Predicting the San Francisco 49ers 53-Man Roster After Three Preseason Games
The interminably long preseason is almost behind us, with just one more hellish exhibition to go on Thursday at the stadium that time forgot, Candlestick Park. It will be against what promises to be a thoroughly uninspiring collection of San Diego Chargers third and fourth-stringers.
Your 49ers didn't give the best account of themselves in the supposed "dress rehearsal" game at Denver this past Sunday, as Peyton Manning ripped apart their secondary by completing 10-of-12 passes for 122 yards and two easy scores to Eric Decker in just over a quarter of work.
Once Manning proved that he can still shred vanilla defensive schemes, he got the rest of the afternoon off and the 49ers reserves schooled their hopeless Broncos counterparts, with David Akers kicking somewhere between four and 148 successful field goals before I lost count.
Aldon Smith, the 49ers' best pass rusher, sat the game out, and the team was also without NaVorro Bowman, Mario Manningham, Delanie Walker, Brandon Jacobs, while many others played a scant few snaps.
Coach Jim Harbaugh, as is his custom, played it close to the vest and the Niners didn't air it out much at all. If the team treated this preseason game with any more seriousness than the past two, there was precious little evidence of it.
With a deep and talented roster at many positions, the 49ers didn't look like a club with many openings for unheralded camp invitees, and it's difficult to conclude that much has changed this past month. We may have a roster surprise or two, but there won't be many.
Here's one man's guess at the 53-man roster going into the season opener, plus the practice squad.
Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick, Scott Tolzien
Alex Smith had, by far, the best preseason of his career, albeit with only 19 pass attempts over three games. He completed 13 of those for 135 yards, with two touchdowns (including a 44-yarder down the sideline to Vernon Davis at Denver) and no interceptions, for a 123.8 QB rating.
Smith looks assured of his role and comfortable in the offense, but it still would've been nice to see him get more playing time, especially with new receivers Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins. He's thrown to them in camp plenty, but practice isn't the same as game situations and we've all seen how poorly a guy like Michael Crabtree has played in past Septembers when he didn't get any preseason work.
The season opener is at Green Bay, meaning that the offense will have to score well into the twenties to be competitive and right now it's hard to envision that happening unless the running game goes above and beyond.
Against Denver, Smith had one curious play where he forced a deep ball to Moss in triple coverage, but that may well have been an okey-doke designed for the regular season, encouraging future opponents to cover Moss in similar fashion so that Smith can take advantage with the intermediate routes he favors.
Second-year man Colin Kaepernick looked more comfortable in the pocket than in his first two preseason games, completing all four of his attempts for 80 yards. He had enough steam on a hitch to Kyle Williams where the Broncos corner jumping the route couldn't quite get to it and he also had a couple of nice rollout passes, including one to Anthony Dixon where he wisely took a 5-yard gain over scrambling for a couple and taking a hit.
Kaepernick was officially named the second quarterback by the coaching staff, and while it seems a stretch to think that he'd be comfortable executing the entire playbook the way Smith can, there are a number of packages he can be successful in and there are certain elements of the offense (such as the read option) where he can do things that Smith simply cannot.
Scott Tolzien is a smart guy and an accurate passer, with underrated arm strength. I still believe the team would trade him for the right offer, but there haven't been any catastrophic injuries around the league so for the time being he stays.
As was the case in the first preseason game vs. Minnesota, Tolzien's best throw at Denver was dropped; this time by A.J. Jenkins on a pretty pass down the sideline that hit the first round pick in the hands.
Tolzien did have one poor play where he tried scrambling on a 3rd-and-10 play where it looked like he had more time in the pocket, but aside from that he's definitely played better in the exhibition season than his numbers have shown and he looks like an NFL quarterback.
Josh Johnson definitely has more physical tools than Tolzien and he is a bit reminiscent of ex-49ers quarterback Troy Smith in that he's not shy about throwing deep, but unfortunately for him he also shares another trait with Smith in that he's terribly inaccurate.
