Early Projections for the San Francisco 49ers' Final 53-Man Roster
The San Francisco 49ers will have some difficult decisions to make when it comes time to cut their roster down. From top to bottom, there may not be a more talented 90-man unit in the NFL. Some talented reserves and practice squad possibilities will find themselves on the street when the season starts.
The already deep roster was further bolstered by the addition of 12 picks during the NFL draft, along with the trade for ex-Buffalo receiver Stevie Johnson. While not all of those players will make the active roster in year one with San Francisco, expect key contributors from last season still to be cut, including former Pro Bowlers.
You can’t envy general manager Trent Baalke or head coach Jim Harbaugh too much; some of the decisions will be very difficult to make.
There’s still plenty of time for everything to sort itself out. OTA workouts don’t begin until May 27, minicamps don’t start until June 17 and training camp itself can’t open until fifteen days before San Francisco’s first preseason game.
However, there’s no need to wait that long. Let’s take a first crack at breaking down the team’s initial 53-man roster.
By my count, I see 37 players who are more or less locks to make the squad. Some of those players qualify due to success in the past few seasons. Some qualify because the 49ers have recently invested high draft picks in them. Some qualify because cutting them would be a serious hit to the salary cap. Whatever the reason, their slots are more or less secure.
That leaves 16 slots for 53 players to try to squeeze onto the roster. Let’s see who will stay and who will go.
Here’s my initial crack at the entire 53-man roster. In the next few slides, I will break down the roster by position and explain why decisions were made, but if you just want the names, this is the slide for you.
QB: Colin Kaepernick, Blaine Gabbert (2)
RB: Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Carlos Hyde, Marcus Lattimore (4)
FB: Bruce Miller (1)
WR: Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Stevie Johnson, Bruce Ellington, Quinton Patton, Kassim Osgood (6)
TE: Vernon Davis, Vance McDonald, Derrick Carrier (3)
OT: Joe Staley, Anthony Davis, Jonathan Martin (3)
OG: Mike Iupati, Alex Boone, Joe Looney, Adam Snyder (4)
C: Daniel Kilgore, Marcus Martin (2)
Offense Total: 25
DL: Ray McDonald, Glenn Dorsey, Justin Smith, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Ian Williams, Demarcus Dobbs, Tank Carradine (7)
OLB: Ahmad Brooks, Corey Lemonier, Dan Skuta, Aaron Lynch (4)
ILB: Patrick Willis, Michael Wilhoite, Chris Borland, Shayne Skov (4)
CB: Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver, Eric Wright, Jimmie Ward, Perrish Cox, Dontae Johnson (6)
FS: Eric Reid, Craig Dahl (2)
SS: Antonie Bethea, C.J. Spillman (2)
Defense Total: 25
K: Phil Dawson (1)
P: Andy Lee (1)
LS: Kevin McDermott (1)
Special Teams Total: 3
Locks: Colin Kaepernick, Blaine Gabbert (2)
Cut: McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Kory Faulkner, Josh Johnson
The big question at the quarterback position will be whether the 49ers carry three signal-callers on their active roster, not who the first two names will be.
Obviously, there’s no way the 49ers would part ways with Kaepernick—they’re actively trying to extend his contract.
As for Gabbert, the 49ers have too much invested in him for them to let him go without suiting up for a single game. Cutting Gabbert means his entire $2 million contract would be tacked on as dead money, so the 49ers would in the same spot whether he’s playing for them or not. He’ll be on the roster.
If the 49ers don’t have confidence in Gabbert, they could slip one of the other three quarterbacks onto the roster for insurance, but that extra spot would be nice to have to address a position of need.
That would mean that Kory Faulkner, an undrafted free agent out of Southern Illinois, could find his way onto the practice squad. Neither Johnson nor Bethel-Thompson are eligible for practice squad duty in 2014, giving Faulkner a notable leg up.
Locks: Frank Gore, Carlos Hyde, Bruce Miller (3)
Making the Roster: Kendall Hunter, Marcus Lattimore (2)
Cut: LaMichael James, Jewel Hampton, Will Tukuafu
Injured Reserve: Trey Millard
The 49ers find themselves with far too many running backs for one roster.
