San Francisco 49ers' 7 Players Who Should See Their Roles Expand in 2013
With annual roster changeups and overall evolution of personnel, NFL teams are constantly in flux. More often than not, the best teams in the league are the ones that can endure this sort of change and continue winning.
Since their inception in 2011, the personnel tandem of Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke has provoked a change in the San Francisco 49ers, having them on a constant state of ascension.
Encouraging a new-look 49ers team, they have reinvigorated the idea of competition, eradicating a lot of deadweight in the process. However, this Darwinist approach provides opportunities for others players to step in and establish themselves.
As we move forward into the 2013 league year, San Francisco is once again primed to forge players into new roles.
In the following article, we’ll take a look at seven members of the 49ers and how their roles will expand this season.
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As a sixth-round draft choice in 2010, 49ers wide receiver Kyle Williams—formerly of Arizona State—has shown enough talent to remain part of one of the most demanding ball clubs in the NFL today.
In 29 games played with San Francisco (four starts), the fourth-year receiver has accrued 35 receptions for 461 yards and four touchdowns (h/t Pro Football Reference).
When Williams gets his hands on the football, he is awfully efficient, revealing a high ceiling if he ever earns a more prominent role. In three years in the league, Williams has succumbed to criticism, questionable quarterback play and injury.
And in the eyes of many, he’ll never live down his shortcomings in the 2011 NFC Championship.
Heading into a contract year in 2013, it’s a make-or-break season for Williams and the 49ers, via Spotrac.
However, given the structural changes from within, Williams is potentially setup for a breakthrough performance. Colin Kaepernick allows his wide receivers—especially the athletic YAC machines—to reach their full potential.
He also has the arm strength and gutsiness to utilize Williams’ downfield speed. So now that Kaepernick is behind center, Williams appears bound to top his best campaign as a pro (20-241-3 in 2011).
The lone question against Williams is how he returns from his ACL tear, per Pro Football Talk. According to reports, he has continued running and expects to return in time for training camp.
To aid the expansion of Williams’ role, the 49ers also expunged some deadweight in Ted Ginn Jr. and Randy Moss—players who were taking up space on the roster but not really contributing on the field.
And despite the acquisition of Anquan Boldin via trade (h/t Adam Schefter), there will be an opportunity for Williams to rotate with Mario Manningham at No. 3. He will also resume his contributions as a return specialist.
Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James
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Recently, San Francisco has been evolving as a more dynamic passing unit, but offensively, it has always been about the ground attack.
Despite how vast its playbook has become, it is still going to stack up and impose its downhill-style on teams.
It comes down to what it believes philosophically, and San Francisco has been fortunate. With a running attack spearheaded by the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, Frank Gore, the 49ers are all about ball control and time of possession.
However, Gore, 29, is entering the second-to-last year of his four-year, $25.9 million deal signed in 2011 and nearing the wrong side of thirty, via Spotrac.
The contract was initially offered in Jim Harbaugh’s first year as an NFL head coach. Although, in back-to-back drafts—his only ones to date—Harbaugh selected two high-profile running backs early on in Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James.
The logic in this may have been that when Gore’s contract was up, the pair of runners would be acclimated and ready for full-time work.
And meanwhile, in 2013 and 2014, the 49ers would have the trio together, fielding a three-headed monster of a running game. This coming season, San Francisco expects to have each one healthy, contributing in confluence.
Although, in the event that Harbaugh and Co. are preparing for transition, look for Hunter and James to receive extra work, especially at the end of matches when San Francisco has already put the game away.
The two of them will also have opportunities in heavy/pistol packages that feature multiple tailbacks and possess the athleticism to split-out wide, presenting mismatches as receiving options.
Not to mention, it is that same athleticism that has made them both valuable on special teams. And again, the fact that they are playmakers with the ball ensures they see even more touches in 2013.
Mystery Tight End
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After the duo was drafted together in 2006, Super Bowl XLVII would be the last game Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker would ever play in the same colors.
Walker was an exceptionally versatile, often-utilized player during his tenure with San Francisco. And with the added presence of Jim Harbaugh and the offense he brought, Walker’s value was at an all-time high.
In his final season with the Niners, Walked reeled in 21 balls for 344 yards and three touchdowns.
As a selfless player, he played an even more pivotal role blocking in the run game, which is an element that is not as reflective on the stats sheet. Walker frequently put his head down and operated within a complex, high-volume rushing attack.
In the upcoming draft, the 49ers will no doubt be targeting a plug-in replacement at No. 2 TE. They have to consider someone that can contribute right away, which is why there is the expectation they select a tight end with one of their first three picks.
Trent Baalke will be looking to acquire a multifaceted tight end that most would deem NFL-ready. Given the structural approach to their offensive system, the 49ers must be able to lean on the secondary tight end to block, receive and operate out of the backfield.
