Considering the recent departures and injured players on the roster, the San Francisco 49ers are gearing up for a dog-eat-dog training camp. This is a team that needs to see instant results from several position groups, which includes more than a couple of starting spots and important backup roles.
For the first time in two years, really, there are job openings.
Even though, from an outsiders perspective, the ‘Niners appear to be as immaculate a title contender as you’ll see, the ultimate success of their upcoming season will be contingent on the progression from many unknowns.
In the following article, we will dive headfirst into San Francisco’s camp battles, starting with by far the most essential and often debated personnel group.
1. Wide Receiver
Candidates: A.J. Jenkins, Kyle Williams, Quinton Patton, Ricardo Lockette, Mario Manningham (+)
In his fourth NFL season, Crabtree was thriving and his weekly production was beginning to get out of hand toward the end of the season. This has led many to believe that it will be problematic for the ‘Niners to supplement that type of output.
And rightfully so. There were few things within the 49ers offense more prevalent than Crabtree’s role in this system. He evolved into an absolute ball hog, helping carry this new-look attack to a Super Bowl.
From a statistical standpoint, no pass-catcher on the roster came close to the wideout. Tight end Vernon Davis was the secondary option, making the gap between the top two wide receivers even grander. In fact, it took cumulative totals from San Francisco’s second, third and fourth options to try to match what No. 15 did over the course of the season.
This trend was proliferated by the insertion of Colin Kaepernick, who, over the final nine games of 2012 (including the playoffs), targeted Crabtree a team-high 89 times, while Davis came in second with 31.
When it came to leading their respective team in targets, King Crab ranked fifth in the National Football League (35 percent). This was only behind Brandon Marshall, Reggie Wayne, A.J. Green and Andre Johnson—all of whom operate as the linchpins in their respective offenses.
Bottom line, Crab’s injury dug a deep pit where production used to be.
Though, as of recent, the mood in Santa Clara, Calif. has gradually shifted from a state of panic to curiosity. Albeit No. 15 being an integral component to their aerial attack—as well as a top perimeter blocker—the 49ers have invested time and resources in their wide receiver corps. There is no doubt that someone will emerge.
In that light, Crabtree’s injury knocked down the wall to one of the more luring NFL camp battles this offseason. Whoever claims the No. 2 spot across from Anquan Boldin will be in line for a lot of reps and may be a prospective 1,000-yard receiver for this ballclub.
Shooting to the top of our list of promising fill-ins is rookie wide receiver Quinton Patton (6’0”, 204 lbs), a two-year starter formerly of Louisiana Tech. San Fran made him the No. 128 overall pick in this year’s draft, taking him in a scenario where he was by far the best player available.
To sum up his game, Patton is a very fluid route-runner and acrobatic pass-catcher with an overall good feel for the receiver position. Despite defenses zeroing in on No. 4 in college, Patton showed he could power through and take games over from the wide receiver position.
He routinely made contested catches, showing exceptional balance, timing and control.
In only 25 Division I games played, he validated himself as the focal point of the Bulldogs’ air raid system. After being called up from junior college, Patton instantly became a top-five receiver in the WAC, even finishing No. 1 in yards (1,392) and touchdowns (13) as a senior in 2012.
These were top-five numbers across the NCAA, which included more yards than Tavon Austin (STL) and more touchdowns than Robert Woods (BUF). Both earned more recognition, having been selected several rounds ahead of Patton, as early first- and second-rounders.
On draft day, Patton was one of the more notable top-rated talents who just so happened to fall through the cracks, via NFL Draft Scout.
This was opportunistic for San Francisco, landing a receiver who is both accustomed to carrying the load and fits from a systematic perspective. As a runner, Patton was known for his quickness and vision, which makes him particularly dangerous on short-to-intermediate routes (a West Coast staple).
And backed by his 4.4 40-speed, he can get down the field and challenge safeties. He runs crisp routes, has superb body control and can make high-focus catches virtually anywhere on the gridiron. All things considered, Patton really comes off as the total package.
To fully grasp his natural ability as a receiver, take a look at his roaring performance against No. 22-ranked Texas A&M (above), a game that 49ers general manager Trent Baalke happened to attend. In this match, Patton went toe-to-toe with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel and almost won.
