Projecting San Francisco 49ers' Starting Lineup Pre-2014 NFL Draft
With the 2014 NFL draft just around the corner, the San Francisco 49ers are looking at their current roster, trying to analyze and predict just how the team will shape up en route to a sixth Super Bowl championship.
Forget all the discussion about the 49ers' off-the-field issues that have made news in recent weeks and months.
This team is stacked and they know it.
The good news the 49ers can enjoy will come in waves. There are relatively few position battles to be decided before the regular-season commences. There are, perhaps, even fewer roster spots available for San Francisco to supplement via the draft.
Combine that with the 49ers total of 11 draft picks at their disposal per CBS Sports, and the phrase "the rich keep getting richer" applies here.
Even if San Francisco traded away all of its 2014 draft picks for a bag of footballs, this team would still have to be considered elite. That is an excellent position to be in moving forward.
So let's put all of that into consideration. With almost every one of the starting jobs locked up for 2014, what will the 49ers' lineup look like?
Here is what San Francisco's depth chart currently looks like per CBS Sports.
We know that there are some intangibles that cannot be predicted before the draft. Given the needs—some of which shall be described later—we can assume some prospects will have the chance to compete for starting jobs, much like safety Eric Reid did a year ago.
At other positions, we know exactly who the starter will be. Those predictions and evaluations will be easy to make.
In this slideshow, we will predict the 49ers' starting lineup just before the 2014 NFL draft, focusing primarily on starters and immediate backups where applicable.
For clarity purposes, depth and role players will likely be omitted even if they wind up on the 53-man roster.
Kicker: Phil Dawson
Punter: Andy Lee
Kick/Punt Returner: TBD via the draft.
We kick off this slideshow with an immediate controversy—not with who will be leg-booting the ball for the 49ers, but rather the player who will be receiving it.
Return Man: Not LaMichael James
If you have been following the 49ers at all this offseason, you are probably well aware of the stories behind San Francisco's current returner LaMichael James.
After being selected with a second-round pick in 2012, James has seen relatively little of the field aside from his return duties when he took over the job for Kyle Williams during the middle of the 2013 season.
James' frustrations are well known by this point and are further described by Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
LaMichael James expresses his frustration with "insurance" role, then deletes Tweet. http://t.co/KSBHHoiVKk— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) October 2, 2013
In spite of his limited role and subsequent frustrations, 49ers general manager Trent Baalke has insisted the team is not interested in trading away James per Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle (h/t Kevin Patra of NFL.com).
Still, the 49ers have been quick to part ways with players who have voiced disgust with the team in recent years. Remember Brandon Jacobs?
Baalke's statements could be a cover for the team's actual intentions, perhaps as a means to disguise a possible draft-day trade in which James is used as a commodity to sweeten a deal. They likely would not get much for James outright, but using him as a part of a trade-up package makes some sense.
Given the 49ers' need for a receiver, Baalke could be targeting a player who serves as both a wideout and return man.
LSU's Odell Beckham Jr. may supply the fix to both of these needs, having served as a returner during his collegiate years.
Add that to the fact the 49ers have shown interest, and the possibility of switching out James for Beckham becomes plausible.
Even if Baalke cannot get his hands on Beckham during the draft, it is hard to see James assuming the same role next season. For that reason, let us go with someone else—likely selected during the draft.
Kicker: Phil Dawson
This is a no-brainer here. After going 32-of-36 on field goals in 2013, the 39-year-old Phil Dawson returned to the 49ers after signing a two-year, $6.13 million contract.
The veteran kicker will open up the 49ers' inaugural season at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, and will likely enjoy the relative lack of wind he faced when kicking at Candlestick Park.
Punter: Andy Lee
Just like Dawson, this is an easy prediction to make.
The three-time Pro Bowler is probably the best punter in 49er history and has averaged 46.1 yards per punt over his 10-year career.