In the 2013 class, a few names to consider are Gavin Escobar (San Diego State), Travis Kelce (Cincinnati) and Chris Gragg (Arkansas). Whomever the 49ers select, they will be demanding of him in year one.
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As part of a very distinguished 2011 49ers draft class, Chris Culliver has emerged as a major role player in only two years.
As a rookie third-rounder, San Francisco fancied the idea of getting Culliver involved early, so that’s what it did.
Through his rookie year, Culliver competed in 617 total snaps in 2011 (h/t Sacramento Bee), operating on the perimeter often. In his sophomore season, he saw increased time, participating in 775 snaps in 2012 (h/t CSN Bay Area).
Prior to his pro career, Culliver started at safety and cornerback at South Carolina and was also the team's top returner on special teams. In his freshman year in 2007, the versatile Philadelphia native was even listed as a wide receiver (h/t College Football Stats).
Culliver’s position flexibility makes him an asset, which leads to an interesting point.
With Nnamdi Asomugha now in the picture (h/t ESPN), the 49ers are flush at the cornerback position, but still pained at safety. While they will likely draft a FS-type on the backend, there should be no reason Culliver can’t compete for the job in training camp.
San Francisco has been developing Culliver, and he’s been playing solid ball, but this is not out of the realm of reason. He was a proficient college safety and scouts believed he could play the position at the next level.
In 24 starts at safety for the Gamecocks, Culliver managed 122 tackles, three interceptions and 15 pass deflections. And as a do-it-all defensive back, he also made 7.5 tackles for a loss, which included three sacks (h/t CFB Sports Reference).
With the freedom of the position, Culliver (6'0", 199 lbs) was able to really utilize his instincts and athleticism.
And having run a 4.36 40-yard dash at the NFL combine (via NFL Draft Scout), Culliver has the straight-line speed to become the rangy cover safety San Francisco covets.
With the way the 49ers do their due diligence, do not be surprised to hear this storyline develop into the season. They should explore all options, and since they drafted Culliver, they should know two-thirds of his game film was at free safety.
With his versatility and background, Culliver’s role may increase on defense and special teams for a third year in a row.
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Formerly of the Fighting Irish, Ian Williams joined the San Francisco 49ers as an undrafted free agent DT in 2011.
After making the final 53-man roster, Williams has since played four games during the regular season, recording three tackles (via ESPN Stats). Up until this point, his presence has been strictly for depth purposes.
On Monday, March 11, the 49ers re-signed Williams to a two-year, $3.2 million contract, per Pro Football Talk. With the sendoffs of Isaac Sopoaga (Philadelphia) and Ricky Jean-Francois (Tennessee), San Francisco had to make a move to situate the defensive line.
Williams, 23, was also entering the final year of his rookie contract. In addition to his new deal, the 49ers finalized the details to bring Glenn Dorsey to the Bay Area. Leading up to the NFL draft, this is all the Niners have to work with at DL in 2013.
Given how last season played out, the 49ers will want to rotate more linemen this year, keeping fresh bodies in the trenches.
Therefor, between the philosophical belief, development and new contract, Williams is set up to see extended time at tackle and end. During his four-year career at Notre Dame, he started in both a 3-4 and 4-3 defense, showing his natural versatility.
Williams can play in San Francisco’s base or nickel packages, lining up at both the 3- and 5-technique.
And like Culliver, Williams is a young player who has seen increased snaps in his two years with the team. In his first season in 2011, the Notre Dame alum received only eight regular-season snaps, while seeing 34 this past year.
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It’s go-time for the former first-round selection from Illinois.
This is a make-or-break year for A.J. Jenkins—whether he is ready for it or not, the 49ers are going to push him to contribute.
And if he fails to respond on the field, Jenkins may severely jeopardize his future with the team. This is a performance-based league and the Jim Harbaugh train does not stop for anyone—first-rounder or not.
And though it is hard to believe, Jenkins may be under more scrutiny in 2013 than he was as a rookie. Since this is a critical year, Greg Roman will undoubtedly want to get him on the field a bit more.
He knows the best way to develop players is by getting them live reps, so the 49ers staff will not want to hinder any progress by keeping him on the sideline.
Currently, Jenkins has zero regular-season catches to his name, so the thought process has to be, "There is nowhere to go but up." So if his role does not increase for whatever reason, Baalke and Harbaugh might have to have a meeting about Jenkins.
As a reminder, the 49ers only put up with former first-rounder Rashaun Woods for two years before trading his rights to San Diego. And that was a struggling team that needed all the help they could get.
The truth about the NFL—or professional sports for that matter—is that regardless of where you came from, if you are not performing up to team standards, you’re as disposable as the next guy.
To prevent a horrifying instance of déjà vu, San Francisco will be giving Jenkins all the opportunity in the world to get involved.