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Clock Ticking on Roster Cuts

Posted Aug 29, 2011

Through the first three preseason games of the Jim Harbaugh era, the 49ers have been hot and cold. On one hand, you have losses to the Saints and the Texans, while you also have a complete win against the Raiders to look back on.

But the preseason serves as one of the unique instances where W’s and L’s take a back seat to player development and evaluation. With four starters gone from last year’s defensive unit and a new coordinator, the 49ers are trying to make the most out of the shortened preseason.

“Our main jobs as coaches at an organization during training camp, which preseason games are a part of, is first and foremost to pick the right 53 guys for this team,” said 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “Secondly, is to prepare this team for the regular season. ... Last year, I believe the preseason record here was 4-0 and that didn’t translate into very much for the squad. I think you can be misled by records, but the fact of the matter is we haven’t played as consistently as we need to, and we all need to feel the urgency to get that rectified pretty quick.”

With the season opener against Seattle less than two weeks away, the time is now for players on the fringe of making the 53-man roster. Of the 90-plus in the 49ers locker room, only 80 will be around following Tuesday’s first round of cuts. By Saturday, the coaching staff will have determined the final 53 spots for Week 1.

Fangio has already declared Pro Bowler Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean Francois as his top four defensive linemen heading into the season, but there looks to be a fierce competition brewing behind them. Joining second-year player Will Tukuafu in the battle for backup line positions are undrafted rookies Brian Bulcke, Demarcus Dobbs, Sealver Siliga and Ian Williams.

“You can only keep so many,” Fangio said. “Obviously we would keep at least five and keep upwards of seven, depending upon how the roster develops. Those are decisions that will be made by the end of the week, and all those guys are in the hunt somehow, someway.”

That’s not to say there are still some first-team positions up for grabs on the defense, especially in the secondary.

An injury to Reggie Smith has limited Fangio’s ability to see all of his safeties play throughout the preseason, but Smith is still in the mix for one of the starting spots with Dashon Goldson and Madieu Williams. Listening to Fangio, it seems like free-agent acquisition Donte Whitner is penciled in as one of the 49ers leaders on defense.

“It’s always good to have one that’s capable of being the so-called quarterback of the secondary and I think he fits that bill,” Fangio said.

Another player under the microscope has been first-round pick Aldon Smith, who is trying to make the transition from college defensive lineman to NFL linebacker. Smith’s pass-rushing and run-stopping skills have been highlighted throughout the preseason, but he’s still getting used to the added responsibilities of being an outside linebacker in Fangio’s 3-4 scheme.

“He’s just got to learn his position better,” Fangio said. “That sounds like a simple statement, but it’s a tall task for a guy coming from college who’s played defensive end and defensive tackle to now having to be a stand up linebacker and get a run-pass key and drop in the right spots in zone coverage, and pick up routes accordingly, the way you see them picked up. So it’s a major undertaking that he’s going through right now.”

Smith is currently tabbed as the team’s second-string right outside linebacker behind Parys Haralson, but he’ll get one more chance to showcase his skills on Thursday, when the 49ers travel to San Diego for their preseason finale. It’s safe to say Smith has earned a spot on the 53-man roster, but it looks like he still has some work to do to make a leap to the starting 11.

“You might get frustrated some days and other days might be good,” Smith said. “I take every day and just learn from it, trying to get better every day.”

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