While his $6.5 million cap number’s rather large for a 31-year-old running back, Frank Gore’s still operating at a fairly high level and should be the starter. Bruce Miller is arguably the top fullback in football, and the team struggled without him last season. Both will be here.
Carlos Hyde is essentially guaranteed a slot as a second-round draft pick. Because he’s a very physical, pounding back, he could see immediate action in the red zone or in short-yardage situations. At this point in their careers, I’d rather have Hyde plowing through nine man fronts than Gore.
That leaves four names for two slots, and competition should be fierce. I can’t see the 49ers giving up on Lattimore before he gets a single snap on the field. Drafting Hyde makes you wonder if the 49ers are unhappy with Lattimore’s recovery from his knee injury, but I certainly see them giving the former South Carolina standout a chance to prove himself.
It comes down to Kendall Hunter versus LaMichael James for the last spot, and I think the 49ers will keep the versatile Hunter over the talented but disappointing James. Last season, Hunter saw the field on 202 offensive plays, compared to James’ 30. James could keep a role as a kick returner, but the 49ers now have other options there.
Hunter will be the experienced backup behind Gore, while Hyde and Lattimore get ready for NFL action. It’s always nice to have a veteran presence, and should Gore end up missing any time in 2014, Hunter provides that. James might well find himself on another roster; rumors continue to fly about potential trades involving the diminutive running back.
Will Tukuafu was a solid replacement when Bruce Miller went down, but you can’t really afford to carry two fullbacks on your roster. Seventh-round draft choice Trey Millard tore an ACL in October, so he’ll stay on the Non-Football Injury List during his first NFL season.
Locks: Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Stevie Johnson, Bruce Ellington (4)
Making the Roster: Quinton Patton, Kassim Osgood (2)
Cut: Jon Baldwin, Chuck Jacobs, Brandon Lloyd, Devon Wylie, David Reed
It’s kind of exciting to think about the prospects of Crabtree and Boldin on the field at the same time for an entire season. The 49ers averaged 30 more passing yards a game when Crabtree was healthy last season, and that includes the tougher postseason games. They’ll be receivers number one and two, respectively, for San Francisco.
The trade for Stevie Johnson was a steal on draft day; the 49ers acquired him for a fourth-round pick in 2015 that they later replaced with other draft-day moves. Before last season, Johnson had gone over 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons. While he may not be the number one receiver he claims he is, he’s still a massive upgrade at the third receiver slot.
A fourth-round pick, Ellington probably won’t see much time in the offensive lineup in 2014. He might not even be active some weeks. However, if LaMichael James doesn’t make the roster, Ellington could contribute as a kick returner.
The only reason I left Quinton Patton out of the locks list is the addition of Johnson and Ellington; he should be a favorite to make the roster. He looked good in preseason last year and showed flashes during the regular season when he wasn’t injured.
The extra signings probably doom Jon Baldwin, as well as the newly signed Brandon Lloyd, who is trying to revitalize his NFL career. It’s hard to see either player being kept over the more intriguing Patton.
The last receiving slot I’m giving to Osgood, who is a special teams ace. He’s not going to do anything of note on offense, but the team specifically re-signed him for his skills as a gunner. Your sixth receiver’s not going to see the field on offense anyway, so a special teams veteran like Osgood is a logical choice.
Chuck Jacobs could see a return to the scout team, where he spent last season.
Locks: Vernon Davis, Vance McDonald (2)
Making the Roster: Derrick Carrier (1)
Cut: Garrett Celek, Asante Cleveland
Vernon Davis is one of the top three tight ends in football, so he’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Vance McDonald was a second-round pick last season, so despite a somewhat underwhelming rookie campaign, he should at least get one more season to prove himself.
That leaves a battle at the third tight end slot between last year’s choice, Celek, and Carrier, who started last year on the practice squad and was promoted to the active roster in November.
Celek didn’t have the most impressive of seasons last year. Despite only appearing on 126 plays, he received from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) the third-lowest offensive grade for the 49ers’ offense, with a -4.8 grade. By comparison, Carrier finished with a -0.2 grade, albeit on only 42 snaps.
