After the second week of preseason games, the 49ers are officially halfway there. As NFL fans impatiently await the debut of the regular season, most keep busy by involving themselves in offseason storylines.
The Niners faced off against the Houston Texans on Saturday, being handed a 20-9 loss on the road. A few camp storylines received a serious kick while others blossomed out of nowhere. The majority of the 49ers roster is pretty set in stone, but there are intense competitions underway in terms of depth.
As San Francisco is looking to put the finishing touches on their roster, we'll break down which players have made significant strides in this projection of the final 53.
QB (3): Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick and Scott Tolzien
Alex Smith has looked sharp so far this preseason, managing a 108.0 QB rating through two games. Smith went 8-for-12 against Minnesota and Houston for 65 yards and a touchdown. He will be the starter once again in 2012 as the 49ers gear up for a title run.
Kaepernick has shown vast improvement since his rookie set of exhibition games. He even has one of the highlights of the offseason with a 78-yard touchdown run against the Vikings. And head coach Jim Harbaugh said this offseason that the 2011 second-round pick has created separation between himself and the other quarterbacks fighting for the No. 2 spot.
Scott Tolzien appears to have edged ahead of Josh Johnson in the battle for the third quarterback spot. Tolzien has had a better preseason, simply looking more mechanically sound and consistent down-to-down than Johnson.
San Francisco's all-time leading rusher is returning for what will hopefully be another dynamite year by the veteran. Gore is one of the league's top backs and could be poised for a nice season with more weapons on the offensive side of the ball.
Hunter has had one of the best offseasons for the 49ers, and it's shown in the exhibition games. In his last matchup against Houston, Hunter averaged over 7 yards per carry. Hunter has sort of been forgotten in the Niners crowded backfield, but he is a potential NFL star on the rise.
The 49ers appear to be keeping James under wraps until the regular season is underway. During the season, the Niners will want to get James the ball in space, and they haven't attempted to thus far. He has received some very basic runs this preseason, leading spectators to believe they have more in store for James this year.
Jacobs sustained an injury to his leg on Saturday night against the Texans. The injury is not season-ending, and there is reason to believe San Francisco will retain Jacobs until further evidence indicates otherwise.
While Cartwright is listed as a running back, this is a special-teams decision—no different from Brian Jennings also being listed as a tight end. With the departure of Blake Costanzo, the 49ers will need a special-teams ace to fill such a role. Cartwright has provided a major presence on special teams in recent years, and the 49ers will want to hold on to him for just such a reason.
FB (1): Bruce Miller
Miller is emerging as a top fullback in this league, and surprisingly so, considering he just learned the position. San Francisco likes to have extra blockers, but they have enough versatility in players like Isaac Sopoaga, Demarcus Dobbs and Will Tukuafu to keep one true fullback.
It looks like Moss could be penciled in as a starter come Week 1. He was seen creating separation against Texans cornerbacks on Saturday, although he did have one noticeable drop on a pass from Colin Kaepernick. The future Canton inductee should be a definite factor for the 49ers in 2012.
Crabtree is entering his fourth year in the league and is finally in a position to excel. As soon as Crabtree was drafted, he became the main focus of the 49ers receiving corps, and defenses planned accordingly. Now with a stable of receiving threats, Crabtree could have a breakout year.
Manningham is one of the newer additions to the 49ers revamped receiving corps. Although under the radar right now, Manningham and this offensive system could prove to be a match made in heaven.
Williams is returning to the 49ers in 2012, and the coaching staff is high on what he brings to the team. Williams has made some errors, but he is a young player with great talent and a lot of room to develop. He has the explosiveness to find himself on a couple of top 10 highlights this season.
T. Ginn Jr.
Ted Ginn Jr. is a top-three return man in the NFL and has recently made strides to become a better receiver. Ginn is a very dynamic player who will return kicks and punts for San Francisco again in 2012. He will also likely resume his duties on offense with end-arounds, fly-sweeps and quick screens.
Jenkins will make the final 53-man roster in a very deep position group. Matt Maiocco of CSNBAYAREA.COM pointed out this week that even though Jenkins is on the team, it is not a guarantee he will be an active game-day player early in his career. Jenkins has looked no better nor worse than the other rookie receivers this exhibition. It'll be interesting to see how the Niners use him in his first year.
