San Francisco 49ers: Projecting Most Heated Roster Battles This Offseason
Projecting the San Francisco 49ers' most heated roster battles this offseason would normally inspire some raised eyebrows.
After all, the 49ers are a legitimate championship contender, perhaps even better than the Super Bowl XLVIII-winning Seattle Seahawks at this point in time. Such a loaded overall team wouldn’t usually lend itself to many roster questions or openings.
However, San Francisco let three defensive backs, one wide receiver and a center, among others, walk in free agency. General manager Trent Baalke also selected six high-ranking prospects in the first 106 picks—and a whopping 12 all told—in the 2014 NFL draft.
Throw that all together and one soon finds a healthy competitive structure with said draftees, various incumbents and undrafted free agents all vying for very few unfilled positional spots.
An outside observer might even point to a surplus at the receiver position. There really hasn’t been a time in recent memory where such a surplus existed for the Red and Gold.
With that competitive dynamic in mind, here now are the 49ers' five most heated roster battles this offseason.
Note: We’ll begin with honorable mentions and continue with roster battles by position, in order of least to most competitive.
No. 2 Running Back
For those of you wondering why No. 2 running back only merited a spot on the honorable mentions list, here’s why (we’ll reduce it to two-paragraph form).
If not traded before the season begins, LaMichael James will function solely as a returner on special teams. Fellow undersized back Kendall Hunter will play out the last year of his contract in a limited capacity, while Marcus Lattimore is eased into NFL playing shape following his redshirt campaign last year. That leaves second-round pick Carlos Hyde—the 5’11”, 230-pound best overall back in this year’s class—as Frank Gore’s primary No. 2.
Hyde’s burst, lateral agility, power, pass-catching, versatility and Niners-preferred “size to handle a heavy workload in the…run heavy offense and help keep quarterback Colin Kaepernick upright in pass protection,” per ESPN Insider (subscription required), make him the clear-cut choice behind Gore.
Barring an unforeseen injury or a Glen Coffee 2.0, this isn’t much of a competition.
Backup Outside Linebacker
Warning: This selection starts off with an unfortunate projection.
It’s highly likely that 49ers top pass-rusher Aldon Smith will miss extended time at the start of this year due to his ongoing legal troubles. The folks at Rotoworld project a six-game suspension for the all-world outside linebacker.
Dan Skuta logged 302 snaps in place of and behind Smith when he returned from rehab last season. The five-year vet started eight games and registered 32 tackles, two pass breakups and a fumble-return touchdown.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) awarded him a positive rating against the run and pass, not to mention crediting him with two sacks and a quarterback hit in the playoffs.
Second-year man Corey Lemonier will come first off the bench with Skuta as the presumptive starter. The former Auburn Tiger returns from a 2013 campaign in which recorded one sack, three quarterback hits and 20 pressures in 284 regular-season snaps, per PFF.
The player competing with these aforementioned two is fifth-round pick Aaron Lynch.
The 6’5", 249-pounder out of South Florida is an absolute physical specimen. He possesses long arms (34”), huge hands (10.25”) and tremendous 4.65 speed, according to the scouts at ESPN Insider (subscription required).
They believe he has the “burst, flexibility and closing speed to quickly develop into a dangerous edge-rusher.” He also offers potential in run defense with “good power [for] taking on blocks” and shedding them when pursuing ball-carriers in the backfield.
Regrettably, Lynch brings massive concerns over his intangibles. These include issues pertaining to “mental makeup, football character, commitment to the game, discipline and maturity.”
The 49ers coaching staff has a considerable task on its hands in harnessing Lynch’s otherworldly skill set and helping him grow into a trustworthy NFL commodity.
If Jim Harbaugh and Co. can pull it off, San Francisco will feature an incredibly deep group of pass-rushers in 2014. If not, Lynch might find himself on the street in due time.
We’ll keep a vigilant eye on this intriguing battle as the offseason moves forward.
Let us now highlight this less specific but still significant battle.
The 49ers special teams unit was a core strength back in 2011. It forced opponents into the worst average starting field position (own 24.6-yard line), while also providing the Niners offense with the best in that category (own 34.3-yard line).
