Predicting the Winner of the San Francisco 49ers' Biggest Training Camp Battles
Per the seeming age-old adage these days, the San Francisco 49ers don’t have many training camp battles as most well-documented Super Bowl contenders.
Yet, the positional clashes that do exist hold both short- and long-term ramifications. Predicting said winners is thus a very underrated but important analytic activity.
Backup slots for this squad qualify as said under-the-radar competition. The 49ers know all too well the importance of depth at every position. Look no further than the defensive fallout created by the loss of Justin Smith last season.
But will a 3-4 defensive end earn a spot on this list? Or does the competition exist to a greater extent at other positions?
Let’s now predict the winners of the 49ers' five biggest training camp battles as we head into Day 3 on Saturday.
No 4. Running Back: Anthony Dixon, Jewel Hampton
The 49ers are thoroughly stacked at the running back position.
They feature franchise-leading rusher Frank Gore as the clear top dog, with Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James serving as formidable change-of-pace backups. Rookie Marcus Lattimore will likely be redshirted as the running back of the future as he recovers from a devastating knee injury.
That leaves Anthony Dixon and Jewel Hampton. They’ll compete for the last remaining spot.
Dixon surely has the upper hand with his accomplished special teams resume. He can also serve as a fullback if Bruce Miller or Will Tukuafu ever became unavailable.
Hampton possesses good speed and has developed a solid rapport with the San Francisco coaching staff. He ascended to the 53-man roster for the final five regular-season games last year after starting on the non-football injury list, as reported by Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
Winner: Anthony Dixon
While not as talented, Dixon is simply the more versatile and experienced player.
No. 3 Tight End: Garrett Celek, MarQueis Gray
Similar to running back, the 49ers are fully secure at the top tight end slots. Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald will form a great duo at the position.
The team will use any additional players in a blocking capacity. This will result from Davis and McDonald’s receiving prowess, and from Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman’s propensity to utilize heavy run packages.
Garrett Celek returns as the third-string tight end from 2012. He saw limited action but performed well as a blocker when called upon.
MarQueis Gray, for his part, is an entirely different specimen. The undrafted rookie played quarterback, running back and wide receiver at the University of Minnesota. His versatility and athleticism make him an intriguing option.
Winner: Garrett Celek
Celek is surely the better blocker with more experience at tight end. Watch for Gray to earn a spot on the practice squad.
5. Backup Inside Linebacker
Michael Wilhoite, Nick Moody, Darius Fleming
When your team is equipped with the NFL’s preeminent duo at inside linebacker, backups usually find themselves on the sidelines.
Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are the 49ers entrenched starters at this position. They play nearly every snap and operate at the highest level throughout.
But that also doesn’t mean the players battling for roster spots behind them can’t make valuable contributions.
Larry Grant and Tavares Gooden held these duties in 2012. San Francisco management opted to let both walk this offseason. That leaves Michael Wilhoite, Nick Moody and Darius Fleming as the top guys for the backup position.
Wilhoite made a solid impression on the coaching staff last year as a special teams contributor for the final five regular-season contests. He ranked third on the team with eight tackles in a tie, according to Pro Football Focus.
The 49ers drafted Moody in the sixth round during this year’s draft. He was brought in specifically for his prowess on special teams. It remains to be seen what he can bring at linebacker, but speed is certainly one of his strengths.
Fleming, meanwhile, was a fifth-round selection in 2012. He suffered a season-ending knee injury early in the offseason and is currently riding the physically unable-to-perform list yet again in camp this year. The 49ers moved him from outside linebacker.
Winner: Michael Wilhoite
Technically speaking, Wilhoite will earn an active roster spot as the No. 3 inside linebacker. He will see playing time primarily as a special teams coverage man, however.
Moody and Fleming have superior abilities at linebacker, but expect the former to rise above Fleming in camp.