What good is that deep arm if you're constantly overthrowing your target by five yards?
Johnson had tight end Garrett Celek wide open for a touchdown against Denver but misjudged Celek's footspeed with that of Moss' circa 1998.
It's true that Johnson was Harbaugh's prized pupil at the University of San Diego, but I think he's played himself out of a job. Truthfully, I don't think he'd mind getting cut too much anyway. He doesn't see himself as a No. 3 quarterback and he doesn't have much of an opportunity here with Smith and Kaepernick firmly entrenched above him on the depth chart.
Running Backs (7)
Frank Gore, Bruce Miller, Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs, LaMichael James, Rock Cartwright, Anthony Dixon.
As usual Gore got only a handful of carries in the preseason, but he should be ready to go. Sure, he's 29 now, practically ancient by running back standards, but with the off-season acquisitions the team has made at his position, not to mention the upgrades they've made at receiver, the team has never been more prepared to survive without him should he get dinged up for a game or three.
The guy to be particularly excited about is second-year man Kendall Hunter, who is small but runs decisively and hard. He has moves to be sure but waits until he gets to the second level to display them. Hunter is also a decent receiver and has improves his blocking, which is important since it's hard to play in this backfield if the coaches don't trust you to pick up a blitz.
Brandon Jacobs was signed away from the Giants to be the short-yardage/goal-line back, running behind behemoth starting guards Mike Iupati and Alex Boone and he got off to a fine start in the exhibition opener against Minnesota. Jacobs hurt his knee the following week though, and while it's not expected to be a long-term injury, his availability for the opener at Green Bay is in doubt. We may not see Jacobs at 100 percent until October.
LaMichael James was drafted in the second round out of Oregon to be the 49ers answer to Darren Sproles at New Orleans, but he suffered an injury setback of his own at Houston when he sprained his ankle and I think this backfield is a bit too crowded for him to get much work, especially early on in the year.
Where James has been particularly disappointing has been as a return man, where he's been too impatient on kickoffs, returning balls kicked well deep into the end zone, and way too uncomfortable on punts, struggling to get himself squarely underneath the ball.
In the regular offense James has a way to go as far as blocking is concerned and it wouldn't be surprising to see many of his snaps come from the slot as opposed to the backfield. James is adept at running the zone read play, and it's possible that he and Kaepernick could come in as a combo package in games to catch defenses off guard.
Surprisingly, I think Anthony Dixon will make the club out of camp, for the sole reason that Jacobs will be hobbling. Dixon has been a diligent worker this off-season and has finally seemed to gain the maturity and sense of desperation that the coaching staff has been looking for. The notion of a "short-yardage back" is something the coaches seem to favor, so Dixon is the front-runner to be that guy until Jacobs returns to full health.
That being said, I don't believe Dixon is long for this team, despite his new-found professionalism. He's just too one-dimensional as a player. He's not a good receiver. He's not a good blocker, whether it's lead blocking on runs or in picking up blitzes in the passing game. He's played plenty of fullback in the preseason, but has been poor in that role. He's just so-so on special teams.
Contrast that to veteran Rock Cartwright, who is a far more accomplished special teams performer, a better receiver, a better blocker, has more fullback experience and who's nearly Dixon's equal as an explosive runner, and one less likely to dance in the backfield.
I don't think Cartwright is going anywhere, bottom line, and while it won't be a shock to see Dixon make the team, I think his reprieve is temporary.
Bruce Miller has had a quiet preseason, but he's unchallenged as the team's starting fullback.
Wide Receivers (6)
Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, Ted Ginn, Kyle Williams, A.J. Jenkins
You know you're living in bizarro world when the receiver that Alex Smith has the most chemistry with during the preseason is Michael Crabtree. The former 10th overall pick will never be a burner, but at least he's healthy to start the year and should have more room to run his slants, hitches and shallow crossing routes with Moss aboard.
