5 Position Battles to Watch During San Francisco OTAs

Peter Panacy@@PeterPanacyFeatured Columnist IVMay 30, 2013

5 Position Battles to Watch During San Francisco OTAs

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    As the San Francisco 49ers wrap up their second week of Organized Team Activities (OTAs), there have already been plenty of stories that have highlighted the team's prospects heading towards the 2013 season.

    Chief among them was the unfortunate news that standout wide receiver Michael Crabtree suffered a torn Achilles tendon two days into OTAs, resulting in surgery the following day.  The injury and subsequent surgery will have a substantial impact on the 49ers' offense. Crabtree may miss most, or even all, of the 2013 season, which would put increased pressure on the remaining San Francisco receivers.

    Last season, Crabtree emerged as a favorite target of quarterback Colin Kaepernick.  In the wake of Crabtree's injury, someone else will have to step up if the 49ers hope to return to the Super Bowl once more this season.

    While the situation at wide receiver has garnered the most attention during San Francisco's OTAs, there are other significant position battles taking place as well. The 49ers have a lot of depth at running back, and it will be interesting to see which backs will rise and which may fall on the depth charts.

    There were also additions in the defensive backfield, including safety Craig Dahl as well as 49ers' first-round draft choice Eric Reid.  Rookies like Cornelius "Tank" Carradine and Quinton Dial hope to have legitimate impacts during these workouts.

    How they perform during OTAs, combined with what the 49ers' coaching staff sees in them, will have a direct result on where these players fall in San Francisco's depth chart.

    Certainly there are some positions on the roster that are all but guaranteed.  Kaepernick will be the starting quarterback.  San Francisco's offensive line should employ the same five guys as last year.  The 49ers linebacker corps should remain one of the best in the NFL.  However, there are position battles taking place within and among what may be considered as "locked" positions.

    If one thing is known, head coach Jim Harbaugh loves competition among his players and will not hesitate to have his players push each other in order to earn coveted spots at each position.

    Here are five position battles to keep an eye on during OTAs, with predictions regarding where each player at the position may wind up on the 49ers' depth chart.


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    Current 49ers on the Roster: B.J. Daniels, Kaepernick, Colt McCoy, Scott Tolzien

    There is no doubt heading into 2013 regarding the starting quarterback of the 49ers.

    Kaepernick will be the starter. He showed coaches, players and fans what he is capable of and what to expect heading forward.

    Yet behind Kaepernick, there remains a heated competition for the backup role.  The roots of that competition began the moment San Francisco traded Alex Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs in exchange for draft picks at the beginning of the offseason. At that moment, the 49ers had only two quarterbacks on the roster. San Francisco then traded for former Browns quarterback Colt McCoy, seemingly filling out the roster and thwarting any need to draft a quarterback in the draft.

    However, head coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke love competition. Harbaugh also loves to develop quarterbacks. The competition, which initially appeared to focus solely on McCoy and incumbent backup Scott Tolzien, gained momentum when San Francisco drafted former South Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels in the seventh round.

    At 5'11", Daniels is undersized for the quarterback position. He is, however, very dynamic and capable of playing in a traditional passing-style offense as well as the read-option. That type of quarterback may be something of benefit to the current 49ers offense if Kaepernick is lost to injury.

    Obviously the 49ers are hoping that will not be the case, yet Daniels at least has a chance to compete for the third spot on the depth chart. He also has the versatility to contribute in other areas such as special teams. It is a scenario that he embraces completely.

    Daniels stated:

    [Harbaugh] told me they'd give me the opportunity to play quarterback. They like certain things I can do. My biggest thing is, I'm a football player. If they ask me to do anything else, my biggest thing is being consistent and doing whatever I can do to help out our team. (via csnbayarea.com)

    Even if Daniels fails to make the opening day roster, his hopes are not completely out of sight.  Harbaugh could easily work with Daniels as a member of the practice squad. Harbaugh helped shape Smith and Kaepernick and would love another protégé. Daniels could emerge as that guy...if not now, perhaps down the road.