Offensive Line: Tackles—Joe Staley and Anthony Davis, Guards—Mike Iupati and Alex Boone, Center—Daniel Kilgore
If the 49ers enjoyed one of the best offensive lines in the NFL over the past two seasons, why would the team make any changes?
Well, they did—electing to extend the contract for backup O-lineman Daniel Kilgore, which all but guaranteed veteran Jonathan Goodwin would be out of a job in San Francisco.
Still, this unit will look to replicate the same production it did last season.
Tackles: Joe Staley and Anthony Davis
Backup: Jonathan Martin
This is another prediction very easy to make. Both Joe Staley and Anthony Davis are former first-round draft picks and are prime reasons why the 49ers O-line has been so effective in recent years.
The 49ers have secured Davis through 2019 and Staley is signed through 2017, all but guaranteeing the outside of this until will remain intact for the foreseeable future.
Entering the 2014 season, the only significant question is how an offseason shoulder surgery will affect Davis' abilities moving forward.
There's little to indicate that Davis' surgery and subsequent recovery will prevent him from being ready to go once the regular season starts, according to Josh Alper of NBC Sports.
If Davis' recovery is hampered in any way, look for the San Francisco's offseason acquisition of Jonathan Martin to be the primary backup. Martin can also swing in on either side of the line, providing insurance for Staley as well.
Guards: Mike Iupati and Alex Boone
Backup: Adam Snyder
As far as guards are concerned in 2014, the only question will be whether or not two-time Pro Bowler Mike Iupati will be able to return fully healthy after sustaining a broken ankle in the NFC Championship Game last season.
According to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, Iupati is now walking on his own and is expected to be ready by the start of the season.
That is great news for the 49ers offensive line. The remaining question is whether or not the 49ers will be able to re-sign him after his contract expires following the 2014 season.
Iupati is at the end of his five-year, $15.111 million contract, and it may be tough for San Francisco to keep him given their salary-cap situation.
With that in mind, look for the 49ers to consider drafting a replacement guard in 2014. Should the 49ers go this route, it is doubtful that a new interior linemen will nab a starting role, considering Adam Snyder's presence. But perhaps a developmental player is what San Francisco will seek come the draft.
Center: Daniel Kilgore
2014 will likely be the start of the Daniel Kilgore era at center, as the 49ers have all but parted ways with Jonathan Goodwin.
Kilgore, a 2011 fifth-round draft pick, will probably see his first full-time assignment as he takes over for Goodwin. Fortunately, he has the benefit of being in the middle of one of the best lines in the league, which should make this transition and adjustment that much easier.
Still, the 49ers coaching staff loves competition, and rarely does it just give a job to anybody.
With that in mind, it is possible San Francisco elects to create competition at this position—perhaps coming from a current roster player like Joe Looney or perhaps a late-round prospect.
Storylines to Watch
After spending all of 2013 on the 49ers' non-football injury list, look for tackle Luke Marquardt to compete for a roster spot.
GM Trent Baalke may elect to draft a center in 2014 to compete with Kilgore at the position. Which player wins out in this competition will likely be the favorite to start this upcoming season.
Tight End: Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald
It is worth the assumption that the 49ers will try to utilize more two-tight end sets in 2014, much like they enjoyed with former-49ers tight end Delanie Walker when he was on the roster in 2012 and before. Both David and Walker complimented each other at the position, providing a much more dynamic offensive attack.
Davis is the clear-cut starter at this position. There is no questioning that prediction or decision.
As one of the preeminent playmakers at this position, Davis' abilities stem from his unique physical attributes—size and speed—which grant him the capabilities of creating some of the biggest mismatches on offense.
All of this culminated in Davis' 2013 Pro Bowl campaign, where he netted 52 receptions for 850 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Yet Davis is also known for being one of the best blocking tight ends in the league—an improved aspect further described by future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez via Cam Inman of The San Jose Mercury News.
At 30 years old, Davis is showing no signs of slowing down and we have reason to expect more of the same from him in 2014.