Speaking of the future Hall-of-Famer, he hasn't had many opportunities of late aside from one deep route where he was surrounded by practically the entire Broncos secondary. It says something that he's still drawing that much respect from opposing secondaries, even in the preseason.
It remains to be seen how big of a role Moss will have once the games count. Some beat writers are speculating that the team's been keeping him under wraps, while the national guys are chirping that it wouldn't be surprising to see him join Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson on the street soon.
Personally, I have my doubts about Moss' effectiveness as a deep threat at this stage of his career, but he can still catch a few balls per game if he's willing to absorb the hits. We'll see. With first-round pick Jenkins dropping everything thrown to him and Ted Ginn perpetually gimpy, it's not like Moss won't get an opportunity.
Manningham has reportedly fared quite well in camp, but he's been a ghost during the preseason, playing only a few snaps at Houston in the second game. He's grieving the passing of a loved one and won't see any action until the regular season opener at Green Bay, where the team will need him to hit the ground running.
Kyle Williams has looked sharp, explosive and quick in the preseason and will likely be the team's opening day punt returner with Ginn sidelined by an ankle injury. That, in itself is a momentous victory for Williams, who had to wear the goat horns in January in the NFC title game loss to the New York Giants for fumbling two punts, including one in overtime.
With that being said, I'm not at all convinced Harbaugh is doing right by Williams by keeping him on the roster. The coach may think he's being loyal to his player, but what's the point of that when the kid is expected to be a healthy scratch most weeks, lost in the receiver shuffle with all the big names ahead of him on the depth chart?
Why not give him his freedom so he can hook on elsewhere as a legitimate third or fourth receiver who would be expected to contribute week in and week out?
Williams will get a chance early on, but he'll have to make an instant impact to stay on the active list.
Ginn is the more sure-handed return man, and he's adept at running Harbaugh's favored "fly sweep" play (in which he got hurt at Denver on Sunday). As a receiver, he doesn't have Williams' explosiveness or yards-after-catch skills, but Smith is pretty comfortable throwing to him. I could see Ginn being cut, but that would be quite the leap of faith by the coaching staff with Williams as the full-time returner.
Jenkins is fast, quick, agile and a fairly advanced route runner for a rookie. Unfortunately for him he's been struggling to haul in passes and there are too many guys ahead of him to deal with those growing pains. There's a chance Jenkins will dress on opening day with Ginn out, but if everyone is healthy, he may be the odd man out most Sundays.
Tight Ends (2)
Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker
No one stands to benefit more from the acquisition of Moss than Vernon Davis, in theory. The conventional wisdom is he'll get single coverage with a safety (or god help us, a linebacker) with the defense's attention drawn Moss' way deep.
Personally, I'll believe it when I see it. If I'm the defensive coordinator, I double cover Davis and dare Smith to throw deep to the old man against my best corner.
Still, there's no doubt that Davis is Smith's favorite target, particularly in the red zone and now that the coaching staff has a better idea of Davis' abilities, he could be headed toward a 1,000-yard year.
Delanie Walker suffered a knee injury in camp and hasn't been able to do much, but he should be good to go by the season opener and I still expect the team to utilize him heavily. All the 3-WR packages with Moss, Manningham and Crabtree (with Williams, Jenkins and Ginn mixed in) look great on paper, but the 49ers are built to a running team first, throwing to their tight ends off of play-action.
The third, blocking, tight end will be a rotating cast of offensive and defensive linemen, with Leonard Davis, Alex Boone, Joe Staley, Demarcus Dobbs, Will Tukuafu, Isaac Sopoaga and Justin Smith all candidates to line up there or at fullback. Once in a blue moon, Harbaugh and partner-in-crime Greg Roman will call for a pass to be thrown to one of them, just for kicks.
The media will make far too much a deal of it when it happens.
