Alex Smith will begin his rookie season exactly where the previous two quarterbacks selected with the top overall choice in the NFL draft, Carson Palmer and Eli Manning, began theirs -- on the bench. San Francisco 49ers Coach Mike Nolan announced Tuesday that veteran Tim Rattay, not Smith, will be the starter entering the regular season.

Smith's stay on the sideline, however, seems likely to be even briefer than those endured by Palmer and Manning.

Palmer sat for an entire season before taking over as the Cincinnati Bengals' starter. Manning's apprenticeship lasted nine games last season before New York Giants Coach Tom Coughlin handed him the starting job. But their teams were playing relatively well without them. The Bengals went 8-8 and were in playoff contention in the 2003 season with Jon Kitna starting at quarterback. The Giants were 5-4 last season under former two-time league most valuable player Kurt Warner.

The 49ers, on the other hand, have demonstrated what they are with Rattay in charge -- a bad team. They went 2-14 last season, beating the Arizona Cardinals twice and going winless against the rest of the league, and there's little reason to believe they'll fare much better this time around. Once it's clear that they're headed nowhere again this season, there will be no reason not to play Smith and let him make his mistakes and learn from them.

Smith worked with the starters in training camp and looked solid in practices, and Nolan might have been tempted to begin the season with Smith as the starter if the rookie hadn't appeared so overwhelmed in his first two preseason games. Smith completed only five of 16 passes for 43 yards, getting sacked four times and failing to engineer a scoring drive in nine possessions. Rattay, meantime, connected on 13 of 19 throws for 194 yards and three touchdowns in the two games.

Nolan informed both quarterbacks of the decision Monday night and Rattay was back working with the starters on the practice field Tuesday. He is to start Friday's preseason game against the Tennessee Titans.

No matter how well Rattay plays, recent NFL history says that Smith will be the starter by the beginning of next season at the latest. Kitna had a superb 2003 season, yet Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis went to Palmer to begin last season. The Bengals endured a running-in-place 2004 season, going 8-8 again, but could be poised to jump to contender status this season.

Teams have too much money and too much hope invested in such prized young quarterbacks not to play them. The 49ers signed Smith to the richest rookie contract in NFL history, a six-year, $49.5 million deal that includes $24 million in bonuses.

The last quarterback drafted first overall to start the initial game of his rookie season was David Carr with the expansion Houston Texans in 2002.

Sherman Gets Extension

The Green Bay Packers completed a two-year contract extension with Coach Mike Sherman, who was entering the final season of his previous deal. Team president Bob Harlan stripped Sherman's general manager duties from him in the offseason, but Sherman seems to be coexisting well so far with new GM Ted Thompson.

S. Davis Back

Carolina tailback Stephen Davis has resumed practicing as he tries to return from microfracture surgery on his right knee. The procedure seemed to leave Davis's career in jeopardy, but he has vowed to keep playing and Tuesday participated in the Panthers' practice in full pads . . . .

Kansas City released linebacker Mike Maslowski, who's still at least a month from returning from a severe knee injury that he suffered in 2003 and caused him to miss all of last season. The Chiefs are interested in re-signing Maslowski when he's ready to play but in the short term needed a roster spot to sign quarterback Jonathan Quinn . . . .

Seattle released defensive tackle Cedric Woodard, who is working his way back from offseason knee surgery . . . .

The six-year contract extension that tight end Antonio Gates signed with the San Diego Chargers is worth as much as $24 million. Gates met Monday with Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith, the day after the tight end reported to the team after refusing to show up due to his contract dispute, and deliberations moved quickly from there.

So the Chargers ultimately locked up Gates for six seasons, at the cost of one game. Gates will sit out the regular season opener against Dallas because the Chargers placed him on the roster exempt list, meaning that he must miss three games (including, in this case, two preseason contests), when he missed a Saturday reporting deadline set by the team. Gates indicated that he tried to meet the deadline but didn't because of travel delays, and the Chargers' hard-line approach ultimately produced a new contract . . . .

Defensive end John Abraham appears ready to join the New York Jets either late this week or early next week. He has refused to report to the club so far and has not signed the one-year, $6.666 million contract that the team tendered to him in the offseason after naming him its franchise player.

Abraham apparently is seeking an agreement similar to the one that Seattle tailback Shaun Alexander got when he signed a one-year contract with the Seahawks last month -- that he won't be traded, that the two sides will try to negotiate a long-term deal and that he won't have the franchise-player tag placed on him again next spring.

If Abraham signs, that would leave Philadelphia defensive tackle Corey Simon as the last unsigned franchise player league-wide.