4. No. 3 Quarterback
Scott Tolzien, B.J. Daniels
I will give you this: Competition among third-string quarterbacks generally doesn’t offer much compelling action.
For the 49ers, though, this is a training camp battle worth watching.
Scott Tolzien and B.J. Daniels are the two men vying for the No. 3 spot. Colin Kaepernick and Colt McCoy have a stranglehold on the starting and backup positions, respectively.
Tolzien is a two-year veteran with experience as the 49ers third quarterback since 2011. He has the requisite intelligence, knowledge of the playbook and game-managing ability. For whatever it's worth, he has also played in multiple preseason games.
As with MarQueis Gray and the No. 3 tight end battle, Daniels brings raw but exceptional physical abilities to the position. He possesses a rocket arm, is a dynamic runner and has logged snaps at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and return specialist thus far in the offseason.
He has focused on quarterback but is more than willing to help the team out in any way he can, according to Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
Winner: B.J. Daniels
If such an unthinkable situation ever arose, the 49ers would probably be more comfortable inserting Tolzien as the No. 3 guy. He is technically more “quarterback ready.”
Yet, Daniels is by far the superior talent.
The former South Florida starter will inevitability win this battle in camp due to his abilities to man multiple positions.
Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Chris Culliver, Nnamdi Asomugha, Perrish Cox, Tramaine Brock
Note: We omitted seventh-round draft pick Marcus Cooper and undrafted free agent Darryl Morris. Cooper has the size and physicality, and Morris possesses 4.33 speed, but these two can only hope for a spot on the practice squad due to the depth chart above them.
The cornerback battle in San Francisco isn’t necessarily a fluid situation. But it does feature some intriguing dynamics.
Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver are solidified as the top three corners. Brown leapfrogging Rogers for No. 1 status is a possibility, though, if Rogers continues to show that he’s lost a step in coverage. Culliver could also rise if he plays like he did in the regular season as opposed to the way he fell apart in the Super Bowl.
Things get more interesting as we move down the depth chart.
Nnamdi Asomugha has the most proven track record as a former All-Pro corner. He was a major disappointment the past two seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles but can still excel in press coverage with his 6’2’’, 210-pound frame.
Perrish Cox returns for his second campaign with the 49ers. He found a role last year as the No. 4 corner in dime packages as well as serving as a backup in the slot. Cox has size, speed, experience and versatility as a special teams returner.
That leaves us with Tramaine Brock, who has been with the team since 2010. He owns two interceptions and five pass breakups over his career. His most effective niche lies with special teams, notably leading the 49ers with 14 tackles last season.
The Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows postulates that Brock could be in the most danger of being a roster casualty at cornerback following camp.
Winners: Nnamdi Asomugha, Perrish Cox
Brock served as one of the few special teams standouts last year for a 49ers coverage unit that greatly struggled. His last notable snaps at cornerback unfortunately came in the 2011 NFC Championship Game in which he gave up a pivotal touchdown.
Asomugha and Cox will thus round out the cornerback depth chart. Both can match up well against bigger receivers, while Cox has value as a backup returner on special teams.
2. Backup Safety
C.J. Spillman, Trenton Robinson, Darcel McBath, Michael Thomas, Raymond Ventrone
Per similar positional battles throughout this list, starters face little danger of losing their position in line.
Donte Whitner will man strong safety both in camp and afterward. His status beyond 2013 is the only thing in question.
First-round draft pick Eric Reid will start alongside Whitner at free safety. The 49ers didn’t move up 13 spots for nothing.
Yes, Craig Dahl lined up with the first-team defense during the opening of training camp, according to CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco. But expect Reid to win the job by summer’s end and for Dahl to hold the role of primary backup.
We now move on to the collection of roster hopefuls at safety.
Out of Trenton Robinson, Darcel McBath, Michael Thomas and Raymond Ventrone, then, who has the best shot at the active roster?
Robinson stands at a diminutive 5’9’’, 193 pounds, but he packs a serious punch and can hold his own at both safety positions. He is also just 23 years of age and could provide insurance for the future.