Carrier also could serve as an emergency fullback, which is useful if the 49ers keep only Bruce Miller on the active roster. Considering Celek’s struggles last year, the door is wide open for Carrier to take the spot.
Asante Cleveland is an undrafted free agent out of Miami (FL) and don’t sleep on him stealing that third slot either.
Locks: Joe Staley, Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati, Alex Boone, Daniel Kilgore, Marcus Martin (6)
Making the Roster: Jonathan Martin, Joe Looney, Adam Snyder (3)
Cut: Carter Bykowski, Luke Marquardt, Al Netter, Ryan Seymour, Fouimalo Fonoti, Dillon Farrell
Injured Reserve: Brandon Thomas
The 49ers return four of their five starting offensive linemen from last season. Staley and Iupati are Pro Bowlers, while Davis and Boone form an extremely solid duo on the right side of the line. They’re not going anywhere.
The one position on the offensive line open for competition is center, where Daniel Kilgore and Marcus Martin should battle for starting honors. Kilgore just had his contract extended this past season, so he seemed the logical name to take over the starting role.
However, when the 49ers took USC’s Martin in the third round, Kilgore's standing as the starter became a little less solid. Arguably the top center available in the draft, it wouldn’t be at all shocking to see him come into camp and take the job away from Kilgore. Either way, one will be the starting center, and the other will be the first interior lineman off the bench.
That leaves anywhere from two to four slots to be filled by depth players. Adam Snyder was the first off the bench last season, appearing on 374 offensive snaps (subscription required), mostly at guard. The 49ers will have to balance Snyder’s experience against his contract; cutting him would save the team over $1 million in cap space.
Joe Looney was the man turned to in Week 13 last season when Joe Staley sprained his MCL. Looney played right guard while Alex Boone slid over to left tackle. He’s right on the bubble and could fall victim if the 49ers decide to keep only eight offensive linemen, but I have him squeezing in just under the bubble.
The 49ers basically got a free tryout on Jonathan Martin; they owe the Miami Dolphins a seventh-round pick only if Martin makes the final roster. Martin is looking for a fresh start after being the victim in the bullying scandal in Miami last season, and San Francisco seems to be an ideal place for him.
As a rookie in 2012, Martin started all 16 games for the Dolphins. He wasn’t exactly amazing at the time—Pro Football Focus gave him a -22.0 grade (subscription required), but as a reserve, his talents might better match up with his role.
Plenty of the names on the cut list could still end up on the team on the practice squad. Carter Bykowski, Luke Marquardt and Ryan Seymour are all notable names who could end up with the team. They could even challenge for that ninth offensive lineman spot, though I think they could all use a little more seasoning before being on the main roster.
Third-round pick Brandon Thomas might challenge for a starting role next season. He tore his ACL in a predraft workout for the New Orleans Saints, however. That means San Francisco can keep him on the injured list for a season while waiting for him to heal up.
Locks: Ray McDonald, Glenn Dorsey, Justin Smith, Tank Carradine (4)
Making the Roster: Tony Jerod-Eddie, Demarcus Dobbs, Ian Williams (3)
Cut: Lawrence Okoye, Quinton Dial, Kaleb Ramsey, Mike Purcell
There’s no reason for the three starting defensive linemen from last season to go anywhere. Smith made the pro bowl once again last season, despite being 34 years old. McDonald and Dorsey were also solid starters, and project to be so again in 2014.
Tank Carradine is one of the most intriguing prospects on the roster. He missed all of last season recovering from a torn ACL, so 2014 will be the first time 49ers fans get to see him on the field. He projects as an eventual replacement for Justin Smith, so seeing him in action will be exciting.
The reserve ends last season were Tony Jerod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs, both of whom saw significant time, each with over 300 snaps each. One of them should slide down the depth chart with Carradine’s return, but both could keep their jobs as rotational players.
Ian Williams broke his ankle in Week 2 against Seattle, but he wasn’t missed, as Dorsey went from a rotational role to full-time starter. Williams should still get some snaps in 2014, but he'll likely return to the reserve role he held in 2011 and 2012.