Offensive Line (8)
Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Jonathan Goodwin, Alex Boone, Anthony Davis, Daniel Kilgore, Leonard Davis, Joe Looney
The 49ers will be one of the top run-blocking lines in the league, with Iupati, Staley and Davis all standouts at their respective positions in that regard. When it comes to protecting Alex Smith... hey did we mention they run block really well?
Staley is above average as far as blind side blockers go, with quick feet, but he's so eager to get out wide into his stance that he at times makes himself vulnerable to the bull rush on his inside shoulder and gets overpowered.
Davis, on the other side, has the opposite problem. He almost never will get beat inside (he'll take the holding penalty first), but guys go around him far too often, especially on the road where he has to go off the silent count.
Goodwin, a former guard, is more powerful than the typical center as a run blocker and is mobile enough to get out on that second level. However, even he gets overpowered on occasion by elite nose tackles.
Iupati won't get overpowered by anything short of an elephant, but he's vulnerable on zone blitzes and lets himself get off balance reaching forward to engage his man, lunging at thin air when his guy is looping around on a stunt. When Iupati properly diagnoses what the defense is trying to do and lets his man come to him, he's as good as anyone.
Boone, 6-8, is the newcomer and will struggle to play with the proper leverage on the interior of the line. He too has problems figuring out what the defense is doing. He'll have to rely heavily on Goodwin's experience.
It will be interesting to see how he and Davis, a pair of young behemoths, fair alongside one another. Last year Davis had the benefit of Adam Snyder's veteran wisdom. Boone is a far better physical specimen than Snyder, but raw.
Should Boone falter or the team suffer an injury at tackle, Leonard Davis, all 350 pounds of him, will be ready to fill in. He didn't play at all last year for the Lions, so it's impossible to know what he's got left. Regardless, Davis figures to stay sharp by contributing in the team's "heavy" (literally) package as the sixth lineman/third tight end.
Second-year man Daniel Kilgore will dress as the backup center and he can also play either guard spot.
Rookie Joe Looney from Wake Forest played well in the second half at Denver and had a key block on Anthony Dixon's touchdown run. He doesn't figure to dress for game days this year though.
Mike Person is the team's third tackle, but really the fourth behind Boone. Since he won't dress on game days anyway, I think the team will cut him and attempt to bring him back on the practice squad. I doubt Person would draw much attention on the waiver wire, since he played exclusively as a left tackle in preseason and hardly distinguished himself there.
I believe this was done intentionally by the coaching staff. If they played Person at right tackle, he probably would've performed better and then they would've had to keep him on the 53-man roster. Either way, it's not like it's impossible to find a fourth tackle of Person's caliber on the street.
Defensive Line (7)
Justin Smith, Isaac Sopoaga, Ray McDonald, Ricky Jean Francois, Demarcus Dobbs, Will Tukuafu, Ian Williams
Smith, so tireless in the regular season, is the defense's answer to Frank Gore in that he's practically kept in mothballs during the exhibition games, and wisely so. He had the best season of his career in 2011 and was a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate, but I'm curious whether he can keep that up at almost 33-years-old.
McDonald had a breakout year as a first-year starter and made general manager Trent Baalke look like a genius for giving him a 5-year, $20 million deal prior to that season when it looked like McDonald hadn't done a thing to deserve that kind of commitment after his first four years in the league. He and Smith are the best 3-4 end tandem in the business.
Sopoaga was the defense's unsung hero last year. He only plays on run downs, just like Aubrayo Franklin did before him, but he quietly did his job very well in holding the point so that his predecessor wasn't missed at all.
Jean Francois continues to steadily improve and he's gone from being a marginal guy who was great in the locker room to a legit, starting caliber player. He's not quite the anchor that Sopoaga is or the pass rusher that McDonald and Smith are, but a guy who won't kill you filling in for any of the three for a game or two.
