Breaking Down the 49ers' Depth Chart After the Peak of Free Agency
With the peak of free agency ending, the San Francisco 49ers deserve a round of applause. General manager Trent Baalke still racked up solid players without having to break the bank.
The 49ers didn't overspend for any big free agents, which leaves their long-term cap space relatively intact. This will prove important down the line when core players like Colin Kaepernick, Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati, Anthony Davis, etc are up for an extension.
Anquan Boldin was the headliner, but the 49ers also made several underrated moves to strengthen their roster in the hopes of another Super Bowl run.
With that, let's look at the 49ers depth chart as it currently stands.
Colin Kaepernick is entrenched as the starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. Third-year quarterback Scott Tolzien will likely be Kaepernick's backup heading into the season.
With the Alex Smith trade, some believe the 49ers should address the backup quarterback position.
Matt Hasselbeck, who was recently released by the Tennessee Titans could have been a big add for the 49ers, but he quickly reached an agreement with the Indianapolis Colts to serve as a mentor for Andrew Luck.
The 49ers could go the veteran route, but Baalke may play it safe and just promote within. Tolzien knows the system, even though the 25-year-old quarterback has little game-time experience.
The 49ers may have the deepest crop of running backs in the league today. It's not surprising when you consider the 49ers employ a very versatile offense, combining a traditional power scheme with traps, pistol formations and such.
Gore will be the incumbent starter, while Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James will be used in situational downs. However, if Hunter can stay healthy—or is healthy heading into the season—look for his role to increase significantly.
The 49ers do lack a goal-line carrier and may address this issue in the draft. Anthony Dixon was slated behind Bruce Miller at fullback toward the latter part of last season, even though the third-year player was drafted to play running back.
Michael Crabtree will be Kaepernick's No. 1 target heading into the 2013 NFL season, but the third-year quarterback will have a shiny new toy to play with in Anquan Boldin.
Boldin, as we all know, was traded to the 49ers for a sixth-round pick. The Niners got great value for a player who should serve as Kaepernick's favorite red-zone weapon.
Like Crabtree, Boldin should be able to work the short and intermediate routes with great success, while also providing the versatility to line up at several spots along the line. Boldin can play at flanker and will primarily play in the slot.
After Crabtree and Boldin, the 49ers depth remains a bit murky. Mario Manningham, when healthy, would serve as a more-than-capable No. 3 receiver. However, his health is questionable heading into the season after he suffered a serious knee injury in 2012.
The same can be said for Kyle Williams, who was emerging into a solid threat for the 49ers. A.J. Jenkins, the 49ers' first-round pick from last season, could step into that role as well, especially if he has a solid training camp.
As of right now, Crabtree and Boldin will start, while Manningham, Jenkins, Williams and newly signed receiver Marlon Moore will fight for either a role as a third receiver or situational player.
Also, don't forget about Ricardo Lockette. It seems coach Jim Harbaugh has high expectations.
Nothing to see here folks. Bruce Miller will be the starting fullback for the 49ers next season.
However, the 49ers have been known to use defensive linemen at this position, especially in goal-line situations.
As I said before, Anthony Dixon was the backup to Miller last season, though I doubt he serves in that role next season. Teams usually never employ two fullbacks, and with the 49ers already loaded at running back, Dixon could find himself on the cutting block.
With Delanie Walker leaving for greener pastures, it'll be tough for Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke to replace the versatility Walker brought to the table.
Walker could line up out wide, in the slot, and at H-Back. He also was a phenomenal blocking tight end.
Garrett Celek, who was listed as the Niners third string tight end in 2012, will be back, but can the 49ers trust him as a receiver? Celek has shown flashes, but his lack of experience could lead the 49ers to address this position either via draft or free agency.
The draft is loaded with some talented tight ends, including a couple of Stanford products.
The 49ers boast one of the best—if not best—offensive lines in the National Football League. They have a Pro Bowl player at almost every position.
Joe Staley and Anthony Davis serve as the best bookend tackles in the league. Davis and Staley are serious road graders, and both have the athleticism to be fine pass protectors.
Left guard, Mike Iupati was an All-Pro the minute he put on a 49ers jersey. He may be the best guard in football, and the guy still has room to grow. At right guard, you have the quiet, but emerging, Alex Boone, who deserved a Pro Bowl nod last season for making that seamless transition from tackle to guard.
Lastly, Jonathan Goodwin, who had a so-so performance last season for the 49ers, played like a top-10 center in 2012.
The 49ers will make no changes at offensive line, unless injuries occur. Some have pointed to their lack of depth, but I actually like their second stringers.
Any offensive line will struggle if mass changes occur; however, I have no doubt that Daniel Kilgore (backup center) or Joe Looney (backup guard) could fill in quite nicely if an injury knocks off a starter.
However, the 49ers may want to find another guard. Leonard Davis, who served as an excellent backup guard to Boone/Iupati last season, may not return next season.
