San Francisco 49ers Players Who Should See Their Roles Expand in 2014
Given their esteemed and awfully hard-to-crack roster, the San Francisco 49ers often have talented players who are waiting in the wings. This being the case year after year, they've accumulated quite a bit of name value, which has given this team its own elite in-house farm system.
In their time of waiting, these developing players have contributed here and there but have mostly continued their education by learning the playbook and picking the brains of veterans and coaches.
As a result, once their number is called, they can hit the ground running, and the team doesn't suffer in the win-loss column. Now, opportunities for players have varied by position, but new windows have opened each year. Old players leave or get hurt, and young players are finally deemed ready by the staff.
Given what has transpired, both on game day and in the front office, it is becoming clearer who will be in line for expanded roles in 2014. The following slideshow will identify and profile which players are going to have their names called on Sunday this coming season. So familiarize yourself with them now while you can.
LaMichael James, RB (Year 3)
General manager Trent Baalke spoke out publicly regarding the status of 49ers tailback LaMichael James, a former second-round pick who effectively disappeared once he was added to the roster. According to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, James will not be traded, despite his non-involvement thus far.
Now, this club has been known to redshirt its younger players, but the situation with James has been seemingly different. He was one of the higher draft picks—with a high profile and esteemed body of work—who has been riding the pine for far too long.
Even with the Achilles injury to wide receiver Michael Crabtree in 2013 and the offense’s need for playmaking and diversity, the team made no attempt to involve James in any capacity whatsoever. It really seems to be a miscommunication between front office and coaching staff.
However, if the 49ers have convened this offseason and Baalke says James is here to stay, then it’s time to do something with him.
We’ve talked about this ad nauseam, but James has a unique skill set that warrants some philosophical changes on offense. The 49ers can open up an already dynamic running game by adding more stretch and toss plays with James while using the speedster on read-option plays, which would place incredible strain on defenses.
Given his physical tools and likeness to all-purpose weapon Darren Sproles, it is also feasible that James can be used as a receiving option and bailout for quarterback Colin Kaepernick. If the 49ers are looking to be more threatening down the field, they can help themselves by integrating a dangerous underneath option that makes defenses respect the shallow part of the field.
Michael Wilhoite, ILB (Year 4)
Time to face facts: All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman is going to miss substantial time in 2014, if not the entire regular season, as Bleacher Report’s lead writer on sports medicine Will Carroll indicates above. This is a blow to the 49ers defense, but not one it isn’t prepared to handle.
Last year, the group played without outside linebacker Aldon Smith, defensive tackle Ray McDonald, cornerback Chris Culliver and inside linebacker Patrick Willis for games at a time.
Those are starting players at every level of the infrastructure.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio runs a tight ship, so this unit can endure because of its emphasis on scheme, assignments and developmental players beneath the starters. One of Fangio’s best and most pro-ready standouts has been linebacker Michael Wilhoite, who appears to have the right of way when it comes to taking over for Bowman this coming season.
Wilhoite, a fourth-year pro and converted safety, has a firm grasp on this defense and can immediately cover up for the loss of Bowman.
He built his chops up on special teams, becoming one of the unit’s tackle leaders. He also filled in for Patrick Willis at inside linebacker for two games last year. In that span, he accumulated 20 tackles and a pass defended in clutch back-to-back wins for the team. He was flying all over the field, too.
If he gets an opportunity to start like some expect him to, not only will Wilhoite have an expanded role, but he may turn some heads in the process.
Tank Carradine, DT (Year 2)
The 49ers might not have a top pick in this draft, but they’re getting a top-five overall prospect from 2013 in defensive lineman Tank Carradine. Due to the nature of his acquisition, he is an under-the-radar player who is going to make serious waves on game day.
He comes from a 4-3 defense at Florida State, where he was the team’s tackle leader and unequivocally one of the nation’s best pass-rushers.