Oftentimes, he would push opposing offenses to their brink, demanding they score more points to keep pace. In 16 of 25 career games, Patton either recorded double-digit receptions, 100-plus yards or a touchdown.
As you can see in the video above—down and distance notwithstanding—Patton was the go-to target whenever the ball was in orbit. He was charged with carrying that offense week in and week out, operating as LA Tech’s alpha receiver.
The pressure for Patton to perform always lingered, just like it will in San Francisco. If he continues to climb, the 22-year-old Tennessee native will be a top contender for the position.
The 49ers also have to take a real close look at speedster Kyle Williams, who is returning from an ACL injury. In his three years with the team, he has had legitimate flashes of big-play ability here and there, which could be indicative of his potential as a starter.
Moreover, now that Colin Kaepernick is in the lineup, Williams may have a chance to finally see his ceiling as a pro. Considering Kap’s first start was in Week 10 and Williams’ season-ender occurred in Week 11, they did not have a lot of time to jell with one another.
Still, in one of the few snaps they shared, they ripped a top-ranked Chicago defense for 57 yards and made it look like an effortless pitch-and-catch. With Kap’s huge arm and deep-ball accuracy, paired with Williams’ top-flight speed, their skill sets appear very complementary in nature.
And don’t be fooled, Williams definitely has the physical tools to get the job done for San Francisco. He just hasn’t had an opportunity to showcase it in a 16-game schedule as a featured receiver.
Coming out of the college ranks, Williams blazed a low-4.32 40-time, which included another solid 4.34 at his Arizona State pro day. This was on par with the league’s proclaimed fastest receiver, Mike Wallace, who ran a 4.33 at the NFL combine.
So, for those who were holding out hope for Wallace in red and gold because he ran fast, you can put your faith in Williams.
Also, in contrast to the less experienced pass-catchers under contract, Williams has learned to control that speed and effectively deploy it against defenses. His role as a veteran will surely give him a leg up in training camp, which he is expected to be healthy for.
On Day 1 of minicamp, it was reported that Williams was full-speed and appeared ready to compete right away. 49ers beat writer Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat stated that No. 10 “looked faster than ever, and cut with confidence.”
Keep in mind, Williams, 24, is the most experienced and familiarized wide receiver on the roster. And being the swift runner that he is, he can provide the 49ers with an explosive element at wideout as soon as Week 1.
There is also A.J. Jenkins, Ricardo Lockette and a rehabbing Mario Manningham to consider in this equation.
According to Chris Wesseling of NFL.com, Manningham (ACL, PCL) is uncertain for the season opener against Green Bay. The ‘Niners are not going to rush him into action when they have other able bodies to insert in the lineup. They’ll gradually work him in after the season starts.
As a budding high-profile depth receiver, Jenkins has an opportunity to be masterful from the slot. In that scenario, he would be pitted against the defense’s third and fourth corners, rather than their top boundary cornerbacks, which feature guys like Richard Sherman and Cortland Finnegan four times a year.
He is still a light 6’0”, 196-pounder who has to improve at the line of scrimmage. Right now, Jenkins says his goal is to get up to 200 pounds before he is “good to go,” per Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. This may park him behind Williams and Patton in the fight for the No. 2 job.
In Lockette’s case, he needs to concern himself with making the final 53-man roster before there is any talk of him starting. He will have a chance to compete but remains a long shot to be a relevant player on game day.
Standing tall at 6’2”, 211 pounds, his body type and unique style will help him stand out from the group. However, if he cannot be productive with it, then it is nothing more than window dressing. Lockette has a lot of work ahead of him if he wants to stay in the Bay Area.
In training camp, this battle should boil down to Kyle Williams vs. Quinton Patton.
2. Free Safety
Candidates: Eric Reid, Craig Dahl, C.J. Spillman, Darcel McBath
The 49ers were out an All-Pro when safety Dashon Goldson decided to follow the money trail to sunny Tampa Bay.
Over the past two seasons, the “Hawk” led the ‘Niners D in interceptions, totaling nine in that time (2011-12). Add in the intense physical presence and Goldson was easily the team’s most prolific player on the back end of the defense.