TE (2): Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker
Vernon Davis will lead the 49ers tight ends again in 2012, as he has become quite the NFL star. He should be carrying an awful lot of individual momentum from his postseason performance last season. And now with weapons on the outside, Davis could see his best statistical season yet.
Walker will be in a contract year for the 49ers in 2012 and has been a more than reliable backup for San Francisco. He has shown his value by contributing selflessly as a run-blocking tight end and special- teams gunner. Walker also has the speed and hands to be a receiving threat. He and Davis together make for one of the better tight end tandems in the league.
OT (3): Anthony Davis, Joe Staley and Mike Person
Anthony Davis is entering his third NFL season after being selected by the 49ers in the first round. Davis has shown improvement from year-to-year, getting better at solidifying the right side of San Francisco's offensive line.
Joe Staley is coming off a Pro Bowl year and finally had his first taste of team success. Staley has locked down the left side of the line with Mike Iupati as they make quite the combo. Staley might see himself retire a 49er.
Mike Person is entering his second year after being drafted by Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh in 2011. Person is built more like a tackle than some of San Francisco's other offensive line prospects. With Alex Boone transitioning to guard, the 49ers need Person for depth at tackle.
OG (4): Mike Iupati, Alex Boone, Leonard Davis and Joe Looney
Mike Iupati is an elite interior lineman who brings an excess of physicality on every snap. Iupati is one of the league's best run-blocking offensive linemen, who was a tremendous addition to a team with such good backs.
Originally a tackle, Alex Boone is transitioning to the starting right guard position. He was favored to win the position early in the offseason and has carried that momentum to training camp. Boone has performed well enough where it looks like he will be starter come Week 1.
Leonard Davis was a late addition to the 49ers roster. The former Pro Bowl guard was signed by San Francisco to provide depth, experience and competition at the position. Davis has a chance to win the starting job if Boone gives him such leeway, but for now he's projected to make the team as a backup.
Looney was a mid-round selection by the 49ers in 2012. Having played his college ball at Wake Forest, Looney projects as an interior lineman in the NFL.
C (2): Jonathan Goodwin and Daniel Kilgore
Jonathan Goodwin is entering his second year with the 49ers after being signed as a free agent from the New Orleans Saints. Goodwin was a Pro Bowler in Louisiana and in his second year in San Francisco's system, he'll be looking to get back to that form.
It's a tough call to put Kilgore here because Chase Beeler has shown development at center. However, keeping balanced depth throughout the offensive line, while retaining the best talent would stipulate asking Kilgore to play center if need be. Kilgore also has the versatility and camp reps to fill in at guard.
DT (7): Justin Smith, Isaac Sopoaga, Ray McDonald, Ricky Jean Francois, Ian Williams, Demarcus Dobbs and Will Tukuafu
It goes without saying that Justin Smith will be back leading this defensive line group which is perhaps the best in football; certainly for a traditional, disciplined 3-4 defense. Smith is coming off a huge year where he was a Defensive MVP candidate, but he's looking for a different sort of trophy in 2012.
Sopoaga is entering his second year as the starting nose tackle in the 49ers defense. He made a difference for the 49ers at the nucleus of the defensive line. Sopoaga should see development in his game from year one to year two.
McDonald had a major year in his first as a starter. McDonald cracked the starting roster the old fashioned way: He was drafted, developed, inserted and excelled. In his mid-20s, one has to like where McDonald's career is headed. McDonald will start at the left defensive tackle spot in 2012.
R. Jean Francois
Jean Francois continues to come into his own among the 49ers' best defensive linemen. He has stepped in at times to fill in at all three spots, showing his value as a versatile player.
Williams made the team in 2011 as an undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame. His presence provides depth on the defensive front and competition amongst backups.
With Williams, Demarcus Dobbs made the 49ers last season as an undrafted free agent. Dobbs filled a role on defense and special teams in 2011 but is looking to become a three-phase player this season. For a non-starter, Dobbs has some of the best value for a 49er.
Tukuafu has also played multiple phases, providing versatility and learning the game from different perspectives. Like Williams and Dobbs, Tukuafu will give San Francisco depth and hopefully show promise for the future.
OLB (4): Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Parys Haralson and Eric Bakhtiari
Linebacker Aldon Smith is transitioning into a starter in his second year in the league. Last year's first rounder for the 49ers proved to be a serious weapon for the defense. In 2012, Smith is looking to be the starting right outside backer opposite Ahmad Brooks.