    Yet Daniels may be better suited for this season than initially suggested. His versatility combined with his raw athletic prowess may be worth a significant examination and, possibly, a spot on the opening day roster.

    Another quarterback in hot competition for the backup spot is McCoy. After three mediocre years in Cleveland, McCoy will unquestionably benefit from the change in scenery. At only 26 years old, the former third-round pick in the 2010 NFL draft has another chance to prove himself with an NFL team.

    Thus far, McCoy looks as if he is taking every advantage of the opportunity.

    McCoy has shown his skill during OTAs thus far and is becoming more of a candidate for the immediate backup role to Kaepernick. As reported by Taylor Price of 49ers.com, McCoy showed his understanding of a new offensive system during a 7-on-7 period on May 22. The only touchdown of that day came from McCoy: He lofted a 20-yard pass to wide receiver Chad Hall, who slipped by Chris Culliver to make a back-shoulder catch in the back-right corner of the end zone.

    Harbaugh was equally impressed with McCoy's abilities and commended him by saying, “Colt was very sharp as well, probably his best day" (via 49ers.com).

    With McCoy performing at a solid level thus far, and with the possibility that Daniels may also be a legitimate contender, what will the future spell for incumbent backup Scott Tolzien?

    Tolzien has served as the third-string QB since being signed as an undrafted free agent by the San Diego Chargers following the 2011 NFL draft. The 49ers claimed him off waivers later that year, and Tolzien remained a backup behind Kaepernick and Smith during 2012. 

    If McCoy continues to impress, Tolzien should find himself in an immediate competition for the third quarterback role with Daniels. While Daniels has a more energetic and dynamic upside to his game, Tolzien has NFL experience (even if all of his NFL passes came during preseason games). For that reason alone, Tolzien should still be on the field when the 49ers start the 2013 regular season.

    David Fucillo of Niners Nation agrees. He writes:

    I still think Tolzien has the edge on Daniels in part because Daniels wasn't particularly great at USF, and in part because I just don't think the 49ers unload Tolzien after two years of investment. (ninersnation.com)

    If this is correct, Daniels will likely find himself on the practice squad, and Tolzien will remain on the active roster. Daniels' value shall still be felt, as he provides competition at the tail-end of the position, and it is still possible that Harbaugh can work with the young quarterback and shape him into something worthwhile.

    In the meantime, it will still be Kaepernick, followed by McCoy, and then Tolzien.

Running Backs

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    Current 49ers on the Roster: Anthony Dixon, Frank Gore, Jewel Hampton, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, Marcus Lattimore

    Similar to the 49ers' situation at quarterback, there should be little doubt as to whom San Francisco selects as its starting running back entering 2013.

    Frank Gore has already emerged as one of the most dominant backs in the NFL today and has carried the team through many up-and-down seasons. Yet at 30 years old, Gore may be winding down his storied career, and the 49ers are certainly looking towards his eventual replacement.

    One of those options was discovered last season. Former Oregon running back LaMichael James burst onto the scene in late 2012, appearing in four regular season games and providing an added option behind Gore throughout the playoffs. Whereas Gore was known for his tough, downhill running style, James was capable of elusive runs out to the side, using his small stature to his advantage.

    During the 2013 draft, San Francisco selected former South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore.  Lattimore, who suffered a horrendous injury his senior year, will be a gamble for the 49ers, which drafted him with a fourth-round pick. The RB should spend the entire 2013 season on the Physically Unable to Play (PUP) list, spending time rehabilitating his knee and learning San Francisco's offense under the tutelage of Gore and the 49ers' coaching staff. 

    Gore, who also experienced injuries at the collegiate level, has emerged as a mentor for Lattimore, who may very well be Gore's replacement in the future. Lattimore has already stated that he looks up to Gore and is inspired by his story and reputation.