Since the 49ers could not match the $41.25 million price tag that Goldson (and the Buccaneers) felt he was worth, they had to allow him to walk. And with money being the core issue, they very well could not expect to adequately replace No. 38 with another free agent.
The only way to solve this matter was by supplementing low-to-mid-level competition via free agency—who are primarily special teams gunners—while landing their whale in the NFL draft. For the ‘Niners, the big fish they wanted for their pond of guppies was LSU’s Eric Reid.
According to NFL Draft Scout, he was the No. 2-rated free safety prospect in the 2013 draft behind Kenny Vaccaro. By trading up to take Reid at No. 18 overall, San Fran showed its faith in the rookie to be ready for Week 1.
Even with his draft standing, Reid will still have his work cut out for him. Though, no one doubts that the job is his to lose. To be frank, Craig Dahl, C.J. Spillman and Darcel McBath are not starting safeties for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
Then there is their handpicked big school product, who from a physical standpoint (6’1”, 213 lbs), looks like he belongs in this defense.
Reid, 21, will still have to improve as a cerebral player, and that starts with the playbook. Understanding the terminology/calls to the point where it becomes second nature will be his first step to improving as a player. It will allow him to play faster than he would if he had to take a second to think.
Other than that, the main knock against Reid is that he had trouble defending the deep part of the field and generally looked stiff in coverage. Those are scary criticisms for a man who projects to be San Francisco’s last line of defense.
There were several instances during his days at LSU where Reid was blatantly caught out of position. At times, his vulnerability on the back end led to big plays for the opponent or at the least opened gaping windows that most pro quarterbacks would have hit.
In his first NFL training camp, Reid’s biggest competition will truly be himself.
As you can see in the video above—even in his best season (2011)—the free safety had his struggles on game day. He had his whiffs in coverage (:22 vs. ‘Bama, 4:28 vs. Georgia, 5:07 vs. Georgia, 15:08 vs. WVU and 18:05 vs. Auburn).
The SEC thumper also exhibited bad form tackling and pursuit (2:38 vs. ‘Bama, 12:48 vs. WVU, 14:20 vs. WVU and 18:58 vs. Auburn). He needs to sharpen facets of his game, particularly the overaggressiveness that can make him a liability in coverage and as an open-field tackler.
Considering this unit was fourth overall against the pass in 2012, there is less room to improve than there is for a potential decline. While the safety position will be under the heaviest watch in training camp, Eric Reid is a sure thing for the job.
3. Nose Tackle
Candidates: Glenn Dorsey, Ian Williams
This offseason, San Francisco lost two featured players on the defensive line, as both Isaac Sopoaga (Eagles) and Ricky Jean-Francois (Colts) readily departed for prominent roles elsewhere. This created a 627-pound space in the middle of one of the league’s more revered D-lines.
Needless to say, this unit is going to look a little different in 2013. The ‘Niners are now preparing the next wave, hoping they’ve found two cost-effective options with equal or more upside.
So far, the 49ers have yet to announce a No. 1 at nose guard, but believe they have a pair of front runners in Glenn Dorsey and Ian Williams.
And though it appears the free agent from KC is making nearly 100 percent more than Williams, his deal is back-loaded, via Spotrac. In reality, Dorsey is only set to make roughly $200,000 more than Williams this year, which makes this a legitimate competition right now.
Who will win the No. 1 spot is anybody's guess, but the smart money may be on the former top-five draft pick from 2008. Coming out of LSU, Dorsey was arguably the draft’s highest-rated line prospect since Hall of Famer Warren Sapp. He is all upside.
The former Tiger and Chief also happened to be the first free agent San Francisco courted and signed. The hasty move by the front office indicated the team had plans for him and did not want him talking with any other teams.