Defensive Line/Outside Linebackers
This defensive line for the 49ers starts and ends with Justin Smith. While Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman receive all the pub, and deservingly so I might add, Smith serves as the true backbone on this defense.
However, I don't doubt the abilities of Ahmad Brooks, who quietly had a solid season last year, or Ray McDonald. Both guys are great players in their own rights.
Aldon Smith on the other hand will have his work cut out for him in the upcoming season. With all the talk of his disappearance toward the end of last season and into the playoffs, he'll have a chip on his shoulder.
As many have reiterated before, Aldon Smith seemed to struggle with the absence or ineffectiveness of Justin Smith. Injuries played a role in both players disappointing end to the season, but I fully expect the Smith brothers to return to dominance next season.
However, the most concerning issue for the 49ers' line is at nose tackle/nose guard. The 49ers lost both Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois in free agency.
Sopoaga didn't play much, so his loss shouldn't hurt them, but the 49ers did lose a promising lineman in Jean-Francois.
The Glenn Dorsey signing was a good pickup for the price; however, he may be a more natural fit at end in the 49ers' base 3-4 scheme.
This leaves either Ian Williams, who recently re-signed with the 49ers, or another player either through the draft or free agency.
The 49ers need a presence up the middle. This line struggled containing runs up the middle, and in a division with Marshawn Lynch, finding a nimble behemoth at the nose could go a long way for this defense.
Another issue could be in pass-rushing downs. The 49ers could use another designated pass-rusher or two. Parys Haralson, who was on injured reserve last season, should help in this department; however, I see Baalke adding a veteran presence or two to the mix.
Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are two of the best inside backers in the league, but the 49ers could use some depth behind these studs.
Larry Grant and Tavares Gooden proved to be solid backups, but both aren't expected to return. The 49ers did sign special teams ace Dan Skuta. In all likelihood, he will serve as the backup—unless the 49ers address this issue via draft or free agency.
With the league becoming more pass-oriented, teams are playing in more nickel and dime packages. The 49ers played a good amount of nickel last year, and I expect the same this season.
Tarell Brown, Chris Culliver and Carlos Rogers will likely see the most playing time—though don't be surprised if the 49ers end up cutting Rogers in the next few weeks.
Rogers' age (32) combined with his steep salary and so-so production in 2012 makes him a potential roster subtraction, especially if the 49ers add an established DB through free agency or draft a corner relatively high in the draft.
Brown and Culliver, despite their inconsistencies in the postseason, form a solid tandem on the outside. Both guys are versatile, especially Brown, who can play outside and defend the slot position.
Culliver can play safety as well, but I doubt Harbaugh changes his position, unless injuries occur.
Perrish Cox, who served as the backup to Rogers, should be back, despite a rather disappointing 2012 campaign. Tramaine Brock, who was tendered a one-year contract worth $1.32 million (per Spotrac), should be back unless a team signs him to a long-term deal, in which the 49ers have the right to match.
Brock didn't play much on defense last season, but was a big factor on special teams.
Craig Dahl was a solid signing by the 49ers. For the right price, they got a borderline starter, and at the very least, a veteran player who could make a mark on special teams.
The loss of Dashon Goldson will hurt, but I fully expect the 49ers to acquire a safety in the draft. It could possibly be Kenny Vaccaro, as I stated before in my last article, or another highly rated safety like Matt Elam or Eric Reid.
Donte Whitner will likely return as the starter at strong safety; however, his play must pick up with the loss of Goldson. Both guys, Goldson and Whitner, did a tremendous job in limiting the deep ball; however their play in the postseason was awful.
Behind Whitner, the 49ers have newly re-signed safety, Darcel McBath. Also, the 49ers have last year's sixth-round pick, Trenton Robinson.
McBath gives them some depth, but he isn't starting-level material. The same can be said for Robinson, though I like the upside of the young safety. Robinson needs more experience and could see an uptick in his playing time this season.
C.J. Spillman, who backed up Goldson at FS last year, is the 49ers' best special teams players. While Spillman can play in situational downs, he is best suited as a "gunner." Spillman was also a Pro Bowl alternate last season.
Special Team: Kicker/Punter, 'Gunners,' Return Man
Phil Dawson signed a one-year deal with the 49ers. This was a great signing by Trent Baalke, and with Dawson at the helm, the 49ers finally have a consistent presence at kicker.
Andy Lee, who had a somewhat off-year last season, was still one of the best punters. I fully expect Lee to return to his 2011 All-Pro form.
C.J. Spillman is one of the best "gunners" in the league, so his spot is safe. Look out for newly signed receiver Marlon Moore to serve opposite Spillman. Moore was solid in that role with the Dolphins, and he could also serve as the Niners' designated kick/punt returner.
With Ted Ginn Jr. gone, the 49ers need a solid presence at kick returner and/or punt returner. Look for Moore to make his mark in this area.