    Heading into 2013, however, Lattimore will not be a factor. The position battle will fall upon James, Kendall Hunter, Anthony Dixon and Jewel Hampton.

    While James emerged as the backup last season, Hunter may be the biggest and best competition for the backup halfback behind Gore. Hunter, who missed much of last season due to an Achilles tear, is back on the field during OTAs and participating in workouts. Hunter has shown improvements during his recovery and may figure to take some carries away from Gore when necessary.

    CBSSports reports that Hunter may be the best suitable backup for Gore during this upcoming season, and thus far, Hunter is showcasing such talent.

    For James, on the other hand, his efforts may be enough to get him some reasonable carries. What he does have going for him is the fact that he is a different type of back in comparison to both Hunter and Gore. His youth and elusiveness are factors enough, in addition to the fact that Hunter's injury may still hamper him during OTAs and in the preseason. Yet James still has some work to do if he ever hopes to become one of the elite backs in the NFL.

    Fortunately, James has been hard at work, both during the offseason and entering OTAs. James met with reporters during OTAs and told them the following:

    I'm way more explosive. I always felt that I was long-fast. I didn't really know how explosive I was at the point of attack. I really worked hard at that, just being more explosive. I needed to, just to take those hits, blocking, different things like that. I needed to get a little stronger. I really worked hard towards that this offseason. (via 49ers.com)

    If James' efforts translate onto the field, he could thwart Hunter as the second back on the 49ers' depth chart.

    After Gore, Hunter, and James, it is difficult to determine how the roster will be filled out. Anthony Dixon is a tough and versatile back, capable of short-yardage runs and providing an option as a lead-blocker. He should make the team, yet who knows how high he will climb on the depth chart. Jewel Hampton will likely compete with Dixon in some regard, but his impact would likely be minimal if he even makes the 53-man roster at all (ninersnation.com).

    What is fortunate, however, is the fact that San Francisco has established both long- and short-term depth at running back.  At a position that demands utmost physicality and is known for taking a toll on its players, the 49ers can only benefit from the competition and added depth.

    It just remains to be seen how that depth will carry over into the regular season.


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    Current 49ers on the Roster: Nnamdi Asomugha, Tramaine Brock, Tarell Brown, Marcus Cooper, Perrish Cox, Chris Culliver, Darryl Morris, Carlos Rogers

    One of the 49ers' key weaknesses that was exploited during last year's run to the Super Bowl was their backfield.

    In part because of the 49ers' lack of pass rush, the secondary was beaten time and time again during the playoffs, especially against the Ravens. There was a need for upgrades and development.

    Yet the 49ers might have taken a slightly different approach during the offseason to address the issue. True, San Francisco drafted former Rutgers cornerback Marcus Cooper and signed former Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. However, those players may not necessarily be the high-impact cornerbacks that the 49ers are looking for in 2013.

    As a result, the cornerback position may remain one of the key question marks heading forward into OTAs.

    Carlos Rogers, who had an impressive 2011 campaign yet fell off during 2012, figures to get the start at left cornerback. San Francisco will undoubtedly hope that Rogers returns to his 2011 form instead of the lackluster performance he had a year later.

    Behind Rogers on the left side of the defense are Perrish Cox and Tramaine Brock, both veterans who have experienced snaps at the NFL level, albeit in primarily nickel and dime defensive formations. Cooper also expects to compete with both Cox and Brock in this role.

    One of the nice attributes to the former Rutgers corner is that he is fast. Cooper posted a 4.45, 40-yard dash at his pro day. He also put up 20 reps of the 225-pound bench press and posted a 39.5-inch vertical jump (49ers.com). If Cooper can develop his coverage skills, which are so important to the press-based 49er defense, then he may just be able to thwart Cox and Brock on the depth chart and possibly even be a long-term alternative to Rogers when that time comes.

