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When Nate Clements signed with the 49ers on the first day of free agency in 2007, the thing that grabbed headlines was the size of his contract.

It was a reported eight years, $80 million ? certainly a flashy and easy-to-remember deal.

But here?s the thing about Nate Clements: He?s not flashy at all. (And because the final year of the contract automatically voided, the deal was actually $64 million for seven years with $20 million guaranteed.)

Clements is a hard-working, blue-collar performer who is at his best when he?s crashing in from his position at cornerback to help in run support. It has led some ? including individuals inside the 49ers? organization ? to the conclusion that someday he could make a seamless conversion to safety.

But Clements? future beyond this season with the 49ers was called into question when third-year player Tarell Brown replaced him in the starting lineup Sunday against the pass-happy Indianapolis Colts.

And things got further complicated when Clements sustained a broken shoulder blade while returning a punt in the second quarter. Coach Mike Singletary said Clements will not be placed on injured reserve because they want to leave the window open for him to contribute late in the season ? and, perhaps, the playoffs.

?It was tough,? Clements said of the demotion. ?It was tough, but I?m going to be professional about it and do anything to help my teammates and help this team get back on track.?

As for his future, Clements said he has not given it much thought. His focus, he said, is on rehabilitating his right shoulder to make sure he is ready to go when the fracture heals.

?I?m just going to continue to be Nate and work hard like I?ve done my whole career,? Clements said.

Clements moved into the punt-return role on Sunday because of the 49ers? problems at that spot after the club released Allen Rossum three weeks ago to make roster space for Michael Crabtree.

Rossum, a Pro Bowl alternate, was a reliable return man who did not fumble last season, averaging 26.8 yards on 47 kickoff returns and 14.9 yards on 15 punt returns.

Without Rossum, the 49ers? return game has been a mess.

Arnaz Battle muffed three punts and had a turnover deep in 49ers? territory that the Houston Texans quickly converted into a touchdown. The 49ers lost that game by three points.

Because of the uncertainty in the return game, Clements was moved into the spot as the team?s primary punt returner against the Colts on Sunday.

On his fourth punt return, the not-so-elusive Clements was hammered to the turf and sustained a broken right shoulder blade.

Clements has been a very good player since coming to the 49ers. Sure, he?s given up some big plays, but he has also enjoyed particular success against Arizona Cardinals? All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

He is scheduled to earn $6.5 million in next year, including a $500,000 workout bonus. If the labor dispute is solved and there is a salary cap next year, the 49ers could save $3.1 million with his release.

It appears that $6.5 million is too much for a cornerback who got benched against one of the best passing teams in the league because he did not give the 49ers their best matchup.

And that price tag is also too much to risk for a player who is transitioning to a new position. The 49ers? options are to attempt to work with Clements on a new, reduced contract. If that is not agreed upon, Clements has likely played his final game with the 49ers.

BACKING RAYE

Coach Mike Singletary was asked if he still endorses offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye?s style of offense.

?I, 150 percent, back what he?s doing, absolutely,? Singletary said. ?There?s not one iota that I?m wavering here or there, whatever. Jimmy knows there are some things going forward that he has to learn about our players, what they can and cannot do.?

But one of the things that is also apparent is that the 49ers are gaining more confidence in quarterback Alex Smith.

Said Singletary, ?It looks like he is developing very quickly into that quarterback that can be a special quarterback. We are excited about that.?

EXTRA POINTS

Tackle Joe Staley did not sustain damage to the anterior-cruciate ligament in his right knee, he said. It is unclear how much playing time he will miss as a result of the injury, which he sustained on the 49ers? first offensive play.

During the 49ers? two-minute drill, Smith was forced to call two plays at the line of scrimmage. He hit Isaac Bruce with a 12-yard pass on the first play. He also threw incomplete to Vernon Davis.

For more on the 49ers, go to Instant 49ers at http://blog.press

democrat.com/49ers. You can reach Staff Writer Matt Maiocco via e-mail at matt.maiocco@pressdemocrat.com.

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