On the other hand, second-year veteran Vance McDonald will try to make his case for being the player San Francisco drafted to replace Walker.
McDonald's rookie career was marked by plenty of ups and downs. On the one hand, McDonald's rookie season saw him haul in a mere eight passes for 119 yards. But on the positive note, head coach Jim Harbaugh frequently slated him in as a blocker—a rare trait for rookie tight ends.
His first season now under his belt, it is hard to fathom the 49ers looking past McDonald for the No. 2 tight end position. Tight ends can take a season or two to adjust to life at the NFL level. Davis himself was no exception.
Moving Forward: Tight Ends for 49ers hinder on Vance McDonald's development http://t.co/JTD2CAMnNM— Christian Gin (@Christian_Gin) January 31, 2014
Hopefully McDonald's second year will provide a better indication of what the youngster is capable of doing, and shall allow the 49ers to be even more flexible on offense.
Backups Garrett Celek and Derek Carrier will compete for the No. 3 tight end slot.
Storyline to Watch
The lone concern with the 49ers' tight end situation will be the development and maturation of McDonald. If he is able to show improvement over his 2013 campaign, his role with the team will likely be guaranteed moving forward.
If not, San Francisco may be forced to adjust their future plans. But that may not have an effect until 2015 or later.
Wide Receiver: Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Quinton Patton and 2014 NFL draftee
If the 49ers have only a few needs this draft, wide receiver would have to stand out as one of them.
San Francisco's passing offense ranked No. 30 last year (2,979 yards) and while the near season-long injury to Michael Crabtree hindered the passing game, the need for an explosive element to this offense is pretty obvious.
Nos. 1 and 2: Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin
Barring injury or some other egregious development, fans can expect Jim Harbaugh and Co. to utilize plenty of incumbent wideouts Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree in 2014.
This was what was expected last season when the 49ers acquired Boldin via a trade with the Baltimore Ravens. Sadly, Crabtree missed all but five regular season games after suffering a torn Achilles tendon during organized team activities.
When both were on the field, San Francisco's passing game was adequate—not great, but adequate.
Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area points out that the 49ers have two receivers atop the depth chart who, in spite of their great hands, lack the explosive speed that often sets apart high-flying offenses. The solution according to Maiocco?
If 49ers re-sign Anquan Boldin, they'll already have two physical, slow wide receivers. They need speed. http://t.co/3E6lmFNoii— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) February 18, 2014
We will get to that in a moment. For now, fans can expect plenty of use from both Boldin and Crabtree in 2014. Even if the 49ers target a speedy receiver in the draft, rookie wideouts do not always work out even if some of the likable attributes are there.
A.J. Jenkins anyone?
Another worthy note is that San Francisco's coaching staff loves its veterans and established players. Both Boldin and Crabtree have met and exceeded these expectations, thus making it hard to fathom the coaching staff leaning in other directions unless totally necessary.
Nos. 3 and 4: Quinton Patton and Rookie TBD
Behind Boldin and Crabtree, the 49ers wide receiver corps looks fairly wide open. Second-year veteran Quinton Patton will look to gain some momentum after a foot injury hampered much of his rookie campaign.
The recently acquired Brandon Lloyd also figures to compete for a spot, but having been signed to a one-year, $1.01 million contract with minimal guaranteed money, Lloyd could merely have been brought on to simply compete for a job—much like cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha was last season.
Then one cannot forget Jon Baldwin, who was exchanged for Jenkins prior to the start of the 2013 season.
Call it a guess, but the most plausible scenario for the 49ers is the drafting of a speed receiver in the early rounds of the 2014 NFL draft. This prospect—perhaps LSU's Odell Beckam Jr., in whom the 49ers have expressed interest—would compete alongside Patton for the No. 3 job.
The winner would get the No. 3 assignment with the other getting tabbed as the fourth wideout.
In this scenario, Lloyd would be out of the picture—perhaps waived at some point early in the season.
Given the 49ers' love of established players, Lloyd may receive some credit. But it is hard to see the team passing up on Patton's maturation to give Lloyd some catches.
