San Francisco 49ers: 5 Backups That Would Start for Other Teams
The NFL is arguably the king of competitive balance in professional sports, but the occasional championship-caliber roster boasts a handful of reserve players who could easily occupy starting roles on lesser-talented squads.
In an extremely short period of time, GM Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh have snatched up an abundance of talent and depth to bolster the soon-to-be 53-man roster, leaving the 49ers with one of the most feared squads in the NFL.
With a roster this deep—particularly at running back and wide receiver—a few Niners capable of fulfilling every-down duties in other NFL cities will be forced to take in the majority of the action from the sidelines this season.
That's their projected status before training camp, anyway.
Let's take a look at five 49er backups (or players who aren't projected to see every-down action) who could start elsewhere in the NFL.
Kendall Hunter, RB
Running Back Hunter Would Supplant Projected Starter:
Green Bay Packers: James Starks
Starks (6'2", 216 pounds) and Hunter (5'7", 199 pounds) are completely different backs in terms of size and skill set but don't let that fool you into thinking the 49ers backup to Frank Gore isn't capable of handling every-down duties.
I believe Hunter has a higher overall ceiling than the Packers' projected starter, and QB Aaron Rodgers would certainly benefit from Hunter's abilities as a pass-catcher as well.
Starks may occasionally break off some impressive runs, but running backs in Green Bay's offense typically find much less resistance at the line of scrimmage with Rodgers running the show.
In my opinion, Hunter would rack up some serious yardage in Green Bay's offense.
Cities Where He Would Seriously Challenge Projected Starter:
Cincinnati Bengals (BenJarvus Green Ellis)
Indianapolis Colts (Donald Brown)
New England Patriots (Stevan Ridley)
Washington Redskins (Tim Hightower/Roy Helu)
Hunter may have been a rookie in 2011, but he put forth a productive season (112 carries, 473 yards, two TD; 16 rec, 195 yards) and handled an increased workload rather well in times where Harbaugh was resting a nicked-up Gore.
The second-year back is, by all means, an asset to the 49er franchise and a crucial piece to the future, but in terms of an immediate need, he would likely be a more coveted back outside of San Francisco.
The 49ers own one of the NFL's best corps of running backs, and with newcomers LaMichael James and Brandon Jacobs looking to garner some carries as well, Hunter will be forced to earn every carry he does get.
Chris Culliver, CB
Where Culliver Would Win No. 2 CB Spot
The Steelers do not have a definite starting CB opposite Ike Taylor, but the athletically gifted Culliver would be an upgrade over Keenan Lewis or Cortez Allen—the two current front-runners for the opening.
According to a tweet by Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, sources are reporting that the Lions were forced to release CB Aaron Berry Monday as a result of multiple offseason arrests. This leaves Detroit with free-agent acquisition Jacob Lacey, Alphonso Smith and a couple of mid-to-late round draft picks to fight for the No. 2 spot opposite Chris Houston.
Lacey started for the Colts a year ago, but he wasn't one of the team's few bright spots in 2011. Neither Smith, nor the rookies offer more immediate upside than Culliver would, either.
The Lions caught a whiff of Culliver's ability to cover top-tier receivers when he lined up against Detroit's Calvin "Megatron" Johnson in Week 6, and the 6'0", 199-pound rookie defended the 6'5", 236-pound superstar with confidence and aggression.
It's just too easy to pick on the Colts' rebuilding roster. Jerraud Powers and Kevin Thomas currently project as Indy's top two corners, and the second-year 49er would arguably serve as a better option than either of them.
This one is a no-brainer. Culliver surpassed former 49er Shawntae Spencer on the depth chart as a rookie in 2011, and now, Spencer is projected as the No. 2 starter in Oakland for 2012.
Need I explain my case any further?
Culliver wasn't perfect in 2011, typically playing in nickel packages for the 49er defense. But he flashed promising signs and often played with the poise of a veteran. In terms of athleticism and raw talent, Culliver is a potential dream fit in any secondary.
I've said before that I fully expect Chris Culliver to emerge as the top CB in the 49er secondary for years to come.
Parys Haralson, OLB
Where Haralson Could Start:
Sam Acho is the top OLB on the roster, with O'Brien Schofield slotted to start on the opposite side.
Schofield or Haralson? Haralson, please.
Of course, it's the Colts again.
But hey, Indy fans have made it clear they don't believe former first-round pick Jerry Hughes has a future in the NFL, and Haralson would be the clear-cut top option to start opposite veteran Robert Mathis as the Colts transition from a 4-3 defense to the 3-4.
Remember, Haralson was a serviceable starter on an elite defensive unit just a season ago. The seven-year vet once racked up eight sacks in a season in 2008, so he's a capable pass-rusher as well. He's certainly a luxury for the Niners to have as a reserve option, but one would have to assume his future would prosper were he planted on another NFL roster.
Mario Manningham, WR
Where Manningham Could Start:
Projected Depth Charts That Need Him Most:
Browns: Greg Little/Mohamed Massaquoi
Colts: Austin Collie/Donnie Avery
Rams: Brian Quick/Chris Givens
For a team that was one of the league's weakest at wideout in 2011, it may surprise you to hear that Manningham would serve as an instant No. 2 option on many NFL depth charts, possibly occupying the top slot on a couple others.
Could Manningham beat out Austin Collie and Donnie Avery to become rookie Andrew Lucks' No. 2 WR in 2012?
The odds would be in his favor.
Plenty of squads will be running rookie wideouts into the starting lineup for 2012, but I'm sure they'd feel much more safe going with an experienced and proven option like Manningham.
The former Michigan Wolverine nearly eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in 2010 (60 rec, 944 yards, nine TD) and overcame an injury-plagued 2011 campaign to emerge as a clutch performer this past February in Super Bowl XLVI.
If it wasn't for the Giants owning two of the NFC's top receivers in Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, Manningham may have never left New York.
Let's be glad he did.
The 6'0", 185-pound wideout runs crisp routes, has the quickness to create separation and catches the ball well in traffic.
Manningham may not be an every-game NFL starter just yet, but there's no doubt he's capable of being just that. And not only in San Francisco, but with several other teams as well.
B/R's Matt Miller actually ranked Manningham 41st in his list of 150 top wide receivers in the NFL.
Larry Grant, ILB
Where Grant Could Start:
Washington Redskins, Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs
3-4 ILB Units That Need Him Most:
Redskins: London Fletcher/Perry Riley
Colts: Pat Angerer/Kavell Conner
Chiefs: Derrick Johnson/Jovan Belcher
Due to the limited use of the 3-4 defense, there just aren't a ton of squads that could use a guy like Grant. However, if he were playing in Washington, Kansas City or Indianapolis, I'm confident the fifth-year pro would earning a starting spot with relative ease.
Conner (Colts), Belcher (Chiefs) and Riley (Redskins) are all projected starters who, in my opinion, wouldn't be starters at all if Grant was competing in their camp.
When you consider that Grant is capable of making miraculous hustle plays like the one in the video above—in addition to his impressive effectiveness while filling in for an injured Patrick Willis in 2011—it's a surprise he didn't garner more attention as a restricted free agent this past spring.
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