Alex Smith is entrenched as the 49ers' starting QB
The San Francisco 49ers were just a play or two away from going to the Super Bowl last season. Head coach Jim Harbaugh has stated that he wants competition at every position and he is getting just that.
Some players like Alex Smith, Vernon Davis, Frank Gore, Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and NaVorro Bowman have nothing to prove this offseason and will be focused on getting ready for the season opener in Green Bay.
However, there are several players who are either fighting for jobs, trying to get more playing time or a better position on the depth chart. For these players, having a good spring and summer is critical. Let's take a closer look at these players who are at a crucial juncture in their career.
2011 was a learning year for Colin Kaepernick
The San Francisco 49ers traded up in the second round of the 2011 draft to select quarterback Colin Kaepernick out of Nevada. Kaepernick is not in danger of losing his roster spot, but he could fall to the third-string quarterback if he does not have a good summer.
This offseason, the 49ers brought in quarterback Josh Johnson, who is very familiar with Jim Harbaugh, having played for him at the University of San Diego. Johnson will compete with Kaepernick for the backup job behind Alex Smith.
It will be incumbent upon Kaepernick to show that he has learned from watching from the sidelines last year. He is a gifted athlete, but played in the unique, Pistol offense while at Nevada. The Pistol is best compared to a spread-option type of system, which is nothing like what is run in the NFL.
Kaepernick flashed his tremendous athleticism during the exhibition games in 2011, but also showed that he has a great deal to learn about reading defenses and finding his secondary receivers.
Kaepernick frequently threw into coverage and also had a tendency to take off and run when he was pressured. He completed only 24-of-50 pass attempts and threw five interceptions and no touchdowns.
If Kaepernick looks like he is still not ready to play, he will be in danger of losing his second-string job if Josh Johnson plays well.
Randy Moss has a lot to offer the 49ers
San Francisco 49ers GM Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh took a calculated risk when they signed Randy Moss this offseason. Moss sat out the entire 2011 season and comes to the 49ers with a somewhat questionable reputation.
Moss is a future Hall of Fame wide receiver and at the age of 35, he is looking to resurrect his once-glorious career. He has 954 career receptions for 14,858 yards and 153 touchdowns.
The 49ers believe Moss can still use his speed and stretch the field. In workouts thus far, Moss has looked very good and is in great shape.
He is also smart enough to realize that this may be his last chance in professional football. Moss wants to prove to the football world, and perhaps himself, that he still has a lot left in the tank and can perform at a high level.
The mercurial Moss has been on his best behavior and has lent his veteran experience to help the younger players, including Michael Crabtree. Harbaugh has provided glowing reviews of Moss and thus far, it appears as though he is ready to perform and also be a team player.
Moss would like to earn a lot of playing time and he has been impressive on and off the field. If he can continue to stay on this path, Moss will be a great addition to the 49ers offense.
Concussion problems have plagued Chris Owusu
Chris Owusu is fighting for a wide receiver job with the 49ers. He was passed on by every team in the league, not because of his ability, but because of the concern over his concussions.
Owusu has sustained three concussions over the past 13 months, but was medically cleared to play. The concerns over his health scared teams off from drafting him. Owusu, who has great speed and athleticism, would have likely been a third or fourth-round draft pick had it not been for the concussions.
Owusu has a lot to prove in order to make the team or, at the very least, earn a spot on the practice squad. He must first show that he can take a big hit and bounce back up.
In addition, Owusu must also prove that he has the hands to catch anything thrown in his direction. He was susceptible to drops while at Stanford. With competition being very fierce for the 49ers' wide receiver spots, Owusu will not have the luxury of making mistakes if he hopes to land a job.
Kendall Hunter enters his second year in San Francisco
Kendall Hunter showed flashes of brilliance last year. He backed up Frank Gore and gained 473 rushing yards on 112 carries. He was also a threat out of the backfield with 16 receptions for 195 yards.