Parallel to that mindset, it is also likely the 49ers start the season with Patton as the No. 3 guy, thus letting whichever rookie is drafted prove himself on the field.
Storyline to Watch
The probable drafting of a wide receiver early in the 2014 draft will be the primary focus from 49ers fans.
Speed or size?
This author sat down with Hall of Famer Jerry Rice and asked him a similar question, to which Rice responded, "They need a speed guy."
Time will determine if the 49ers' brass feels the same way.
Also, keep an eye on the developments between players like Lloyd and Baldwin. Impressive training camps could be enough to keep both players in the picture.
Running Back: Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and Marcus Lattimore
Fullback: Bruce Miller
Are we witnessing the twilight of the Frank Gore era in San Francisco?
At the tail end of his three-year, $19.213 million contract, the 30-year-old Gore has probably seen his best days gone by. Still, that does not mean the 49ers will elect to completely move beyond him at the start of the 2014 season.
But will that transition begin to take place anytime soon?
No. 1: Frank Gore
Until proven otherwise, this is still Gore's offense and he remains the featured running back in San Francisco's offensive scheme.
His power running, combined with his excellent patience, are reasons enough behind the success of the five-time Pro Bowler.
After nine seasons at the NFL level, one has to start wondering when Gore will slow down, if he hasn't started to already. Thirty years old tends to be the threshold by which running backs hit the wall, and Gore will be 31 at the start of the 2014 season.
"I really think Frank’s got three more good years," Jim Harbaugh told reporters at the owners' meetings in Orlando in March (h/t Andrew Pentis of 49ers.com). "I really think that."
While Harbaugh's assumptions should be taken at face value, the fact remains that the 49ers have likely already started the search for Gore's heir apparent.
His name is Marcus Lattimore.
No. 2: Kendall Hunter
Kendall Hunter did an amicable job as San Francisco's No. 2 back in 2014, spelling Gore from time to time and providing that different look running games so often need.
He'll likely start the 2014 holding the same role right behind Gore, but his positioning on the 49ers' depth chart could change as the season moves along.
No. 3: Marcus Lattimore
If this author had to make one guess as to which player would be the 49ers' featured back in 2015 and beyond, the answer would firmly be Lattimore.
Drafted in the fourth round in 2013, Lattimore spent his entire rookie season in injured reserve, recovering from gruesome collegiate knee injuries.
The 49ers got one of the steals in the draft when they selected Lattimore—a first-round talent—in the fourth round. Even better, Lattimore could spend the entire season recovering and strengthening his surgically repaired knee.
Now, fans will look to the impact Lattimore provides when he takes the field.
As stated above, this is still Gore's offense until proven otherwise. Lattimore's touches may be infrequent at the start, but look for the 49ers' offense to give him more chances as he becomes more acclimated to the NFL game.
All of this may be cause for consternation between the veteran Gore and the prosperous Lattimore. Yet nothing of the sort has transpired. In fact, one of Lattimore's biggest champions is Gore—someone who shared similar injury setbacks upon entering the NFL.
If Lattimore can live up to the expectations being placed on him, there are few reasons to expect that he will one day be San Francisco's running back of the future.
Fullback: Bruce Miller
No surprise here. Bruce Miller was not only adequate as a blocking back, but was among the leaders in receptions for the 49ers in 2013 until an injury in Week 14 sidelined him for the season.
Storyline to Watch
There is competition among this crowded backfield.
The highlighted story will be the eventual debut and maturation of Lattimore. On the other hand, whatever transpires with fellow back LaMichael James will likely be another, less enjoyable focus. Perhaps the 49ers are able to move him in spite of comments suggested earlier on this slideshow.
Quarterback: Colin Kaepernick, Blaine Gabbert and McLeod Bethel-Thompson
This may be the most confusing, yet least important positional battle of the offseason—the competition for third-string quarterback.
