The word is "competition" and the modus operandi is bringing in a bunch of players and letting them settle it during training camp. That’s the way it is under general manager Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh.
The coach has said that every job is open, but in fact there some 49ers who are very much assured of a starting job, with Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman leading the list.
At the same time, there are a few people who will find themselves pushed for a job, and as such, their performance will determine where they stand on the depth chart come September. Here are the eight 49ers who could drop down.
There was no doubt what Baalke’s main goal was during the offseason: Add some firepower to the offense. In came Randy Moss off an out-of-football season, as well as Mario Manningham, the top two draft picks of A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James, as well as the power running potential of Brandon James.
Dixon, who has 99 carries in first two seasons, averaged 4.4 yards in 2010 but only 1.8 in 2011. And even though Frank Gore faltered down the stretch last season, Dixon didn’t give the team that spark it needed, which is why Kendall Hunter got more touches.
Gore is in the second of a three-year contract, and LaMichael James is a home-run hitter with exceptional speed. Jacobs, who excelled at times and other times struggled as a New York Giant, also will push Dixon for playing time.
It’s going to be crowded in the backfield come July and August. Dixon appears at the bottom of the list.
Looking back to the 2011 preseason, you could see how desperate the 49ers were for quarterback help. David Carr was the backup, and Nate Davis had been jettisoned. After the Niners played and lost to the Chargers last August, NFL teams had to make their final cuts.
The Chargers cut their No. 3 quarterback, Scott Tolzien, and the Niners promptly picked him up.
That sort of last-minute roster maneuvering won’t happen this year because the Niners went you and signed Josh Johnson to the squad. The former University of San Diego player under Harbaugh, he’s been brought in to compete with Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick, and it’s pretty obvious that the team will keep only three.
The former Green Bay Packer came in mid-2011 to round out a position poor in quality and depth. But now the Niners have Ted Ginn Jr. back, as well as the additions of Moss, Manningham, Kyle Williams, Michael Crabtree, Jenkins and free agent Chris Owusu, there’s a good chance Swain won’t make the team. Six seems the max at this position.
Remember, Swain started the NFC Championship game in place of Ginn. That shows you how much the Niners wanted to upgrade the position.
You can read all you want about Frank Gore being fine, and you can note that he’s going into the middle of a three-year contract. But offseason acquisitions suggest the front office and coaches are worried. Gore’s running inside where the big boys live and his penchant for standing up to big-time blitzers fulfills a common theory about modern NFL running backs.
They’re like ni-cad batteries: Their output is at a high level and then just cuts off to zero. No warning or indication they are getting low on energy; it just goes.
That’s why you see James and Jacobs in town. And here’s the thing: If Gore is cut (hey, it could happen), he won’t hurt the team too much in terms of a contract hit.
Even though they signed him to a free-agent deal, there’s no guarantee he’ll see plenty of playing time. That is, if Gore, Hunter and James perform at a high level.
The rap on Jacobs the last two seasons in New York was that he’d tap dance at the line of scrimmage instead of blowing straight ahead. For a back who is 6’4” and 256 pounds, dancing doesn’t do much. But the Niners' physical style of play, which originates in the huge offensive line, requires a back to pound and pound, wearing down the defense.
Of note: He was drafted the same year as Gore. He also might be a ni-cad battery. And if he dances, Jacobs might pirouette right out of town.
OK, he had the misplay of the 2011 season, and it’s going to be hard for 49er fans to forgive him for the muffed punt that led to the team’s overtime defeat in the NFC Championship game.
A report shows him in good shape and good frame of mind. That’s going to help, but more importantly, we have to remember that the Niners were one big play away from beating the Giants for the right to go to the Super Bowl.
Williams was just trying to make that play. But with Ginn Jr. back to take over primary kick return duty, which also can be fulfilled by LaMichael James, it seems to be a hard road for Williams to see plenty of playing time.
The starting right cornerback will make the team but could play behind Chris Culliver, the second-year player who filled in well as the team’s nickel back in 2011. Brown, however, is a very good tackler.
Culliver and Brown are similar in size, though the former is a little taller. Against the Giants during the regular-season meeting, Culliver found himself with target on his back during the Giants' second-half drives. But that was against slot receivers; playing corner can put him closer to his man and allow him to get his hands on the receiver and slow his downfield progress.
The surprising play of Aldon Smith as a pass-rushing defensive end stands as the surprise of the 2011 Niners. Smith’s play was so good it seems that the idea of keeping him off the field on first and second downs doesn’t make sense.
Haralson, however, is stellar against the run. Smith isn’t the best “standing up” as an outside 3-4 backer. We’ll see how it plays out.