At 5'7" and 199 lbs, there is a question if Hunter has the size and durability to be an every-down back should anything happen to Frank Gore. However, in today's NFL, there is a great deal of situational play, so that may not be as big an issue for Hunter.
The 49ers have a crowded battle at the halfback position with Gore, Hunter, LaMichael James, Brandon Jacobs and Anthony Dixon. In addition, Bruce Miller and Rock Cartwright will handle the fullback duties.
Hunter will need to establish himself in the pecking order. He will most likely face a stiff challenge from LaMichael James for opportunities to carry the ball. James has more speed and explosiveness than Hunter, but Hunter has a year in the system, which will be to his advantage.
In order to ensure he gets meaningful playing time, Hunter will need to have a good summer. He must produce in the preseason games and prove he deserves to be Gore's main backup.
Alex Boone will get an opportunity at right guard
Alex Boone came to the San Francisco 49ers as an undrafted free agent back in 2009. The 49ers have brought him along very slowly, starting him off on the practice squad, then more recently as a reserve tackle.
Boone is entering his fourth season with the 49ers and it will be important to see his continued growth. The 49ers have always liked Boone's size and at 6'7" and 330 lbs, he is a beast.
With last year's starter, Adam Snyder, moving to the Cardinals, right guard is the only open spot in the 49ers' starting lineup. Boone will compete with Daniel Kilgore and rookie Joe Looney for the starting job.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh feels confident that Boone or Kilgore will be able to handle the starting guard position. If Boone can win the job, it gives the 49ers tremendous size up front.
Kyle Williams' botched punt play cost the 49ers the NFC title game
When we last saw Kyle Williams on the football field, he had just committed two major gaffes on punt return plays, which ultimately cost the 49ers a shot at the Super Bowl. To their credit, the 49er players stood by their teammate, as did head coach Jim Harbaugh.
However, Williams will need to help the 49ers and their fans forget about his mistakes last year. He can do this by having a productive summer and securing his place on the roster.
The 49ers already have four receivers who are locks to remain on the roster. Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham, Randy Moss and A.J. Jenkins will be the four mainstays. Williams' fate may rest on whether the 49ers decide to keep five or six receivers.
In 2011, Williams had 20 catches for 241 yards. He has battled minor injuries in his two years with the 49ers and coupled with the hangover from last year's playoff debacle, Williams needs to have a great summer and exhibition season.
Ted Ginn Jr. is a reliable and dangerous return man, whereas, I do not believe we will see Williams in that role again. Williams will also need to beat out Joe Hastings, Brett Swain and Chris Owusu to ensure his spot on the team.
LaMichael James provides speed and explosiveness
LaMichael James is the most explosive running back the 49ers have had in recent memory. He is deceptively strong for his 5'8" and 195-lb frame. James is extremely quick, elusive and has tremendous speed. He is a threat to score whenever he touches the ball.
At the University of Oregon, James split time with another outstanding back, Kenjon Barner. James did battle some injuries and there is a question of durability. I do not expect James to be an every-down back, but he will definitely be a threat whenever he is on the field.
James will need to prove he can stay healthy. He will get plenty of carries in the preseason to show his skills, which will also help him learn the system. James' role on the 49ers will resemble that of Darren Sproles when he was a member of the Chargers.
James could also help as a return man along with 49ers' Round 1 draft pick, A.J. Jenkins. This could make Ted Ginn or Kyle Williams expendable.
Last year, as a junior at the University of Oregon, James carried the ball 247 times and rushed for an amazing 1,805 yards, a 7.3 yards-per-carry average. He also scored a total of 20 touchdowns.
I am already predicting that James will be a fan favorite, as his explosiveness gives the 49ers a dimension they have lacked for several years.