Colin Kaepernick is No. 1. No questions there. Blaine Gabbert—traded from the Jacksonville Jaguars this offseason—should get the nod at No. 2.
Then there is McLeod Bethel-Thompson currently slated at No. 3.
As previously stated, there are no questions surrounding whether or not Kaepernick will hold the starting job in Week 1, barring injury of course.
So what should we look for from the hybrid quarterback in 2014?
This author asked Hall of Famer Steve Young what he thought Kaepernick needed to do to improve upon his game moving forward. Young replied that Kaepernick needed to tie up his legs and focus on being the orchestrator, or CEO of the offense.
In short, Young is suggesting Kaepernick forego the element that makes him so dynamic. While not completely abandoning it, Kaepernick needs to focus on delivering the ball from the pocket—an aspect not always the best among Kaepernicks repertoire.
San Francisco's 30th-ranked passing offense last year falls heavily on Kaepernick's progression reads and maturation. How much this changes in 2014 remains to be seen, but expect it to be a primary focal point as the young quarterback enters his second full season starting under center.
Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick ... these guys STILL aren't great pocket/progression passers. But talent, physical ability can trump polish.— Peter Bukowski (@BukoTime) February 20, 2014
As far as the No. 2 job is concerned, Gabbert will be vying for a chance to resurrect his up-to-now forgettable career.
You will see him get reps during the preseason, as well as the occasional drive during the regular season, but Gabbert's future is best invested towards life elsewhere and not as a long-term member of the 49ers.
Then there is the job of No. 3 quarterback.
Bethel-Thompson holds that accolade for now, but as we have seen with 49ers backup quarterbacks of recent seasons, nothing is guaranteed.
Seneca Wallace, B.J. Daniels and Scott Tolzien could all sing to this.
In short, who knows what exactly the 49ers will do when it comes to addressing this in 2014. Should they just stick with Bethel-Thompson? Should they draft a quarterback late in the draft? Should they sign someone off free agency?
Storyline to Watch
The battle for third-string quarterback is not a tale worth evaluating but for the most die-hard 49ers fans.
Instead, keep an eye on the development of Gabbert and whether or not he can show some promise under the tutelage of head coach Jim Harbaugh. If so, the 49ers may wind up with a trade commodity down the road.
Of course, we can never look too far beyond the maturation of Colin Kaepernick.
Defensive Line: Defensive Ends—Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, Defensive Tackle—Glenn Dorsey
Once a perennial strength, the 49ers' defensive line may be due for some shake-ups in the near future.
Perennial Pro Bowler Justin Smith is not getting any younger and Ray McDonald and Glenn Dorsey are contractual concerns in time. Should we expect the proverbial "changing of the guard" at some point in 2014?
Perhaps we should.
Defensive Ends: Justin Smith and Ray McDonald
Backup: Tank Carradine
Much like some other mentions in this slideshow—and also argued by Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee—2014 may very well be a transitional year for San Francisco's defensive line.
Smith will turn 35 during the upcoming season while McDonald will turn 30. The 49ers already began the rejuvenation process along the line by drafting Carradine and [Quinton] Dial, although both remain question marks after mostly sitting out their rookie years with injuries.
With the aging ends being a concern, and rest being a factor, the 49ers should expect to rotate more of their younger ends into the equation.
This is also pointed out by Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, who states:
the 49ers expect Carradine and Dial to factor into the mix this season ... Carradine, in particular, figures to be an important player for the 49ers due to his versatility. He can play either of the 49ers’ defensive end spots in their base defense. He also features the versatility to line up in the team’s nickel defense from any of the 49ers’ four positions on the line.
Carradine, a second-round pick from the 2013 draft, highlights this transition and makes worthwhile attention regarding how the D-line will look in coming years.
49ers draft outlook: Tank Carradine, Quinton Dial and Lawrence Okoye try to crack into D-line rotation. http://t.co/kpNLD989zm— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) April 30, 2014
But until Carradine assumes a full-time role, the 49ers will go with the mantra that they almost always use—proven veterans get the nod.
