Of the 22 starting spots on the San Francisco 49ers offense and defense, most will be filled by players who started last year.
Then there are the wild cards. Marcus Lattimore and Tank Carradine—both of whom missed 2013 with injuries—could take San Francisco's training camp by storm.
Even so, I can't see Carradine starting for Justin Smith or Ray McDonald. And Frank Gore, barring an unforeseen setback, will be starting in 2014, though I expect Lattimore to eat into his reps more so than any other 49ers backup running back ever has.
Due to losing players through free agency, injury and cuts, three spots are wide open for 49ers role players (guys who have rarely started in their careers) to fill. The following three players will seize the opportunity.
When Daniel Kilgore signed a three-year extension on Feb. 27, many, including Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee, speculated that he would take Jonathan Goodwin's starting center spot in 2014.
And considering Goodwin is still unsigned, the scenario seems all the more likely.
Kilgore, a fifth-round pick in 2011, has played 170 snaps in his NFL career. That's not a big enough sample size to draw a conclusion on his ability.
Fortunately for him, he'll be surrounded by Mike Iupati and Alex Boone, two of the top guards in the NFL.
Assuming Kilgore outperforms his competition (linemen taken in the draft and signed via free agency) in training camp, the starting spot will be his.
When NaVorro Bowman sustained multiple ligament injuries in his left knee during the NFC Championship Game, it was Michael Wilhoite who subbed in for him. If the Niners trusted him on that big stage, they'll likely give him a shot to start in 2014 while Bowman heals.
And that's why they tendered a contract to the unheralded inside linebacker.
Wilhoite played 179 snaps a year ago, mostly in the place of Patrick Willis when he was dealing with injuries in the early part of the season.
Pro Football Focus gave him a minus-2.3 overall score in his limited playing time (subscription required). It goes without saying that he's not expected to replicate Bowman's production.
But he is expected to fill his run gaps and stay with tight ends and running backs on passing plays. If he has issues in training camp and preseason fulfilling his basic roles, Nick Moody or a linebacker taken in the draft could take his spot.
Whoever wins the linebacker spot will likely start temporarily. Jim Harbaugh hopes to have Bowman back about halfway through the season, but he's not counting him out of returning earlier than that.
"I wouldn't count NaVorro Bowman out of anything," Harbaugh told Jarrett Bell of USA Today. "He's a supreme athlete, a world-class athlete. The way he moves, his strength, his powers of healing, I wouldn't count him out of anything."
Did the 49ers cut Carlos Rogers and let Tarell Brown leave because they didn't want them? Or did they make those moves because they wanted to clear a starting path for Chris Culliver?
Probably a combination of both.
Rogers and Brown started every game in 2012. Culliver was listed as a starter six times (the games in which San Francisco began the game in its nickel defense), but he was always considered the No. 3 cornerback on the depth chart.
When he tore his ACL in August—which kept him out for the season—his future with the 49ers was in doubt.
Now, he is clearly one of the top two cornerbacks on the Niners depth chart.
Even if the Niners use their first-round pick on a cornerback, Culliver still has a great chance to start. No rookie is going to be given a starting spot without earning it. Culliver's experience might win out in a preseason competition.
Also, there's no guarantee that incumbent starter Tramaine Brock will outperform Culliver in the preseason.
After all, Pro Football Focus ranked Culliver 29th out of 113 cornerbacks in 2012, his second pro season. He was set for a breakout 2013 before his injury.
Brock ranked 15th out of 119 cornerbacks in PFF's 2013 rankings. He and Culliver are likely to start on the outside.
What the Niners need is a slot cornerback to replace Rogers.
They recently signed Eric Wright and Chris Cook to one-year deals, per Barrows. Both will have a chance at the nickel cornerback role, but I suspect the 49ers will draft a cornerback with the hope that he will be ready to fill that void by the beginning of the 2014 season.
Assuming Culliver is fully recovered from his knee injury, he'll likely beat out Wright, Cook and rookies for a starting cornerback position.
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