This is a very intriguing player who—at a prime stage of his career—finds himself in a very opportunistic situation. The 49ers want to see if they can pick up where the Chiefs left off and finish developing him. Here are a few highlights from Dorsey’s rookie scouting report, via CBS Sports:
- Shows good ability to redirect and make tackles in the backfield and has the initial burst that allows him to make plays to the outside
- Understands blocking schemes and has no trouble retaining plays, picking things up quickly
- Always seems to be in the right position to make the play, showing a good flow to the ball in the short area
- Has the change of direction agility to make plays moving down the line
- Has the power to make explosive tackles and generates good pressure through a combo pass block, destroying fullbacks who get in his path
- Possesses good club and rip moves, as well as a good bull rush
- Has become a physically dominant player who demands double-teams
- Reacts well to block pressure and locates the ball quickly
- Splits and redirects with leverage, flashing good strength to penetrate
In 38 games with the Tigers, Dorsey piled up 158 tackles, which included 25 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. The two-time All-American also brought home the hardware in his final season, winning 2007’s SEC Defensive Player of the Year, the Outland Trophy, the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Lott Trophy.
Entering his sixth season as a pro, Dorsey has 65 starts under his belt and all the ability in the world to assert himself as a capable three-down lineman.
From 2008 to 2012, he played well enough to prove he belongs in this league. In fact, Dorsey has silently been a top-rated defensive lineman against the run, per Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus.
For this reason, the team should be confident in him to play the run, absorb the protection and control his gaps. Ideally, the ‘Niners want to see him be more than a serviceable two-down, 0-technique lineman. They want to move Dorsey around and they’d like him to be a weapon.
The big question is: In this environment, can Dorsey grow into the dual-threat (penetrating/clogging) defender he was originally touted to be? The pass-rushing element is the one dimension of his college game that did not carry over.
However, the 27-year-old would not be the first elite defensive prospect-turned-free agent to reboot his career in the Bay Area. Justin Smith (Bengals), Carlos Rogers (Redskins) and Donte Whitner (Bills) were all top-10 picks that found their identities as 49ers.
In those cases, coaching and a systematic fit made all the difference. Moreover, given the 49ers’ grade-A track record, the expectations for Dorsey make a similar leap are awfully valid. It will be a spirited battle, but it is safe to say Glenn Dorsey has the edge over Ian Williams.
The Notre Dame product will play the secondary role, formerly executed by Jean-Francois. Look for Williams to be a top rotational defensive tackle for the 49ers this season.
Backup Outside Linebacker
Corey Lemonier and Parys Haralson will have starring roles in this offseason’s limelight battle of promising rookie versus savvy veteran. In Lemonier’s last 22 games with Auburn, he finished with 81 tackles, 19 tackles for loss and 15 sacks, via Sports Reference. He is a pass-rush specialist who explodes off the edge, but he will be in the midst of converting from defensive end.
If his transition is smooth and he shows promise as a situational edge-rusher, Lemonier may leap Haralson for the No. 3 job.
Backup Tight End
After losing their No. 2 tight end to free agency, the 49ers now have an opening behind Pro Bowl starter, Vernon Davis. Returning for his second season is UDFA Garrett Celek, who hopes to challenge rookie Vance McDonald for reps. San Francisco selected the 6’4”, 267-pound McDonald at No. 55 overall in 2013, hoping to plug him in.
McDonald expects to be a presence as a rookie, but Celek’s strides as a sophomore may help him see time on the field this season.
Backup Running Back
No. 21 is not going anywhere this season, but all of a sudden, the 49ers have a captivating battle behind him. Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James will be competing for reps this season as the primary reliever to Frank Gore. With the two being neck-and-neck already, their respective roles on Sunday may vary according to the game plan.
Either way, it is an embarrassment of riches for the ‘Niners at running back.
This is one of the more underrated position groups in San Francisco. The ‘Niners corners helped this defense finish as the fourth-ranked unit against the pass in 2013. Even so, they added CB Nnamdi Asomugha in the offseason, who is a renowned All-Pro talent.
The 32-year-old defensive back will be competing with Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver, hoping to crack the featured lineup. His main competition should be against Brown and Cully, who man the perimeter, where Asomugha excels.
If he makes the roster—having returned to form in Vic Fangio’s scheme—this 49ers defense gets 10 times scarier. Keep in mind, prior to 2011, he was one of two corners locking receivers down and taking away parts of the field.
Dylan DeSimone is the San Francisco 49ers Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. A former NFL journalist and fantasy football writer for SB Nation, Niners Nation and SB Nation Bay Area, Dylan now writes for B/R.
To talk football with Dylan, follow him on Twitter @DeSimone80.