Such will be the case with Smith and McDonald to start the season, yet do not expect San Francisco's coaching staff to sit idle with Carradine. He will see his snaps, increasingly as the season progresses.
Defensive Tackle: Glenn Dorsey
Backup: Ian Williams
This author had a tough time trying to project exactly who the starter would be at nose tackle for the 49ers in 2014.
On one hand, Ian Williams won the job in training camp last season and performed well until an injury in Week 2 sidelined him for the season. On the other, Glenn Dorsey—signed as a free agent before 2013—filled in exceptionally well over the duration of the season.
Perhaps defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will swap these players out in a continued D-line rotation as needed. It is hard to predict, but a situation that would ultimately be beneficial.
As far as who gets the nod at No. 1, giving it to Dorsey makes sense given his elongated track record over most of the 2013 season compared to Williams' two games. All of this can be decided in training camp however.
Also, do not forget Dial as he looks to crack the rotation.
Storyline to Watch
Players like Carradine, Dial and perhaps even Lawrence Okoye will start to make an impact to becoming legitimate NFL starters. The infusion of youth into the 49ers' defensive line will be paramount to keeping this entire unit fresh and healthy.
As a result, do not expect the 49ers to go after a defensive lineman in the draft unless it is a late-round pick. There is already enough talent here.
Linebackers: Outside Linebackers—Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks, Inside Linebackers—Patrick Willis and Michael Wilhoite
There are enough stories surrounding the 49ers' linebacker corps to write plenty of articles.
Aldon Smith's off-the-field issues and the impact of Pro Bowler NaVorro Bowman's knee injury and recovery highlight some of the questions San Francisco has entering the 2014 season.
Outside Linebackers: Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks
Backups: Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta
As stated, enough has been written covering Smith's troubles off the field. While we cannot yet get into the legal ramifications or NFL sanctions until these processes play themselves out, we can offer some insight into how all of it will affect the 49ers.
The simple stance—plan for the worst while hoping for the best.
We do not know whether or not Smith will play in 2014. Yet general manager Trent Baalke has made it clear that he does not intend to simply show Smith the door.
Asked if he hopes Smith will play this season and in 2015, Baalke replied via Cam Inman of The San Jose Mercury News, "And in 2016 and 2017 and 2018."
Baalke continued per CSN Bay Area (h/t Frank Schwab of Yahoo! Sports):
I’m a firm believer in the humanistic approach to everything. You continue to work, just like you would with any family member. We’re a family. You just don’t open the door and toss people out of it. You continue to work until they leave you no choice.
Until circumstances and authorities—including the NFL itself—determine so otherwise, it is hard to fathom the 49ers passing up on Smith's on-the-field capabilities. In his three seasons, Smith has posted 42 sacks.
Still, the 49ers could elect to move on beyond Smith if they decide not to pick up his fifth-year player option. As far as the long-term ramifications go, Smith's case is still very much up in the air.
On the other side, Ahmad Brooks should continue to provide his services to San Francisco's linebacker group. Nothing else, aside from injury, would suggest otherwise.
Yet if the 49ers are forced to handle a long-term suspension of Smith, backups like Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta could see substantial playing time. The same would be the case if Brooks suffers an injury at any point.
Inside Linebackers: Patrick Willis and Michael Wilhoite
Backup: Nick Moody
As far as the inside of San Francisco's linebacker group is concerned, injuries do play a significant role.
All Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman's injury—sustained during the 49ers' loss to the Seattle Seahawks during the NFC Championship game last season—profoundly affects the team's immediate future at the start of the 2014 season.
Bowman is expected to miss at least half of the regular season per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
The good news is that he is making progress. The bad news is that he will likely be ineligible for the first six weeks of the regular season, taking a substantial piece out of the 49ers' defense.
This opens up a void at middle linebacker—most likely to be filled by Michael Wilhoite at the start of the season.
Wilhoite performed a similar role in Patrick Willis' stead last season when an injury sidelined him for two games.