McBath, on the other hand, possesses good size at 6’2’’, 200 pounds. He also has logged ample playing time on special teams. What lowers his stock is his age (28 in October) in comparison with the other young talent and his lacking performance on defense.
Rounding out this particular camp battle are Thomas and Ventrone. The former spent last year on the practice squad and can play both safety and nickel corner. Ventrone signed as a special teams ace and may switch to wide receiver, as reported by Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
Winners: Trenton Robinson, Raymond Ventrone
With Spillman locked in as the No. 4 safety, Robinson and Ventrone will fill out the rest of the depth chart.
Robinson had a solid offseason and brings future value at the position, while Ventrone will find a roster spot as a special teams standout. San Francisco needs all the help it can get for that unit.
1. Wide Receivers Not Named Anquan Boldin
Kyle Williams, A.J. Jenkins, Ricardo Lockette, Quinton Patton, Marlon Moore, Kassim Osgood, Chad Hall, Chuck Jacobs, Charly Martin
Note: Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area reports that Mario Manningham is still a month or so away from returning to the team at full capacity. If healthy, he would have secured the No. 2 or No. 3 receiver role out of camp. He may start as early as Week 1 or as late as the 49ers seventh game while on the PUP list.
Could we have possibly entertained any other position at the top of this list?
With Michael Crabtree gone for the first 10-12 games and Anquan Boldin locked in as the No. 1 wideout at the flanker position, competition will abound for the remaining receiver openings.
The 49ers cleared Kyle Williams for training camp after a successful recovery from ACL surgery. And No. 10 sure didn’t waste anytime showing off his explosive ability.
Williams blazed past the entire second-team defense and hauled in a deep pass from B.J. Daniels on Thursday. Matt Barrows also cited Williams as one of the three punt returners during the opening practice.
Next in line is 2012 first-round draftee A.J. Jenkins. The former No. 20 overall pick started opposite Boldin on Day 1. Many analysts look to him as the No. 2 receiver until Manningham returns.
Ricardo Lockette is the most unique physically among San Francisco wideouts. The former track star runs a 4.34 40 and boasts a muscular 6’2’’, 211-pound frame. Colin Kaepernick’s roommate may have a leg up on others due to his deep-threat potential.
Quinton Patton, the 49ers fourth-round steal in 2013, is difficult to forecast. He is a sure-handed target who does most things well. It just remains to be seen if his prolific domination at Louisiana Tech will translate into the NFL. He has worn a blue no-contact jersey through the first two days of camp, per Matt Maiocco.
The 49ers also brought in a couple of interesting offseason additions. Marlon Moore and Kassim Osgood—who stands at an impressive 6’5’’—both have earned their keep in the NFL as stalwarts on special teams coverage units. Can they crack this receiver-depleted roster with solid pass-catching performances in training camp?
Finally, Chad Hall held a spot on the active roster as late as the NFC Championship game last season and has value as a punt returner. He, along with Chuck Jacobs and Charly Martin, faces arduous roads ahead beginning with this latest portion of offseason training.
Winners: Kyle Williams, A.J. Jenkins, Ricardo Lockette, Quinton Patton, Kassim Osgood
The 49ers will once again emerge from training camp with six wide receivers (including Boldin).
Boldin and Williams will secure the starting positions, with Jenkins coming in at No. 3 by erasing the dreadful memories of 2012 and realizing his talents that the coaching staff so highly respects.
Lockette will continue developing a rapport with Kaepernick. He brings the most big-play ability out of any receiver.
Patton may a follow a similar route that Jenkins traversed last season, at least for the first several games—but minus the first-round pressure. He’ll make the team and will have ample time to develop, especially if Manningham returns sooner rather than later.
Bringing up the rear is Osgood. He makes it over Moore because of his 6’5’’ length and more impressive Pro Bowl pedigree on special teams.
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