He joins the 49ers, looking to add size and learn the 5-technique, potentially turning into a freakish hybrid 3-4 end like Houston Texans defensive player of the year J.J. Watt. Carradine can vary his assignments, either holding the point or getting after the quarterback.
According to Carradine, who did a spot with 95.7 The Game, he is well on his way, now up to 295 pounds, which is 10 pounds heavier than Justin Smith. This is also 19 pounds heavier than when he was drafted. And if you’ve seen his weight-training regimen and build, you know it's good clean weight.
In all likelihood, he is going to plug in as a top-tier rotational option, particularly on third down and obvious passing downs.
More than likely, he is going to spell Ray McDonald on the end and put his hand in the grass in San Francisco’s sub-packages/four-man fronts. This will add a new threatening dynamic to the 49ers front, giving it a new weapon and enabling other current players to be even more effective.
The more I watch Tank Carradine, the more I'm convinced he would be a top five pick if not for his injury. Dude had 80 tackles this year.— Matthew Fairburn (@MatthewFairburn) March 21, 2013
Vance McDonald, TE (Year 2)
Ever since the 49ers' new regime was set in place in 2011 and offensive coordinator Greg Roman installed his system, tight end has been an important and delicately handled positional group. Pro Bowler Vernon Davis has been a mainstay in the offense, and former No. 2 man Delanie Walker had an integral role before leaving for greener pastures.
Offensively, the tight end is the backbone of what the offense does.
This is why the introduction of Walker’s replacement, Vance McDonald, has been slow and steady. First of all, in his rookie year, the Rice product was charged with learning this team’s intricate blocking assignments, which were key to setting the edge and blowing holes open in the defensive line.
That is a tall order, so McDonald’s limited receiving role was not too surprising in hindsight.
However, given his build (6’4”, 267 lbs) and speed (4.69 40-yard dash time, per NFL.com), he still has the capacity to be a much greater pass-catching option than his predecessor ever was. Truth be told, both fans and San Francisco’s 2014 opponents should be expecting far more action from McDonald this coming season.
He should become a more dangerous weapon in the middle of the field, particularly on seam routes, as well as in the red zone. He has a huge frame to box out defenders and the gigantic mitts to wrangle the ball from anyone competing for it in flight.
If he gets to work with Colin Kaepernick this offseason, McDonald is a candidate to be the team’s most improved player in 2014.
Quinton Patton, WR (Year 2)
Wide receiver Quinton Patton should be expected to add some fireworks to the 49ers' passing offense in 2014.
As a rookie, the Louisiana Tech product had an instant chemistry with quarterback Colin Kaepernick, an understanding and fit within the offense and fearlessness on the gridiron. Had it not been for his two injuries—a broken hand and a foot fracture—he might have carried the load in the wake of Michael Crabtree’s absence.
This coming season, Patton is a virtual lock to assume the No. 3 wide receiver spot behind Crabtree and veteran Anquan Boldin.
He should get a lot of slot work by being matched up with third-string cornerbacks, whom, for the most part, he should outclass. From a mere talent perspective, this could yield positive results for the 49ers offense, which is looking to deploy more three-wide receiver sets this coming season, via Bill Williamson of ESPN.com.
Daniel Kilgore, C (Year 4)
The front office revealed its intentions at center when aging veteran and former starter Jonathan Goodwin was left out to dry, while 26-year-old Daniel Kilgore—who has been marinating for three seasons—was given a contract extension. Clearly the offense is looking to go younger at the position.
Kilgore, a former fifth-round pick in 2011, looks to be the next stud in an incredible haul of a draft class.
He’s been the team’s sixth man on the offensive line, backing up the three interior spots and building a callus. It seems the 49ers know what they have and are ready to move forward with Kilgore as Colin Kaepernick’s center of the future. Now, he should have some competition in camp, but he is certainly the front-runner.
Pending unforeseen circumstances, the job is Kilgore’s to lose.
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