While Wilhoite is a clear drop off from Bowman, his work was exceptional enough that he warrants consideration for a starting job come Week 1.
If the 49ers feel as if Wilhoite can play to the same level as he did when he spelled Willis, Baalke may be afforded the luxury of not necessarily needing to supplement the position via the draft.
The team also has Nick Moody as an additional inside backup. Moody played in four games in 2013.
Storyline to Watch
The case with Smith is obvious. The ramifications will have implications on what the 49ers do moving forward.
Additionally, how Wilhoite performs should be a focal point.
Cornerback: Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver, Eric Wright and 2014 NFL draftee
If the wide receiver position has garnered the most attention from 49ers fans approaching the 2014 NFL draft, cornerback should not be that far behind.
This position is very thin after losing veteran corners Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers during the offseason.
While the team was able to add former Minnesota Vikings cornerback Chris Cook and they re-signed Eric Wright, there is likely still some work to be done here.
#49ers are thin on cornerbacks. NFL Network's Mike Mayock says this draft has "pretty good corners three to four rounds deep"— Cam Inman (@CamInman) February 18, 2014
Nos. 1 and 2: Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver
Tramaine Brock's stellar 2013 season warrants this selection as San Francisco's top cornerback entering the season.
His five interceptions and 15 defended passes were reason enough to give the 49ers the ability to part ways with Brown and Rogers, thus alleviating some salary cap concerns.
Lining up alongside Brock will be Chris Culliver, who missed all of 2013 due to injury.
Culliver—whose homophobic remarks before Super Bowl XLVII put him on national radar—has also suffered from some off-the-field issues as of late. These issues, described further by Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee, are a sore spot but probably not enough to warrant the 49ers from relying on him this season.
While talented, neither one of these cornerbacks are considered elite—perhaps reflecting upon the 49ers' theory of relying more on their pass rush up front than their secondary shutting down receivers.
I think Chris Culliver and Tramaine Brock reinforce Baalke's theory that you can teach *any* CB how to play within the scheme.— Tre9er (@Tre9er) April 25, 2014
Still, the secondary has to be considered the team's biggest weakness on defense—an aspect also argued by Paul Sarconi of BaySportsReport.com.
To fix this, look for the 49ers to dip into a deep pool of talented corners this draft.
Even if they do so, San Francisco loves its veterans and will likely give the Opening Day nod to Brock and Culliver, at least to start the season.
Nos. 3 and 4: Eric Wright and Rookie TBD
With Brock and Culliver holding down the Nos. 1 and 2 corner positions, Wright will likely be the third man on San Francisco's cornerback depth chart.
Unlike any rookie coming up through the draft, Wright has practical NFL experience—an element that Jim Harbaugh and Co. love when it comes to assembling a starting lineup.
Wright will undeniably hope to replicate the same success he enjoyed as a member of the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions earlier in his career. The chance to completely resurrect his career with his hometown team in San Francisco adds further motivation.
So can Wright capitalize on the opportunity?
The 49ers think he can, reflected by his re-signing of a one-year, $900,000 contract during the offseason.
As Michael David Smith of NBC Sports writes:
When Wright is 100 percent physically and mentally, he has shown flashes of being a very good player. Unfortunately, Wright hasn’t always been 100 percent physically and mentally ... But Wright was able to get on the field for the 49ers late in the regular season and in the playoffs, and they like his potential. He’s still just 28 years old and should have some good football ahead of him.
Let's bank on Wright getting the nod at No. 3 cornerback for now. While a rookie corner could certainly overtake him on the depth chart, that point will probably not come right away. Rookie corners often take a season or two to adjust to the speed and physicality of the NFL.
With that in mind however, it is possible the 49ers do wind up landing a talented corner early in the draft.
Exactly who is anyone's guess. ESPN Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. projects San Francisco interest in corners Darqueze Dennard and Justin Gilbert (h/t Cam Inman of The San Jose Mercury News). Jason Verrett and Pierre Desir are also intriguing options.
