Initial Post-Draft Depth Chart for San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers will have some tough decisions to make in the coming months regarding their depth chart.
At the time of this writing, the Niners have the rights to 93 players. By the beginning of the regular season, they'll have to shape their pool of players into a 53-man roster.
With one of the deepest rosters in the league, some NFL-caliber players won't make the team. And that's only part of the task at hand.
The Niners also must decide who will be starting and getting the bulk of the playing time.
The following slides are a position-by-position breakdown of San Francisco's depth chart. The bolded players are who I believe will be on the Week 1, 53-man roster. The backups are listed from most- to least-expected playing time at the position noted on their slide.
Author's notes: I avoided predicting which players will get suspended. If a player is suspended before the season, he won't count against the Week 1, 53-man roster, which would open up another spot. NaVorro Bowman is the only potential starter who is projected to not be healthy by Week 1. That's why his name is italicized on the linebacker slide. Offensive starting lineup based on 21 personnel (one RB, one FB, one TE, two WRs). Defensive starting lineup based on standard 3-4.
Starter: Colin Kaepernick; Backups: Blaine Gabbert, McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Kory Faulkner
Colin Kaepernick has no reason to look over his shoulder this season.
Over the last two seasons, he's amassed a 17-6 record in the regular season. In contrast, backup Blaine Gabbert has a 5-22 career record, all with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Kaepernick is entering a contract year. If the 49ers don't extend him this offseason, he'll use the 2014-15 season to show San Francisco and the rest of the NFL how much he's worth.
The battle for the No. 3 spot is between Kory Faulkner and McLeod Bethel-Thompson. Faulkner, who the 49ers picked up after the 2014 draft, threw for 1,997 yards and 18 touchdowns in his senior season at Southern Illinois.
Neither is expected to take Gabbert's spot. Remember, Gabbert was the 10th overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft. Jim Harbaugh is the right coach to get the most out of Gabbert's potential.
RB Starter: Frank Gore; Backups: Carlos Hyde, Marcus Lattimore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, Jewel Hampton
FB Starter: Bruce Miller; Backups: Will Tukuafu, Trey Millard
Frank Gore has started 117 games since 2006. He's coming off his seventh 1,000-yard season in eight years.
Yeah, I think he'll be the starter again.
But he is turning 31 next week, and his contract is up at the end of this season.
That's where Carlos Hyde comes in.
The former Ohio State star was drafted in the second round by the Niners on Friday. He should instantly be San Francisco's short-yardage back with his 230-pound frame.
If Marcus Lattimore is fully recovered from the horrific knee injury he suffered in 2012, he has the talent to be Gore's primary backup. But the Hyde pick had many doubting whether Lattimore will be ready in 2014, including Bleacher Report's Matt Miller:
"Big concerns about Marcus Lattimore, folks. A power RB is a need in San Francisco."
The bottom line is the 49ers don't have room for five running backs and a fullback on their 53-man roster. This means Lattimore, Kendall Hunter or LaMichael James is at risk of being cut or traded.
At this point, I'm predicting James will get the boot. I know Trent Baalke said he does not "feel an urgency" to replace James, per CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco, but if someone else on the roster (Bruce Ellington? Quinton Patton?) proves just as good or better at returning punts and kickoffs, he's the most expendable of San Francisco's top-five running backs.
Starters: Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin
Backups: Stevie Johnson, Bruce Ellington, Quinton Patton, Kassim Osgood, Brandon Lloyd, Jon Baldwin, Chuck Jacobs, DeMarco Sampson, Devon Wylie, David Reed
Before the 49ers traded for Stevie Johnson, I believed Brandon Lloyd would make the 53-man roster. Now, I think he's practically guaranteed to be cut.
Lloyd's contract includes no guaranteed money. Why keep an aging veteran over two young and talented players (Bruce Ellington and Quinton Patton) and a receiver who doubles as a special teams ace (Kassim Osgood)?
Johnson, Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin all have had a 1,000-yard season in the last two years. For now, I have Johnson coming off the bench, but in reality, these guys are Options 1A, 1B and 1C.
Expect the Niners to feature more three wide receiver sets in 2014 to utilize the depth of their receiving corps.
Vernon Davis will continue to start for San Francisco. The question is whether Vance McDonald will have a breakout second season.
A second-round pick in 2013, McDonald had just eight receptions last year. Harbaugh tends to feature two tight end sets more than most coaches, so McDonald is likely to get plenty of playing time to prove his worth in 2014.
If McDonald shines in training camp/preseason, Garrett Celek will be on the roster bubble. My guess is Harbaugh will want three tight ends for his power formations, but he could also go with two tight ends and line up offensive linemen in receiver-eligible positions.
Starters: LT Joe Staley, LG Mike Iupati, C Daniel Kilgore, RG Alex Boone, RT Anthony Davis
Backups: C/G Marcus Martin, T Jonathan Martin, G/T Adam Snyder, G Joe Looney, Brandon Thomas OL, T Carter Bykowski, T Luke Marquardt, G Ryan Seymour, G Al Netter, C Dillon Farrell, OT Fou Fonoti
Joe Staley, Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati and Alex Boone figure to take the starting guard and tackle spots, just like the last two years. The big question is at center.