    It probably will not come in 2013, however. In the meantime, Cooper may be best served as a backup, both as a corner and a safety, as well as being able to contribute on special teams.

    On the right side of the defense, veteran Tarell Brown is initially penciled in atop the depth chart.  Yet Brown is entering the final year of a five-year, $8.135 million contract and shall be a free agent following the season. Whether or not San Francisco decides to keep the veteran defender may be entirely contingent on how the recently-acquired Asomugha performs during OTAs, the preseason, and the 2013 campaign. 

    The 49ers went with a low-risk, high-reward scenario when they signed Asomugha during the offseason to a one-year, $1.775 million contract with no guaranteed money. Asomugha, who enjoyed Pro Bowl-caliber seasons with the Oakland Raiders, became a bust in Philadelphia. Yet the 49ers hope that he can return to prior form, especially playing in the press-based coverage favored by San Francisco's defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio.

    Asomugha has been substituting as a starter in place of Brown, who has not been in attendance during the voluntary practices (sfgate.com).  Behind Asomugha is two-year veteran Chris Culliver, who struggled mightily during last season's playoff run and Super Bowl. 

    Those struggles appear to have carried over into OTAs, as reported by Santa Rosa Press Democrat's Grant Cohn:

    [Culliver] gave up the only TD of the day – a 20-yard catch to Chad Hall. Hall ran straight to the back corner of the end zone and McCoy threw it up for him. Culliver had good coverage, but he couldn’t locate the ball when it was in the air, so he never made a play to knock the pass away. Hall easily made the TD catch. He needs to improve this part of his game if he wants to take Carlos Rogers’ starting job. (pressdemocrat.com)

    Culliver's play is all too familiar to 49er fans, who saw similar performances during last year's Super Bowl. Adding to the competition is the suggestion that the 49ers' coaching staff has a lot of faith in what Asomugha can still do on the field. San Francisco may not be willing to be patient much longer with Culliver, and it is plausible that the team would rather entertain a veteran like Asomugha if he has anything left in the tank.

    Thus far into OTAs, it looks like he does.

    Former Texas State defensive back Darryl Morris also has an outside shot to make the roster, with his speed being a prime factor. It is a shot, but not a very good one at this point.

    Regardless, the 49ers' situation at cornerback remains hot, and it is entirely likely that there will be some significant risers and fallers on their depth chart before the season begins.


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    Current 49ers on the Roster: Craig Dahl, Darcel McBath, Eric Reid, Trenton Robinson, C.J. Spillman, Michael Thomas, Donte Whitner

    The loss of Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson via free agency during the offseason forced the 49ers' hand to go out and acquire a replacement in the 2013 NFL draft. They did just that, drafting former LSU safety Eric Reid with the 18th pick.

    Yet before San Francisco drafted Reid, it also acquired former Rams safety Craig Dahl, adding depth to the position and providing a legitimate NFL-ready option in case Reid underachieved before the start of the regular season.

    Both Reid and Dahl shall compete for the starting free safety position. Thus far, both have looked good two weeks into OTAs. 

    As stated by Christian Gin of Examiner.com, Reid and Dahl looked good in coverage during the seven-on-seven drills on day two of OTAs. Dahl also had a near interception of Kaepernick where the ball bounced off his hands.

    Dahl has been impressive thus far and has also been getting the majority of first-team snaps, while Reid is seeing more time on the second unit (ajc.com). Dahl's solid play is exactly what the 49ers' coaching staff has been looking for. Not only is it providing legitimate competition for Reid, but Dahl's capabilities are also showing signs that San Francisco has multiple options atop the depth chart.