Brooks had 7.5 sacks in his first year as a starter. San Francisco rewarded the linebacker with a long-term deal this offseason, believing they've found their man. Brooks should only be better in his second year starting 16 games.
Haralson was a starter in 2011 but will be assuming a different role this year to no fault of his own. Aldon Smith appears ready to go, and he has a higher ceiling as a starter. Haralson will provide excellent depth as we've seen he is a capable starter in this league.
Bakhtiari has made a strong case for himself this offseason. He's been competing for the backup linebacker position and stepped up when the position group saw injury. After recording two sacks in his first exhibition game and leading the defense in tackles in his second, Bakhtiari is doing what it takes to make this team.
ILB (4): NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis, Larry Grant and Tavares Gooden
Navorro Bowman is one of two All-Pro inside linebackers for the San Francisco 49ers. Bowman had a breakout year in 2011 and should be looking to build upon his relationship with Patrick Willis. Together, Bowman and Willis make for the best linebacking tandem in recent memory.
The five-time Pro Bowler is entering his sixth NFL season and is ready for a championship. Willis has become the face of the 49ers as the model professional athlete: elite, mature and humble. This season Willis will be looking to beef up his application on his run to Canton.
Grant has been a spectacular backup linebacker for San Francisco. He stepped in for Willis during Willis' brief absence in 2011 and performed well. Grant has also provided a presence on special teams.
Gooden was acquired from Baltimore in 2011 in an attempt to add linebacker depth in the new regime. As an inside backer, Gooden is also one of the effective gunners on the Tony Montana squad.
CB (5): Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Chris Culliver, Perrish Cox and Tramaine Brock
Rogers re-signed with San Francisco after a breakout season that saw him get six interceptions and his first Pro Bowl nod. The veteran really responded to the change of scenery and plays well in the Niners' efficient 3-4 defense.
Brown continues to take steps forward as a player, as coaches and players rarely have a negative thing to say about the corner. Tarell Brown earned the starting role in 2011 and does not look ready to relinquish it any time soon.
San Francisco's cornerback group really begins to get interesting at the No. 3 and No. 4 spots. Chris Culliver is a high-ceiling player that looked good in action as a rookie in 2011. He manned up against some of the league's most talented receivers and did not wilt. He provides great depth for the Niners secondary.
It continues with Perrish Cox who is an underrated player. Cox is fairly new to the league and is looking for a fresh start, which it looks like he'll get in San Francisco. The former Bronco starter recorded an interception in his first exhibition game with the 49ers. Cox should have a featured role as a nickel corner in 2012.
Brock is working hard to stay on this very talented 49ers roster. The cornerback has shown enough development to stay on the squad but not enough to create controversy in terms of depth.
S (4): Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner, C.J. Spillman and Trenton Robinson
Putting his individual concerns aside, Goldson has returned to the team with the hopes to prepare for a title run in 2012. Goldson, while a risky player, creates a lot of opportunities on defense. He tied Carlos Rogers for a team-high six interceptions—not to mention his forced and recovered fumbles. Goldson will start at free safety once again this season in a contract year.
Coming to the team on a three-year deal, Whitner has asserted himself in a leadership role on defense. While Justin Smith leads the defensive line and Patrick Willis with the linebackers, Whitner has taken command of the secondary. His vocal leadership, devastating tone-setting hits and veteran savvy is exactly what this 49ers defensive backfield needed.
C.J. Spillman was a special-teams ace in 2011. With a need for depth at safety, Spillman could have an opportunity to lock himself into a backup role going forward.
Robinson was selected by the 49ers in 2012 out of Michigan State. Even though he is undersized, he has the instincts for the safety position. Robinson should be a developmental player for the Niners starting immediately.
K (1): David Akers
P (1): Andy Lee
LOS (1): Brian Jennings
Akers became a record-setting kicker for the 49ers in 2011. He was quite the under-the-radar free agency pickup by Harbaugh and Baalke, especially for a team that values special teams and had red-zone issues. Akers should finish out his career in the Bay Area.
Andy Lee received a much deserved contract extension this offseason. The 49ers punter is an All-Pro and perhaps the most clutch, consistent special teams player in the NFL.
Jennings has solidified his role as the Niners long-snapper. Otherwise listed as a tight end, Jennings is certainly part of this dynamic special-teams trio.