hands.

At fullback, the team made no effort to resign veteran Fred Beasley. While he was the team’s best player at the position, Beasley lost support among the coaching staff and was cast off into free agency limbo where he would eventually sign with Miami. The team still has Chris Hetherington and signed Moran Norris during the offseason. When playing last season in place of Beasley, Hetherington did a fine job. Norris spent last season with the Houston Texans and could offer some good competition.

Receivers

It’s tough to not notice how much the team has improved here. There is no doubt that they are not one of the elite groups in the league, however, they are better off than last year. Gone are Brandon Lloyd and Rashaun Woods. Lloyd, while his circus catches were fun to watch, was too inconsistent and could have eventually become a big distraction within the locker room. He was traded to Washington and replaced with Antonio Bryant, who contributed 1009 yards to Cleveland’s offense in 2005. In 2004, he put up 812 yards, which is still better than any 49ers receiver last season. While he has been somewhat inconsistent over the years and has had some issues with the staff around him, Nolan and company are convinced that those days are behind him. He is a vast improvement over Lloyd and could help Smith a great deal in the passing game. He looked good during OTA’s and was catching almost everything Smith could throw at him.

Arnaz Battle should be back after spending most of last season injured. He should be ready to go along side Bryant. Battle is one of those potential guys that you can’t judge just yet because he has not really played much. He has only started 8 games in his 3 year career. This will be a make or break season for him.

Behind them, it’s anyone’s guess with players like Brandon Williams, Bryan Gilmore, Jason McAddley, Rasheed Marshall and others trying to make an impression during training camp. Derrick Hamilton could be on the bubble as he has not done anything during his two seasons with the team. While injuries prevented him for gaining some playing time, you are only given so many chances to make an impression. Just ask Rashaun Woods.

At tight end, fans are hoping that the team has vastly improved with the addition of first round draft pick Vernon Davis. The guy was a beast in college and looks to be one of the best tight end prospects to be drafted in a very long time. If he lives up to expectations, the team would have a double threat with Davis and current tight end Eric Johnson anchoring the sides of the offensive line. Johnson had a breakout year in 2004 catching the ball 82 times for 825 yards. Fans were excited to see what he would do last year before an injury ended his season. They will definitely give Alex Smith two “big play” weapons that he has yet to utilize.

Offensive Line

If everyone stays healthy, there will be a huge improvement within the offensive line this season. They will not be a top 10 offensive line, but they will be much better than last season’s unit. Jonas Jennings, who was supposed to be a key acquisition from last season, will return to the lineup at left tackle after spending last season on IR because of a shoulder injury. His return could be big for the passing and running game.

The 49ers still needed a big, strong, veteran lineman to help teach some of the younger guys. So they went out and got the best one available, Larry Allen. Allen has far fewer playing days in front of him than he does behind him. However, he is still a solid guard and has maybe one or two more Pro Bowl seasons in him.

Those two players alone could help make everyone else on the offensive line much better. This is a key area to watch during the season since a solid offense starts with a solid offensive line.

This could also be a make or break season for Kwame Harris since his time with the 49ers has had more lowlights than highlights. Harris was chosen in the first round of the 2003 NFL Draft and has not played like a first round pick.

Defensive Line

Teams that use a 3-4 defense typically want a big and strong nose tackle up the middle. The 49ers may not have that yet. They have tried playing Anthony Adams and Isaac Sopoaga at that position. Both have been serviceable and are well liked by the coaches and fans, but one has to wonder if coach Nolan is still searching for that perfect player at the position.

Veteran lineman Bryant Young, who moved from defensive tackle to defensive end last season, has flourished at the position. Last year, he led the team with 8 sacks. He has always been one of those players that give 110% to prove himself on the field.

The team also has Marques Douglas who Nolan acquired from Baltimore last season. Nolan seems to be big on this guy so hopefully he will be able to help solidify the defensive line. However, this unit may not perform much better than last year, especially with all the questions around the linebacker position that is supposed to give them some support. Speaking of which…

Linebackers

The 49ers lost one of their big playmakers during the offseason. Julian Peterson signed a lucrative contract to play for the NFC Champion and NFC West rival Seattle Seahawks. So now the 49ers get to face him as an opponent twice a year. While Nolan was not against having him return, he was not willing to pay the price that Peterson was demanding nor was he willing to use the franchise tag on Peterson. While his performance last year did not meet expectations, he was easily the best linebacker on the team.