Daniel Kilgore or Marcus Martin?
Kilgore has never started a game in the NFL. The three-year veteran signed a three-year, $4.85 million extension this offseason.
Not exactly starter's money.
Martin was the highest-rated center prospect in this year's draft, according to CBS Sports. But if he was that important to the 49ers, then why did they trade down from the 61st pick in the draft and risk letting another team sign him before they picked again at pick No. 70?
In hindsight, the strategy was brilliant. The Niners got their guy and an extra pick. Maybe there's nothing to read into.
For now, I have Kilgore winning the job. Three years of practice experience trumps more potential in this case. However, Martin could easily win this job with a great training camp.
I also really liked the Brandon Thomas pick. Thomas is expected to miss the 2014-15 season with a torn ACL, according to Bill Williamson of ESPN.com. If the 49ers don't extend Iupati's contact, Thomas could be starting in 2015.
Starters: DE Justin Smith, NT Glenn Dorsey, DE Ray McDonald
Backups: DE Tank Carradine, DT Ian Williams, DT Tony Jerod-Eddie, DT Quinton Dial, Demarcus Dobbs DT, Kaleb Ramsey DT, Morgan Breslin DE, Lawrence Okoye DT, Mike Purcell DT, Christian Tupou DT
Justin Smith is the only defensive lineman I'd be shocked not to be starting in Week 1. Glenn Dorsey and Ray McDonald have their work cut out for them.
Tank Carradine, who missed the entire 2013-14 season with a torn ACL, will be gunning for McDonald's defensive end spot. The former Florida State star told 95.7 The Game that's he's back to 100 percent.
The Niners selected him with the 40th overall pick in 2013. He likely would've been a first-round pick had he not been injured in December of 2012. Basically, the rich get richer.
I have McDonald starting the first few games of the season. But by season's end, I believe Carradine will be playing more snaps.
Dorsey was ranked ninth in Pro Football Focus' run defense score among defensive tackles in 2013 (subscription required). He's earned the right to start, but Ian Williams can take the job by outperforming him in training camp.
In this roster projection, Demarcus Dobbs is one of the last players cut. Quinton Dial is the younger and cheaper option.
Starters: Aldon Smith OLB, Patrick Willis ILB, Michael Wilhoite ILB, Ahmad Brooks OLB
Backups: Corey Lemonier OLB, Chris Borland ILB, Dan Skuta OLB, Aaron Lynch OLB, NaVorro Bowman ILB, Nick Moody ILB, Darius Fleming ILB, Shayne Skov ILB
Assuming NaVorro Bowman starts the season on the PUP list, the 49ers have an opening in the starting lineup at inside linebacker.
Michael Wilhoite filled in for Bowman and Willis when either were injured last season. He's the favorite to start, but don't count out third-round pick Chris Borland.
Corey Lemonier also figures to see the field more in his second season, regardless of whether Aldon Smith is suspended.
Aaron Lynch, Nick Moody, Darius Fleming and Shayne Skov all have more than enough talent to make an NFL roster. I think the Niners can only afford to keep one, and for now Lynch seems like the favorite because of his superior pass-rushing ability.
Starters: Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver
Backups: Perrish Cox, Chris Cook, Darryl Morris, Dontae Johnson, Eric Wright, Keith Reaser, Kenneth Acker, Dax Swanson
Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver are the front-runners to start. The nickel cornerback role is where the guessing begins.
First-round pick Jimmie Ward (who is listed as a safety on this slideshow) is one of the players in the running for the spot.
"We believe he’ll compete as a nickel for us as well which is a very important position," Harbaugh said after the pick, per Taylor Price of 49ers.com. "He’s a good hitter, but he also makes plays on the ball. He’s extremely fast and has great instincts."
He'll lock horns with Perrish Cox and Chris Cook, who both started at least one game last year. Darryl Morris is a valuable special teams contributor. The final spot is between Dontae Johnson and Eric Wright. I doubt the Niners want to lose a fourth-round pick before Week 1 of his rookie season. As long as he shows some promise in training camp, he should be safe.
Starters: Eric Reid FS, Antoine Bethea SS
Backups: Jimmie Ward, C.J. Spillman, Craig Dahl, Bubba Ventrone, D.J. Campbell, L.J. McCray
Jimmie Ward's versatility spell troubles for Craig Dahl and Bubba Ventrone.
Both were primarily special teams players in 2013, but they were also kept on the roster as insurance in case Reed or Donte Whitner got hurt. With Ward, neither is needed for that role.
My guess is they both get cut. It'll likely come down to two spots between Ventrone, Dahl, Darryl Morris, Dontae Johnson and Eric Wright. Morris is the best talent of the five right now. Johnson will have to show promise on special teams to make the roster. If he does, there's no reason to keep Dahl or Ventrone, who don't have a future on defense.
Reid and Bethea are expected to start, though Ward could push Bethea during training camp.
Starters: Phil Dawson K, Andy Lee P, Kevin McDermott LS
Backup: Colton Schmidt P
Phil Dawson and Andy Lee's jobs are secure as can be. Both performed at high level last year.
Colton Schmidt's best chance at making a 53-man roster is trying out for a different team. Lee is not going anywhere anytime soon.
Kevin McDermott is under contract through 2015.
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