Predicting the 49ers Starting Lineup After the 1st Wave of Free-Agent Signings
Since the clock struck zero and opened the floodgates to free agency, general manager Trent Baalke and the San Francisco 49ers have barely flinched.
They crawled out of their cave to complete a couple of moves that already seemed to be in place but nothing earth-shattering. It was not too surprising either. They have their team. Most of the starters are locked in place, and this is a club that builds through the NFL draft.
That being said, we have a good idea of what the 2014 roster will look like, all the way down to the first-stringers on the depth chart.
In this piece, we'll paint a picture of the 22 starters on offense and defense to offer up an idea of who will be taking the field in this new league year. We also don't need to talk about special teams, as most already understand how vital punter Andy Lee and placekicker Phil Dawson are (both are seasoned All-Pros in their own right).
Now, while we’re just listing presumed starters, there are second-stringers who expect to have significant roles, as many are being groomed for the future. They’ll be demarcated by a star next to their name. Each player will have a full analysis that details who he is, what he does and the role that he is expect to have.
Not only is Colin Kaepernick the unquestioned starter at quarterback, but this is his team through and through. Under his command, the 49ers have continued to evolve from a dink-and-dunk West Coast offense to a more explosive spread attack that relies on power rushing and sleight of hand to set up kill shots.
While he’s been the talk of the NFL for some time now, 2014 will only be his second full season as a starter. Expectations are high, but so is his talent level.
Don’t get weepy, but this may be the last time Frank Gore holds the top peg on the depth chart in San Francisco. This season will mark his 10th with the organization that drafted him. Not many have been able to do that in today's NFL with free agency and cold-blooded execs.
But Gore stepped up in his second year, relieved Kevan Barlow and never looked back, winding up as the franchise’s all-time leading rusher. He is beloved.
Since his strengths are grounded on patience, vision, slipping tackles and always being a step ahead of the defense, Gore also still has value. He hasn’t showed signs of slowing down. That being the case, No. 21 will spearhead this backfield again, but expect him to have company.
South Carolina superstar Marcus Lattimore will finally be ready to make his NFL debut in 2014. If the knee is fine and he is what many have projected him to be, he should jump to the front of the line, skipping over Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James in the rotation. This should be more of a one-two punch between Gore and Lattimore.
Fullback Bruce Miller succumbed to a season-ending injury toward the back end of 2013, which kept him out of the playoff run. This was a significant loss considering the type of football the Niners play and how well he had been performing as a blocking back and outlet for Colin Kaepernick.
Once healthy, he expects to reprise his role with little to no competition.
Believe it or not, Michael Crabtree has not had a full season as a No. 1 wide receiver with the man who brought his pro career to life, Colin Kaepernick. In 2012, Kap came in halfway through, and in 2013, Crab tore his Achilles. With any luck, he will be able to catch his groove in a full season with Kaepernick, proving himself as a true No. 1.
Remember—this was one of the most decorated receivers in the history of college football and a top-10 draft choice, to boot. Most are still waiting for his breakout campaign, which he may be on the cusp of.
The 49ers re-signed Anquan Boldin to a two-year deal, bringing experience and physicality to the wide receiver position. While he isn’t fast—admittedly he never was—he will outmuscle defenders to the ball. He is the ultimate bailout for Kaepernick, and judging by his 1,000-yard season last year, he still has his legs left at age 33.
San Francisco’s homegrown Pro Bowl weapon and only deep threat Vernon Davis returns for his ninth season in 2014. By now, No. 85 is widely considered one of the top tight ends in the game—one of the few true hybrid weapons (and not because of his 6'3" height). He is a valuable piece to have, and the 49ers will continue to tailor the offense to his unique skill set.
Offensively, the 49ers are very tight end-friendly, using “12” and “22” personnel quite a bit. This stipulates them having a high-caliber No. 2 behind Vernon Davis—that’s Vance McDonald. Last year’s second-round pick out of Rice University will be entering his sophomore campaign in red and gold and should be one of the top players in line for an increased role.
After mastering the team’s intricate blocking techniques as a rookie, McDonald will likely see more targets this coming season.
Left tackle Joe Staley is the “Papa Bear” of the offensive line. He’s been around the longest, as the unit was constructed around him. He’s a multi-time Pro Bowler who consistently plays at an All-Pro level. Every year, he goes up against some of the best speed and power rushers in the game and shuts them down. Staley is simply one of the best there is.
This offensive line is known for grinding out the tough yardage, and that element stems from the presence of Pro Bowl left guard Mike Iupati. Without him, this team struggles to function (which was shown when he had to exit the lineup due to injury on multiple occasions). He is entering a contract year, and his future is up in the air with other more pertinent deals that need to be addressed.
This could be his last season starting for the 49ers.
He is not exactly a new face on the team but one of the freshest who is expected to crack the starting lineup in 2014.
Backup interior offensive lineman Daniel Kilgore was selected in 2011 in coach Jim Harbaugh’s first draft, with the intention of developing into Colin Kaepernick’s long-term center. This was a plan on many people’s minds, and it appears to be coming to fruition with Jonathan Goodwin out and Kilgore having recently signed a contract extension.
The transition of 6’7” Alex Boone from swing tackle to starting right guard worked out beautifully for San Francisco. He provides a physical presence in the middle and also does well standing up all types of defensive linemen who try to slip gaps and cave in his quarterback’s head. Boone has a killer mentality, and it's resonated in this unit.
One of the unheralded but consistently strong performers on the offensive line is right tackle Anthony Davis, who will be entering his fifth year as a starter. He had another strong campaign in 2013, except for when he was exposed by Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett in the NFC title game.