Depending on who and where the 49ers draft for this position, and how that prospect develops during training camp, expect Harbaugh to give a shot for this rookie corner to compete for a spot within the top four positions on San Francisco's depth chart.
This would likely mean Cook is either relegated to backup duty, special teams or released altogether.
Storyline to Watch
Everything regarding this position here on out will focus on the draft. A rookie corner has the potential to break into perhaps the top two positions, although any speculation of the sort is yet to be determined.
Strong Safety: Antoine Bethea
Free Safety: Eric Reid
In 2012, the 49ers boasted two Pro Bowl safeties—Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner. Last season, San Francisco elected to get younger and cheaper by drafting Eric Reid in the first round of the NFL draft and letting Goldson walk via free agency.
That move worked out nicely.
In 2014, San Francisco will hope that free-agent acquisition Antoine Bethea can prove to be just as serviceable a replacement over the now-departed Whitner.
Strong Safety: Antoine Bethea
Backup: Craig Dahl
The 49ers solved a number of issues when they inked the former Indianapolis Colts safety to a four-year, $21 million contract during the offseason.
First, he immediately turned into a cheaper option for the salary-cap strapped 49ers when compared to the money Whitner received with the Cleveland Browns—four years, $28 million. At $7 million less, Bethea offers plenty of NFL experience at a reduced cost.
His signing also alleviates the need to draft another rookie safety in 2014. With 11 picks in the draft, the 49ers could have easily gone this route. But this move gives San Francisco even greater firepower and flexibility when it comes to being aggressive in the draft.
Simply put, it is one less need for the 49ers to evaluate.
In contrast to Whitner, Bethea is a player that does not come with a reputation for being penalized often. His zero-penalty 2013 season per Pro Football Focus (subscription required) is enough to ease the minds of 49ers coaches in regards to some of the costly penalties that hurt San Francisco in the secondary last year.
#49ers Antoine Bethea on his zero-penalty 2013: “You try to play the game clean. Of course, with some of the new rules it’s kind of tough."— Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) March 12, 2014
Bethea has some flexibility as well—the capability of playing both safety positions per Taylor Price of 49ers.com. He also has not missed a start in six season, proving his durability.
“Of course, sitting here, I wish I had two Super Bowl rings instead of one,” he said on a conference call with Bay Area reporters (h/t Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area). “That’s one of the reasons I’m here in San Fran. It’s a great opportunity to try to get another ring. That’s what I’m here to do.”
Bethea, who excels against the run, does come with some concerns according to Pro Football Focus. Yet the 49ers are hoping Bethea can utilize his physical attributes to benefit the defense in this regard. Combine that with an effective pass rush, and Bethea's job should be comparatively easier.
Free Safety: Eric Reid
This one should be no surprise to 49ers fans. Eric Reid will once again get the nod at starting free safety in 2014, especially after his Pro Bowl rookie season.
The transition from Goldson to Reid was virtually seamless and the talented defensive back will once again look to his attributes to bring strength to the 49ers' secondary.
With one year under his belt, the question now is whether or not Reid will step up and assume a leadership role, much like the one vacated by Whitner.
Al Sacco of Rant Sports describes the opportunity. He writes:
Some of the reason for Reid’s success was in no doubt due to him being part of a veteran unit that included fellow safety Whitner and cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown. However, as Reid enters 2014, he finds himself having started more games as a 49er than any other player in the secondary after only one season in the league. As the de facto leader of the group, is Reid ready to take on the added responsibilities?
An outside guess would suggest that he is ready for the task. Everything Reid has shown thus far in his young career has been promising. Now, the veteran presence is the next step on what hopes to become a fruitful NFL career.
Behind Bethea and Reid, safety Craig Dahl will see some time as a backup and as a member of the 49ers' special teams unit.
The six-year veteran has practical NFL experience at both safety positions, thus giving the 49ers the right amount of depth they need at the position.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.