    Cohn highlights some of Dahl's early OTA achievements thus far:

    [Dahl] was the starting free safety, and he had the best day of all of the 49ers’ defensive backs. Dahl almost picked off Colin Kaepernick twice. First, Kaepernick tried to fire a pass to Chad Hall in the end zone in a 7-on-7 drill. Hall was running straight down the middle of the field, Dahl read Kaepernick’s eyes and undercut the pass. Dahl had it in his hands but he bobbled it and it fell to the ground. Later, in an 11-on-11 drill, Kaepernick tried to hit Vernon Davis downfield, but Dahl read the play all the way and easily knocked the pass away. Again, he had the ball in his hands but he couldn’t hold onto it.(pressdemocrat.com)

    The news of Dahl's successes is easy to understand. Dahl is NFL-ready, and Reid is not quite there yet. Fortunately for the 49ers, Dahl should be ready to go as the opening day starter if Reid is unable to show improvement between now and the start of the season. Furthermore, Dahl should be able to act as a mentor to the young rookie and show him the aspects necessary in transferring his collegiate skills to the NFL level.

    Reid is taking it all in stride. 

    Reid explained the situation to Scott Kegley of 49ers.com:

    It's fast. The veterans are here, they know the defense. The offensive guys know the offense and they're blazing. For me, it's trying to keep up, trying to get caught up to where they are mentality. That's the biggest thing for me, just knowing my plays, knowing my responsibilities and doing it. There's not too many things from a safety standpoint that they haven't seen. Any question that I have, they can answer right there on the spot. I'm just trying to be a sponge. I want to know as much as I can because that will help me play the game. (49ers.com)

    Hopefully for Reid and the 49ers, the rookie safety will be able to adjust to the progression from college to the NFL sooner rather than later. Harbaugh and the 49ers will not tab Reid as an opening day starter based solely on the fact that the team moved up in the first round to draft him. Reid will have to earn that role, and right now, Dahl is preventing that from happening. Fortunately, however, Reid will at least have the opportunity to make the transition over time, with San Francisco being able to utilize the services of Dahl as long as they need to.

    Playing alongside either Dahl or Reid is the veteran Pro Bowl safety Donte Whitner, who is almost certain to receive the starting job at strong safety. The 27-year-old Whitner is entering the final year of a three-year, $11.75 million contract and shall be a free agent at the end of the season. Whitner is playing for a big salary next season and figures to have an impressive contract year. Whether or not San Francisco chooses to re-sign him remains to be seen.

    As for the rest of the 49ers' safeties, there is nothing but speculation as to how the depth chart will unfold. C.J. Spillman figures to get some playing time, relying on his backup role from last year, as does Darcel McBath. Yet San Francisco has not yet released an updated depth chart at the position, indicating that the competition still remains wide open.

    What is known, however, is that Whitner will be there. Dahl will probably be there too, and Reid may be there soon.

Wide Receiver

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    Current 49ers on the Roster: Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, Chad Hall, A.J. Jenkins, Ricardo Lockette, Mario Manningham, Marlon Moore, Quinton Patton, Kyle Williams

    Michael Crabtree's injury in the first week of OTAs puts even more pressure on San Francisco's receiving corps. Yet it also creates tremendous opportunity for players hoping to have an even greater impact for the team in 2013.

    One of the 49ers' goals during the past two seasons was to strengthen the wide receiver position. In 2012, San Francisco tried to address this by signing former Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins with their first-round draft pick. They also acquired former Giants receiver Mario Manningham and brought in veteran Randy Moss. Yet by the end of the season, Crabtree was the lone threat at the position, which had direct correlation to San Francisco's loss in Super Bowl XLVII. Strengthening the position became a 49ers' priority once again.

    In the offseason, the 49ers were able to execute a trade for veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who had hurt them as a member of the Baltimore Ravens when they faced off against San Francisco in the Super Bowl. In addition, San Francisco selected former Louisiana Tech wide receiver Quinton Patton in the fourth round of the draft. Furthermore, the 49ers can count on the likely returns of Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams, both of whom suffered season-ending ACL injuries last year. Jenkins, who had nearly no impact last season, may also be a factor.

    Two weeks into OTAs, it is becoming apparent that Boldin will step up as the primary receiver for San Francisco. 