The player who gets bumped off by the return of Carradine, then, is Quinton Dial. Dial is a versatile lineman who can play either nose tackle or end in San Francisco’s 3-4 system, but he only saw 19 snaps last year. If everyone just slides down a rung, he’s the one who gets bumped off.
It’s a hard thing to call, however. Dial taking either Dobbs or Williams’ spot wouldn't be that much of a surprise, so there's a battle to watch through training camp. All the reserve slots, and the order in which they come off the bench, is very much up for grabs.
Kaleb Ramsey, the seventh-round pick, could fight for a spot as well. I think it’s more likely he misses the final roster and instead catches on with the practice squad. Lawrence Okoye started playing football only last year; the former British Olympian is another possibility to fall to the practice squad.
Locks: Ahmad Brooks, Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, Dan Skuta, Corey Lemonier, Aaron Lynch (6)
Making the Roster: Michael Wilhoite, Shayne Skov (2)
Cut: Nick Moody, Morgan Breslin
Physically Unable to Perform: NaVorro Bowman
Possible Suspension: Aldon Smith
Alright, raise your hand if you jumped straight to this slide when you noticed neither Bowman nor Smith listed on the 53-man roster. We’ll deal with those two cases first.
Bowman has almost no chance of being ready for opening day. While the All-Pro inside linebacker is recovering well from his knee injury, he’ll still likely miss at least the first half of the season. Thus, he won’t count for a spot on the initial 53-man roster.
Aldon Smith’s exclusion is more of an educated guess. Smith has had a nightmare of an offseason. He not only is dealing with the aftermath of his DUI and weapons possession charges, but also was involved in an alleged bomb threat incident at LAX.
Things have calmed down since then, and the doomsday scenario of felony terrorism charges seem to have passed, but it’s still entirely within the realm of possibility that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell could lay down disciplinary penalties on Smith. I think we’re talking more a two-to-four game suspension than a season-long bomb, but that would still keep Smith off the initial 53-man roster.
That still leaves the 49ers with two of their pro bowl linebackers as locks to make the squad. Patrick Willis is still arguably the best middle linebacker in football, and most teams would love their worst starting linebacker to be as good as Ahmad Brooks.
Two more locks go to a pair of talented outside linebackers who showed off impressive pass-rushing skills in limited time last season, Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier. Both saw a significant number of snaps while Aldon Smith was in rehab last season, and both performed very well in his absence.
While the pair recorded only one sack, they combined for 34 quarterback hurries. Either of them could take over when and if Smith misses significant time in 2014.
There are two rookies that I would consider locks. Chris Borland is undersized for an NFL linebacker, but his play at Wisconsin was phenomenal. He’ll battle for snaps until Bowman returns from injury. Fifth-round selection Aaron Lynch is more of a question mark due concerns about his effort and commitment to football, but if you assume Smith will miss time, Lynch slides in nicely to add depth at the position. He’ll probably be inactive most of the season, but I think he makes the roster.
Finally, you have a battle for the last two interior linebacking slots. I think Michael Wilhoite is the favorite for one of them. He was a key contributor on special teams and started two games last season when Patrick Willis went down with an injury. He’ll battle Borland to replace Bowman.
I’m going to go a bit out on a limb and give the last spot to undrafted free agent Shayne Skov, who will beat out Nick Moody for a roster slot. It’s a little surprising the former Standford Cardinal standout didn’t get drafted; CBS had him as a third- or fourth-round selection.
He’ll have a huge chip on his shoulder, which further fuel an already-fierce playing style. The full-throttle, take-no-prisoners linebacker has playmaking potential, despite not possessing elite athleticism. I think he has a future in the NFL, despite going undrafted.
Moody’s a contributor on special teams himself, but I see no reason Skov couldn’t take over that role. Moody looks like the odd man out.
I only have one of the two projected starting cornerbacks listed as a lock, so let’s get the case of Chris Culliver out of the way first.