Dobbs has established himself as more of a strict end and may see some snaps on the outside in the team's nickel package. Conversely, Williams seems to be limited to just a nose tackle role, though he doesn't look special to me at all.
Tukuafu is versatile, has a bit of experience and can also line up on the offensive side, so I suppose he's more useful than Williams, but if only five linemen dress then he's more likely to be on the outside looking in than Dobbs, I'd think.
Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Larry Grant, Parys Haralson, Tavares Gooden, Cam Johnson
What more is there one can possibly say about Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman? As long as they're on the field the opponent has to play outside of the hashes and 12 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Pretty much everything inside that rectangle is shut down.
I think the Broncos gave a hint of what opponents will try to do to the 49ers defense in 2012: Spread the linebackers out as much as possible by going five wide. They will try to isolate Willis or Bowman on a running back or a slot receiver outside of the hashes and hope to gain some separation in that match-up before Aldon Smith, Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks can get to the QB.
Aldon Smith will be a first-time starter and I suppose opponents will try to test his mettle by running to his side, but I expect that to be a short-lived experiment. Despite his lean frame the kid is deceptively strong and I think he'll hold up well in the running game. There may be times he loses containment on the backside on misdirection plays, but I really can't think of a situation where it'd be preferable to play Parys Haralson over him.
Brooks was average, not great in his first full year as a starter, better versus the run than expected but not as impactful of a pass rusher as the team hoped. Nevertheless, he got a long-term deal for good money and it'd be nice to see him get 8-12 sacks next season.
Larry Grant hits as hard as anyone on the team and is a good blitzer, but he has limitations in coverage and that aspect of his game may well be what kept anyone from offering him a contract as a restricted free agent (well that, or collusion). If he has to play extended snaps in place of Willis or Bowman, look for defenses to attack him in that regard.
Haralson is just about done as a player and he's fortunate that his salary cap figure on his walk year was low enough, and there were just enough injuries at his spot in training camp that he gets to stick around another year. Really though, he's just a guy, and has been for some time.
Gooden is strictly a special teams player.
Harbaugh vowed that the coaching staff won't put themselves in the position of being shorthanded at outside linebacker after gambling with just one backup last year, so I'll take them at face value and put seventh round pick Cam Johnson, who has pass rushing potential, on the team.
Eric Bakhtiari was off to a good start, but he's cooled down and may have suffered a head injury at Denver besides.
Defensive Backs (9)
Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Donte Whitner, Dashon Goldson, Chris Culliver, Perrish Cox, C.J. Spillman, Trenton Robinson, Tramaine Brock
It's never smart to make too much of a preseason game, but Sunday at Denver showed how vulnerable the 49ers secondary can be when they're not getting much of a pass rush. If you need more a reminder, I'll reference you back to the 2010 season.
To be fair, Donte Whitner, Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers weren't the starters then, and at least two of those three (if not all three) are upgrades to their predecessors. Still, with the way the rules are in the game now, most secondaries don't have a chance if they have to cover for more than two or three seconds.
Since so many 49ers opponents figure to play from almost exclusively the nickel package in the hopes of stretching them out, corner Carlos Rogers will likely play as many snaps from the slot as he does outside. That's just as well since he's not about to get faster at 31.
Tarell Brown was pretty poor the first half of last season but really turned it on in the second half and now looks like a solid starter. The team's fortunes in the NFC title game took a turn for the worse once he got injured on an unfortunate collision with Dashon Goldson.
Chris Culliver held up well as the third corner as a rookie and played more than anyone could've expected. I got the sense from watching him last year he was mainly playing it safe and not trying to get beat, so we'll see if he gambles more this year now that he's gotten comfortable.
Goldson made a lot of plays last year, but he gave up his fair share too, and the angles he takes on certain plays continue to confound the game-charters out there. He's a guy who might be in store for a lot of criticism now that the coach's "all-22" tape will be available to the public. There's also the fact that Goldson has yet to string two good season together. If he can reverse that trend and show that he's come into his own as a player, he stands to make a lot of money next year.