    As reported by 49ers.com columnist Taylor Price, Boldin caught 10 passes during seven-on-seven and team periods. Even more impressive, the 6'1," 220-pound wide receiver caught six passes during the opening seven-on-seven period and looked like he would be able to fill in nicely for the injured Crabtree. Boldin was able to beat both Patrick Willis and Carlos Rogers in coverage and looked everything like the type of top receiver whom head coach Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers' coaching staff need.

    Even Boldin is enjoying the experience and the opportunity to play on a team laden with so much talent.  After his commendable efforts in OTAs, Boldin said:

    It was just of those days where it happened to be me.  It’s like being a rookie all over. It’s cool. The passing game goes through us. It’s definitely on us to get better as a receiving corps. A guy like Crabtree you don’t replace. When you lose a guy like that, the next guy has to step up. There is no wait and see. (via 49ers.com)

    Yet who fills in behind Boldin? 

    San Francisco wants to avoid a situation similar to the one that plagued them last year. Not only will health be a factor, but Kaepernick also needs to be able to spread the ball around the field and not just focus in on a top receiver, like he did with Crabtree last season.

    With Manningham and Williams still recovering and rehabilitating from last year's injuries, hoping for returns at the start of the season, pressure will be put on the other 49er receivers. San Francisco fans are all-too familiar with the struggles of Jenkins last season, but there are legitimate hopes that he can be a force in 2013. 

    Jenkins is looking more comfortable thus far into OTAs and may at least provide added depth at the position, if not a legitimate threat at the outset.  As stated by Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News, Jenkins has bulked up some and should be a top candidate for major playing time after his zero-catch rookie season. 

    Depending on what happens with Manningham and Williams, Jenkins may have a shot as the second wide receiver on the depth chart.

    San Francisco is also taking a close look at Patton, who is competing for a top receiver position.  While there is little doubt surrounding his physical talents, there are some questions regarding how soon he can learn the 49ers offense.

    Patton's former collegiate coach Sonny Dykes noted that learning the playbook would be Patton's biggest challenge, but that the young receiver has the determination and talent to do it. During a visit to San Francisco's OTAs, Dykes commented:

    The biggest challenge for him is to adapt and learn the playbook quickly. He can help on special teams if needed but he is really good with yards after catch. Patton works hard and is a good guy. He could be a star receiver because he is eager, passionate and competitive. (via examiner.com)

    Even Patton recognized that learning the playbook has been tough. In an interview with Bay Area reporters last week, Patton said, "I’ve been trying. Every time I try to learn a couple of plays, they put some more plays on me. I’m trying. That’s probably going to be the hardest thing" (via pressdemocrat.com).

    If Patton can learn the playbook well enough and continue his maturation process, it is also feasible that the rookie receiver will have plenty of opportunities entering the season.

    Further down on San Francisco's depth chart are receivers Ricardo Lockette and Chad Hall. While both may be a long shot to have a significant impact during 2013 or even to make the opening day roster, it is possible that both receivers will surprise coaches as OTAs continue. Lockette spent most of the offseason working out with Kaepernick, and it is possible that the raw receiver may be able to develop some chemistry with his quarterback. 

    Kawakami suggests that there are a lot of unknowns about Lockette, however. He writes: "There's Ricardo Lockette, Kaepernick's workout buddy, who sure looks like a [wide receiver] but nobody has any idea until he wins or loses playing time in camp or in games" (mercurynews.com).

    In addition, Hall has also shown some impressive moments thus far and may be worth consideration. While both may be regarded only as depth players at the position, OTAs are at least giving them the opportunity to showcase their skills and compete.

    If the 49ers learned anything from last season, they know that they cannot have too much talented depth at the wide receiver position. They also know that the offense can ill-afford to lock onto only one receiver as the season moves forward. San Francisco needs top receivers, and it needs to distribute the ball well. Hopefully OTAs are establishing the prospects for doing just that.

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