Culliver missed all of last season while recovering from knee surgery. The last game he played for San Francisco, then, was the Super Bowl against Baltimore, where he gave up 123 passing yards (subscription required) and a touchdown, as Anquan Boldin and Jacoby Jones worked him over.
The last time we had heard of Culliver before that was during media day at the Super Bowl, where he stirred up a controversy with anti-gay comments.
Now, Culliver is facing a felony and two misdemeanors stemming from a hit-and-run incident back in March. So, the last four things that happened to Culliver were a controversy, a horrible game, a season-ending injury and involvement in an alleged criminal event. Not exactly the way to win the hearts and minds of the fanbase.
Culliver was actually solid as a corner in 2012, so he’ll probably end up making the team and starting. I just think that if someone else steps up and puts together a good camp the 49ers wouldn’t be too heartbroken to see Culliver leave.
The 49ers are happier with their other starting cornerback, Tramaine Brock. They signed him to an extension in the middle of last season, so he’s not going anywhere. The other cornerback with significant experience last year was Eric Wright; he served as a nickel cornerback in the last half of the season and acquitted himself well.
Two rookies also get lock status. This year's first-round pick, Jimmie Ward, will eventually move to safety, but in his rookie year, he’ll battle for the nickel cornerback slot and likely win it. He’ll see the field the most of any of the team’s rookies this season. Dontae Johnson will battle for the dime cornerback role, or he could serve as a reserve safety. He’ll make the 53-man roster because of his potential.
That leaves a dogfight for the sixth cornerback slot. It will come down to Perrish Cox, who had 70 defensive snaps with San Francisco last season, former Minnesota Viking and free-agent acquisition Chris Cook and sixth-round rookie Kenneth Acker out of SMU.
At the moment, I’ll give Cox the advantage due to his familiarity with the system. He started in the slot against the Green Bay Packers in the Wild Card game and, while they’d prefer him not play a key role in 2014, his experience could be the deciding factor. Cox also has some return experience, which could come in handy if LaMichael James is released.
Keith Reaser is recovering from multiple knee injuries and will likely spend the season on the injured reserve list.
Locks: Eric Reid, Antoine Bethea, C.J. Spillman (3)
Making the Roster: Craig Dahl (1)
Cut: Ray Ventrone, D.J. Campbell, James McCray
Obviously, last year’s first-round pick, Eric Reid, isn’t going anywhere after making the Pro Bowl in his rookie season. C.J. Spillman should also return, thanks to his special teams prowess. Spillman is recovering from hand surgery, but he’ll be back for training camp.
Antonie Bethea was brought in as a free agent from Indianapolis to replace the departed Donte Whitner. One day, he’ll get replaced himself by Jimmie Ward, but for now, he’ll try to replace Whitner’s Pro-Bowl-caliber contributions. Bethea was a Pro Bowler back in 2007 and 2009, but that was some time ago. The 49ers are just hoping he’s a solid starter.
That leaves only one real roster slot for another safety, and I’m giving it to Craig Dahl. Dahl took a pay cut this offseason, keeping his cap hit at a reasonable number. He’s battling Campbell, who was on the practice squad last season, and McCray, an undrafted free agent. Dahl should start with the advantage there.
Ray Ventrone is battling less for a safety slot and more for a special teams role. I’d expect his main competition to actually be Kassim Osgood, the sixth wide receiver. Both are ace special teams players, so one of them might well bump the other off the roster.
Locks: Phil Dawson, Andy Lee, Kevin McDermott (3)
Cut: Colton Schmidt
Very simple decisions to be made here.
Dawson’s financially locked in after re-signing with the club this offseason. Cutting him would actually cost the 49ers $1 million more than it would cost to keep him on the roster. He’s also the only kicker under contract, and is also very good at his job.
Kevin McDermott is the only long snapper on the roster, and longtime 49er fans can remember why a long snapper is important.
Andy Lee is the only one with any competition here, as Colton Schmidt returns to the 90-man roster. He was on the team last preseason as well, but let’s face it—no one’s dethroning Andy Lee any time soon. Schmidt’s here to save Dawson and Lee’s legs for the regular season.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.