That won’t affect his standing or the perception of him. Davis is a fringe Pro Bowler every year.
Hulking and mechanically flawless defensive lineman Justin Smith has anchored this line since 2007. After playing in a 4-3 for the first half of his career in Cincinnati, he found a nice home at the right end spot in San Francisco’s downhill 3-4 unit. Nobody is going to bump him from that spot or even challenge him, especially in what may be his last year.
He is the lifeblood of the defense and one of the premier players in the NFL.
While most will remember Glenn Dorsey as the starting nose tackle this past season, Ian Williams won the job in training camp. Unfortunately, his season was cut short by a shattered ankle in Week 2. It’s plausible the organization still views Williams as the more natural 0-technique lineman, granting him the starting gig all over again.
Of course, he’ll come in and compete in camp, but if he won it before, Williams can do it again.
Defensive tackle Ray McDonald will be back at the left end spot for San Francisco this season. While he doesn’t rack up the tackles and sacks or pop out on film, the does the dirty work away from the ball, enabling the rest of the players around him to operate more freely.
Yes, the 49ers have a tank rolling in...
Cornellius “Tank” Carradine is a monster of a physical specimen—on par with Houston Texans end and defensive player of the year J.J. Watt. This is a guy who, with the proper tutelage from San Francisco’s veterans and line coach Jim Tomsula, will strike fear into the heart of the opponent. Quarterbacks and running backs won’t want to turn their back to him, and offensive linemen won’t want to engage him.
Carradine will be a spot player and situational pass-rusher in 2014.
It didn’t take long for Aldon Smith to prove his worth as a pass-rusher, breaking onto the scene as a situational player in 2011. But over the past two years in particular, it seems that he’s separated himself from the rest of the pack. He looks like the best pass-rusher in the game. If there is a candidate out there to break the NFL’s single-season sack record, it’s No. 99.
Smith is in line for his second full season as a starter in 2014.
There’s a lot of talent on this roster, but if there is one man who needs no introduction, it’s Patrick Willis. The team captain will return for his eighth season, directing traffic on his side of the field and destroying the will (and bodies) of his opponent.
The three-time All-Pro linebacker will be entering his fourth season (yes, you read that correctly). NaVorro Bowman is one of the best in the game at his position—maybe the best. He can run sideline to sideline as good as anyone but has also shown a knack for playing back in coverage, blitzing and coming up with big plays in very clutch situations.
Unfortunately, he suffered a gruesome ACL tear in the NFC Championship Game versus the Seattle Seahawks and is now at risk of missing part of the 2014 regular season.
Much like his partner in crime Ray McDonald, outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks is another player who just doesn’t get enough credit. He makes a sizable impact every time he steps out there, and like Bowman, he has the clutch gene. Brooks will enter his fourth year as a starter, manning the edge opposite Aldon Smith.
Get to know this name, if you don’t already. One of the reserve players who most impressed this past year was inside linebacker Michael Wilhoite of little Washburn University. He stepped up in all phases. His primary duty in 2013 was on special teams, where he excelled.
After speaking with Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus, he informed me that Wilhoite was actually the engine that made the Tony Montana Squad run in 2013. He was a top performer and tackle leader up there with safety C.J. Spillman. But when asked to step into the starting lineup, Wilhoite wowed there, too.
He filled in for Patrick Willis for two games and made 20 tackles.
The reason we bring Wilhoite up again is because many are concerned about the inside linebacker position with Bowman rehabbing. However, there is no need to worry with strong depth inside.
Wilhoite is the best reserve inside backer that the team has had, probably ever. If he gets the nod in Week 1, get excited to watch No. 57 fly around and hit.
There seems to be frightful concern over the cornerback position for the San Francisco 49ers. With Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown now gone—the two former starters since 2011—uncertainty has plagued the minds of fans. But the club would not proceed unless it had a plan, and that plan is Chris Culliver.
Despite public perception (mostly his one game in the Super Bowl), Culliver is an outstanding press corner. At 6’0”, he is long, lengthy and incredibly fast. He’s been able to run with and shut down some of the best receivers in the league in a short period of time.
The team has so much faith in him that it asked him to man up against Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald in his rookie year, and he did not disappoint.
Don’t fret: Culliver is in line to emerge as the next marquee defender in this defense. Under secondary coach Ed Donatell, this club has groomed far less gifted players and gotten production out of them. Culliver is supremely talented and is on par to break out in 2014.
Tramaine Brock was a pleasant surprise for the 49ers in 2013, and one they had to have. He emerged from the depths of the roster, once again proving that San Francisco has one of the best farm systems in the league. He performed so well, that the Niners extended his deal when many though Tarell Brown was actually the cornerback who has due for a new contract.
They would not make that kind of move if they didn’t believe Brock was the real deal.
First-round pick Eric Reid was one of the best rookies overall to emerge from the 2013 class. He had high expectations coming in, having to fill the shoes of All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson, and he exceeded them. The hard hitting remained, but it was without the cost of unnecessary roughness penalties.
Reid also found himself at the right place at the right time on several occasions, making four interceptions in his debut season. He’ll enter 2014 with experience and confidence under his belt, which may set him up to make a quantum leap, building on a hot start to his pro career.
One of the newcomers is Antoine Bethea, a two-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion safety formerly of the Indianapolis Colts. He comes in as a stopgap, taking over for the departed Donte Whitner, who signed a whopper of a deal with the Cleveland Browns.
Bethea will look to add some experience on the back end before the 49ers transition to another rookie in 2014 or 2015.