The team also let Andre Carter go to Washington despite a somewhat surprising season last year, his first after being transitioned from defensive end. Either of these losses may have been acceptable, but the loss of both could really hurt the team.

The team still has veterans in Jeff Ulbrich and Derek Smith, who constantly leads the team in tackles. While both are serviceable, they are not part of an elite group.

The team is hoping that first round draft pick, Manny Lawson, can contribute immediately. So hopeful in fact, that they have already penciled him in as a starter. However, being a rookie, he is a wildcard at this point. It may take some time for him to adjust to the transition from college. There are no guarantees that he will be able to flourish at the position. On a good note, like Vernon Davis at tight end, he does have all the tools to succeed.

An interesting player to keep an eye on is Parys Haralson, the fifth round draft pick out of Tennessee. His lack of size forces him to move to the linebacker position where he may surprise a few people. At least, that is what the 49ers are hoping.

The 49ers signed a number of linebackers during the offseason to compete for depth. Hopefully a couple of them shine during training camp and preseason. While the depth chart may look very different come September 10th, for now, linebacker is a big drop off from last season.

Defensive Backs

Another of the problem areas is defensive back. At cornerback, the team only has one definite starter in Shawntae Spencer. It is anyone’s guess who will start on the other side of him. Unless the team signs a big name free agent, players like Mike Rumph (who is fighting to make the team), Bruce Thornton and newly acquired Walt Harris all have a shot. At this point, it is tough to imagine any of these players starting on any other team. In San Francisco, they all have a shot.

While Rumph has been solid at times in his career, he has spent much of the last two seasons injured. The only reason Thornton’s name is being thrown in the mix is because he has shown some big play capability. However, he has made a number of mistakes as well. Still, he is entering only his third NFL season and is very young.

Behind these players are guys like Sammy Davis (acquired during the Rashaun Woods trade), and Kris Richard. None of which are good enough to get excited about.

A wildcard here could be Derrick Johnson. Johnson was drafted by the 49ers in the 6th round of the 2005 NFL Draft. While he is raw, he has impressed much of the coaching staff.

At safety, Tony Parrish’s health has to be a concern. He suffered a devastating injury against Chicago last November. If he can come back at 100%, this solves only half the problem. The 49ers have not been secure at the other safety position in years. Mike Rumph started last season, but again, his injury knocked him out. While a Ben Emanuel and Mike Adams combination worked, it is not the best situation. However, Adams did finish the season strong so it will be interesting watching him during training camp.

It is important to note that the 49ers did draft two safeties in the later rounds this year. Marcus Hudson was taken in the 6th and Vickiel Vaughn was taken in the 7th. Neither is likely to contribute much this season.

The defensive backs have to be a huge concern and Nolan has been pushing all offseason for VP of Player Personnel, Scot McCloughan, to find some help.

Special Teams

The 49ers are actually pretty strong here and should be even stronger this year. Kicker Joe Nedney had plenty of opportunities last season to practice his field goals since that is all the 49ers could manage most of the time. In fact, he made 26 of 28 field goals last year with a career high of 56 yards. Despite a solid 2005 campaign, punter Andy Lee will see some serious competition since the 49ers signed veteran Tom Rouen. Both averaged over 40 yards a punt last year. However, Lee punted the ball 107 times…impressive, but not something to brag about. Over the past few years, the 49ers have had some solid special teams units. With the addition of some speedy players to compete for the returner position, they should be in good shape once again.

Fan’s view

While some fans are hoping for a playoff appearance, it is not likely to happen even if the offense were to see a slight improvement. There are just too many question marks on the defense that have not been answered yet. And it is not simply a matter of plugging in a few holes here and there. The lack of talent would not be overcome by a few more key acquisitions. Hopes for an 8-8 season would be pushing it and a 5 or 6 win season is more realistic. But the team will improve as the season progresses and fans may discover a few diamonds in the rough. However, like last year, don't be surprised to see more so-called "fans" rooting for losses toward the end of the season to help improve the team’s draft position.