Josh Johnson has a long-term relationship with Jim Harbaugh
Josh Johnson came to the University of San Diego as an unheralded prep quarterback from Oakland. While at San Diego, he worked for then-head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Harbaugh developed Johnson into an NFL-caliber quarterback and he was drafted by Tampa Bay in 2008. Over the past four years, Johnson played periodically for the Bucs, completing 96-of-177 passes for 1,042 yards. He has five touchdowns against 10 interceptions in his career.
Johnson is a favorite of Harbaugh and will battle Colin Kaepernick for the No. 2 quarterback spot. He knows Harbaugh's system and will get an opportunity to compete with Kaepernick for the backup job.
Johnson needs to have a strong preseason, as he could emerge as Alex Smith's backup. If he plays poorly, he could also get cut, as the 49ers have Scott Tolzein on the roster in addition to Kaepernick.
My gut feeling is that Johnson will play well enough to earn the second-string job. Kaepernick will drop to third string and clipboard holder. Tolzein will be waived with the hope of signing him to the practice squad, but he will be picked up by another team.
Daniel Kilgore will compete for the starting right guard position
The San Francisco 49ers eschewed available guards in the first three rounds of the most recent draft. Finally, they selected Joe Looney out of Wake Forest in Round 4.
49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh has stated that he fully believes Daniel Kilgore or Alex Boone are capable of replacing Adam Snyder at the starting right guard spot. Snyder's departure as a free agent resulted in the one open starting job on the team.
Kilgore will have the first chance to lock down that starting spot, but he will be pushed by Alex Boone and Joe Looney. Kilgore was a fifth-round draft pick in 2011 and spent the year as a backup.
If Kilgore has a good summer and exhibition season, that will go a long way toward him locking down the starting right guard spot.
Anthony Dixon needs a huge summer to make the team
No incumbent 49er player may need a bigger summer in order to make the team than Anthony Dixon. He looks like the odd man out in a very crowded backfield behind Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Brandon Jacobs.
Dixon is a power back that does not always run with a lot of power. He has a tendency to dance around and try to pick his holes instead of finding a seam and blasting through it. The acquisition of Jacobs minimizes the value of Dixon as a short-yardage back, as Jacobs will get the bulk of those carries.
In addition, the 49ers signed running back Rock Cartwright, who can also play the fullback position. He is an excellent special teams player, which further reduces the value Dixon can bring to the 49ers roster.
Unless Dixon has a huge summer and exhibition campaign, or if the 49ers are hit hard by injuries to their running backs, I do not expect Dixon to make this team.
In 2011, Dixon carried the ball 29 times for just 87 yards. He also failed to convert a key first down against the New York Giants in the NFC championship game.
Dixon pussyfooted his way on a 3rd-and-1, didn't hit an open seam and was tackled short of the first down. The 49ers had to punt and the ensuing Giants punt resulted in the first of the two Kyle Williams miscues.
Had Dixon simply hit the seam, he would have made the first down and the 49ers' drive would have continued. Who knows what would have happened?
I seriously doubt that head coach Jim Harbaugh has the requisite trust in Dixon at this point and I would be very surprised to see him make the team in 2012.
Jim Harbaugh is developing Alex Smith into a good QB
The San Francisco 49ers have put in place the foundation for a team that can challenge for the Super Bowl for many years to come. Head coach Jim Harbaugh has earned respect throughout the league, which has already helped the 49ers land players via free agency.
The 49ers are currently going through their OTAs, which will be followed by training camp, preseason games, final cuts, then the regular season. These OTAs, as well as the summertime activities, will make or break several of the players on this list.
For others, although they will make the team, playing time will be earned or diminished based on their play in the summer. With competition at every position, this summer will be extremely meaningful for the 49ers.
A testament to the strength of the 49ers defense is the fact that none of the 10 players who made this list are defensive players. The 49ers defense is pretty well set; it is the offense where the majority of the position battles are going to unfold.
As you're watching the preseason games, pay close attention to the players on our list and you will have a head start in knowing the roles of every one of these men.