Donte Whitner is the best strong safety the team has had since Tim McDonald. I'd love to tell you there was a strong competition. He's a hard hitter but like every other strong safety in the league, no match for the elite tight ends in the league.
C.J. Spillman is the team's best special teamer and was a sound tackler when he got a chance to play from scrimmage last year, but he's missed a few tackles the past couple of games. The closer he plays to the line, the better.
Perrish Cox has low-end starter talent, which is excellent for a fourth corner in this day and age. I bet he'll play over a third safety in the team's dime package.
Trenton Robinson from Michigan State will win the fourth safety job if for no other reason than he was a draft pick and there haven't been any real challengers, but he doesn't figure to dress in games.
Tramaine Brock has been very poor the past two weeks and as a corner he doesn't deserve to be on the team, but with Colin Jones not expected to make the roster, they need one more guy to be a gunner on special teams and he's pretty decent at that. (It could just as easily be Mike Person over him for the 53rd spot).
Special Teams (3)
David Akers, Andy Lee, Brian Jennings
Akers set an NFL record last year for most field goals and most points, and I think everyone involved would be very happy if he doesn't come anywhere near those marks again. He made a 55-yarder with ease in the preseason though, so at least there's some comfort there.
Andy Lee is similarly the best in the business, and with him the only issue is at times he out-punts his coverage. All Lee did last year was set a record for net punting average.
Brian Jennings won a short-lived competition in minicamp with Ryan Pontbriand, and the fact that there even was one was pretty insulting for a guy who's been mistake free since George Bush was in office.
Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James are both capable kick returners if Ginn is out, and Kyle Williams will get a crack at redemption on punts.
On the coverage teams C.J. Spillman, Rock Cartwright, Tramaine Brock and Tavares Gooden figure to be the main guys, with a few others like Larry Grant, Bruce Miller and Delanie Walker chipping in.
Practice Squad: WR Chris Owusu, WR Nathan Palmer, TE Konrad Reuland, T Mike Person, T Derek Hall, DT Tony Jerod-Eddie, ILB Joe Holland, DB Michael Thomas
No way I'll get all of these right, I'm just simply going with a list of the best eight eligible guys who I don't think will make the team, regardless of position.
Owusu and Palmer are guys who I get the distinct feeling were being hidden the past two games. If they're quiet on Thursday against San Diego too, you'll know something's up. In fact, whichever guy plays more vs. the Chargers is less likely to be in the team's practice squad plans, I would think.
Reuland is the team's best third tight end on merit, but he may be a victim of the numbers crunch. Or he could make the roster instead of someone like Tramaine Brock. In such a scenario I could see Garrett Celek making the practice squad, but it's a long shot.
Person, we've talked about before. Hall, I have the least confidence in of any practice squad pick but I figured I need 10 offensive linemen in the building and I couldn't find a more worthy fifth tackle.
Jerod-Eddie has started slow but come on lately. They've already got rid of Matthew Masifilo and Patrick Butrym but kept him around, so maybe that means something and maybe it doesn't.
Holland is the best pure inside 'backer they've got among the rookies, but he needs to bulk up.
Thomas is versatile enough to play corner and safety so that might get him a longer look. Colin Jones would still be in the mix too, perhaps, and Anthony Mosley has had his moments in camp.
Remember, you can sign anybody else's castoffs too so the 49ers practice squad may well be comprised of guys we haven't heard of at all. This group of undrafted rookies, except for one or two exceptions, just hasn't been very eye-opening.
Of the guys they cut to get to 75, outside linebacker Kourtnei Brown was the biggest surprise because he did some good things early on, but maybe he wasn't diligent enough in the classroom for anyone's liking. Who knows with these things?
The 49ers will go into the year a bit thin at offensive tackle, safety and outside linebacker. It would've been nice if someone emerged that could help at one of those spots, but it hasn't happened.