Head coach Jim Harbaugh will have some tough roster decisions to make.
The San Francisco 49ers have one of the deepest 53-man rosters in all of professional football. It will not be easy for rookies and other fringe players to make the team.
General manager Trent Baalke has added several free agents, including Nnamdi Asomugha, Adam Snyder, Craig Dahl, Phil Dawson, Glenn Dorsey, Dan Skuta, Marlon Moore and Kassim Osgood. Most of these players are solid bets to make the 53-man roster. Only Moore and Osgood are question marks.
Trades have also added veterans Anquan Boldin and Colt McCoy, as the 49ers are attempting to add both star quality and depth to their roster.
To make it an even bigger hurdle for marginal players to make the 49ers' roster, the team selected 11 players in the recent NFL draft and have added several undrafted free agents (UFAs).
To determine what a dark-horse candidate to make the roster is, we must first define who qualifies as a dark horse.
For the purposes of this article, we shall consider a dark horse to be any recent draftee who was not selected in the first three rounds of the 2012 or 2013 drafts, as well as any player who was not on the 49ers' active roster for at least half of the team's games in 2012.
Let's take a look at five dark-horse candidates to make the 2013 49ers roster.
Stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com, unless otherwise noted.
MarQueis Gray played his college football at Minnesota.
MarQueis Gray is an extremely versatile athlete who played both quarterback and wide receiver for the University of Minnesota.
The 49ers have Gray slated as a tight end, as his 6'4", 250-pound frame seem ideal for the position.
The 49ers, under head coach Jim Harbaugh, have a successful history of transforming players from one position to another.
In 2011, the 49ers drafted Bruce Miller, a defensive end out of Central Florida. Miller was converted to offense and played fullback. This move went so well that Miller was starting by the midpoint of his first NFL season.
The 49ers are hoping for the same type of success with Gray.
Gray has the size and athleticism that the 49ers are looking for in a tight end. In order for Gray to make the squad, he must quickly acclimate himself to his new position.
The 49ers have historically kept three tight ends on their 53-man roster. With Vernon Davis and 2013 second-round draft pick Vance McDonald locks to make the team, that leaves Gray to compete with Garrett Celek for the third tight end job.
Celek is a solid blocker, and he impressed the 49ers with his work ethic and quick learning curve. In 2012, Celek caught just four passes for 51 yards.
Gray has a legitimate shot at beating out Celek. He is a better athlete and can be utilized in a wide variety of roles. In order to win this job, Gray will also have to excel on special teams.
Linebacker Cam Johnson played in only two games in 2012.
Cam Johnson was the 49ers' seventh-round selection in the 2012 NFL draft.
Johnson spent the majority of the season on the 49ers practice squad. He finally saw action in the 49ers' final two games.
Johnson was a defensive end at Virginia, but was moved to outside linebacker by the 49ers. He will have an excellent chance to step into a backup role with the 49ers, behind Aldon Smith.
The main competitors for Johnson's prospective roster spot are likely to be 2013 third-round draftee Corey Lemonier and veteran Parys Haralson.
Haralson spent the entire 2012 season on IR with a torn triceps. He is back at full strength and can back up Aldon Smith or Ahmad Brooks. With Haralson a virtual lock to make the 53-man roster, that leaves Johnson and Lemonier to battle it out.
If Johnson and Lemonier play well in training camp, both could make the opening roster.
Nick Moody played his collegiate football at Florida State.
Nick Moody was selected in the sixth round of the 2013 NFL draft.
One of the areas that hampered the 49ers in 2012 was poor special teams play. Moody is expected to be a monster on the 49ers' coverage units and will have a chance to make the 53-man roster based on his special teams play.
At Florida State, Moody played safety for the majority of his career, but was moved to a linebacker spot prior to his senior season. Along with free-agent acquisition Dan Skuta, Moody will also be a backup to Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.
Based on Moody's lack of experience, expect Skuta to be the primary backup at the inside linebacker spot. In reality, the 49ers hope to not use Moody in any meaningful action as an inside linebacker. If he's playing, that means something bad has happened to Willis or Bowman.
Moody was a "luxury pick," as he is not expected to be a factor in the 49ers' defense. Moody's value will be on special teams. If he can be an impact player on the 49ers' coverage units, he will have a chance to make the team.
Jewel Hampton has looked very good in OTAs.
After beginning his career at Iowa, Jewel Hampton transferred and played his senior season at Southern Illinois. As a Saluki, Hampton carried the ball 230 times for 1,121 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Hampton signed with the 49ers in 2012 as an undrafted free agent, but he had no carries this past season.
However, Hampton has looked very good in spring camp and the 49ers OTAs.
The 49ers utilize Frank Gore as their main running back. Behind him are Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Anthony Dixon.
Hunter is coming off a torn Achilles and plans to be at full strength in training camp. However, until Hunter proves he can do the job, his status remains in question.
In addition, although James stayed healthy in 2012, he had injury issues at Oregon. If something were to happen to either James or Hunter, that would pave the way for Hampton to step in.
It's also possible that Hampton will simply beat out Dixon. Dixon is a good special teams player, but he has not proven himself as a running back.
Stats courtesy of sisalukis.com.
Quinton Patton caught 104 passes in his senior season at LA Tech.
Quinton Patton played his final two seasons at Louisiana Tech in the pass-happy offense of Sonny Dykes. In his two years at LT, Patton caught 183 passes for 2,394 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Patton was selected by the 49ers in Round 4 of the 2013 NFL draft.
Based on our definition of a dark-horse candidate, Patton qualifies.
The 49ers will have a very crowded and competitive battle for roster spots at wide receiver. Anquan Boldin will be one starter, but the other jobs are up for grabs.
Michael Crabtree had a breakout season in 2012 but tore his Achilles this spring. The 49ers hope Crabtree can return late in the season and for the postseason, but he will not open the season on the active roster.
A key will be whether the 49ers decide to keep five or six receivers as they open the season. With Boldin locking up one spot, there are four, or potentially five, remaining jobs.
The battle for these positions will include Mario Manningham, Kyle Williams, A.J. Jenkins, Chad Hall, Ricardo Lockette, Marlon Moore, Kassim Osgood and Chuck Jacobs.
Manningham is unlikely to be ready to start the season, as he's coming off a severe knee injury.
Williams sustained a torn ACL last season but appears ahead of Manningham. Williams has failed to stay healthy in any season he has played with the 49ers or in college at Arizona State. Counting on Williams to stay healthy is not a wise decision.
Lockette has looked very good, and he spent several weeks working with Colin Kaepernick this spring.
The wild card appears to be A.J. Jenkins, the 49ers' first-round draft pick last year. Jenkins did not catch a pass the entire season and could not even beat out undrafted free agents Chad Hall and Joe Hastings last season after Manningham and Williams went down.
The 49ers hope Jenkins can step up and make a contribution in 2013, although his effectiveness remains to be seen.
Patton has good hands and runs good routes, although he does not have blazing speed. All of the uncertainty at the wide receiver position opens up a great opportunity for him.
Look for Patton to make the 53-man roster and contribute right away, He could win the starting job opposite Boldin but more likely will be used as a third or fourth receiver.
Stats courtesy of sports-reference.com.