Unfortunately, San Francisco somewhat neglected this pivotal contingent the following season. Opponents compiled the second-highest average on kickoff returns at 26.9 yards, while also scoring a touchdown off a punt return.
The repercussions were felt team-wide.
Then, in 2013, various roster additions and coach Brad Seely helped resurrect this important corps. Despite giving up a score, it forced opponents into the second-worst average on kickoff returns (20.4 yards) and was vastly improved overall.
Fast forwarding to the present, the mid-to-late-round draft picks of 2014 must all vie with established contributors already on the squad. These include cornerbacks Keith Reaser (Round 5, No. 170) and Kenneth Acker (Round 5, No. 180), defensive end Kaleb Ramsey (Round 7, No. 243) and fullback Tre Millard (Round 7, No. 245).
Reaser and Millard are both potential redshirt candidates after suffering late-season injuries, per 49ers.com. But if not all four, Acker and Ramsey surely won’t have that luxury afforded to their fellow draftees. They must perform at a high level from the get go.
The likes of Michael Wilhoite, C.J. Spillman, Ray Ventrone and Kassim Osgood—who were top-four in special teams tackles per Pro Football Focus—will look to defend their ground against these rookie hopefuls.
5. Backup Quarterback
One of the most important positions in the NFL often receives the least amount of publicity.
Just like all other 31 teams are loath to admit it, the 49ers will require a qualified backup quarterback. It only makes sense that the most critical position would have a reliable asset waiting on the bench.
But unlike much of the league, San Francisco is one of a few teams that needs a player capable of attacking opponents with his arm and legs. The lethal dual-threat nature of starter Colin Kaepernick necessitates those capabilities at the No. 2 spot.
This roster currently features Blaine Gabbert, McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Josh Johnson and Kory Faulkner for that role.
Bethel-Thompson technically qualifies as the incumbent from last season, as Colt McCoy now rocks a Redskins uniform. Faulkner hails from Southern Illinois and is one of the seven UDFA that the 49ers picked up last week. Johnson, meanwhile, is a former Jim Harbaugh disciple at the University of San Diego. The five-year pro even competed for a backup spot in San Francisco back in 2012.
Now, Johnson is familiar with Harbaugh’s system and has the skill set that is most similar to Kaepernick’s (albeit a very, very poor man’s version). But Gabbert’s also a former NFL starter who Baalke acquired for a sixth-round pick in this year’s draft and a conditional fifth-rounder in 2015 on March 12.
The three-year member of the Jacksonville Jaguars should have the edge with that aforementioned trade price and his 6’5”, 235-pound stature that’s primed for Harbaugh’s fine-tuning. CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco further believes he is the “heavy favorite” due to his guaranteed $2.01 million salary.
Then again, Gabbert’s abysmal 5-22 record and Johnson’s athleticism and playbook knowledge could very well give the advantage to the Oakland native. Maiocco also points out that Johnson “outperformed [Scott] Tolzien in the exhibition season” in 2012.
A similar performance this year would certainly make things interesting.
4. No. 3 Cornerback
Looks of general incredulity spread across the faces of 49ers fans when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced the team’s first selection at No. 30 overall.
“Who is Jimmie Ward and why did Baalke take another safety in the first round?” were two questions that plagued many a hypothetical Niners supporter on draft day.
Fortunately, any thoughts of confused skepticism soon dissipated when analysis of San Francisco’s No. 1 pick began circulating. The astute scouts at ESPN Insider summed it up perfectly (subscription required):
With [Antoine] Bethea filling the strong safety role and 2013 first-round pick Eric Reid at free safety, Ward's versatility and ability to hold up in man coverage and defending the run will be appealing as a slot defender in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's heavy Cover 2 scheme.
Baalke echoed those thoughts by noting his physicality and versatile capabilities “in the slot” and in “[lining] up all over the place,” per 49ers.com. Harbaugh also pointed to his playmaking skills, “great instincts” and “very important” future role in nickel packages.
However, the Niners head coach clarified that Ward will “compete as a nickel,” meaning that he will not have a guaranteed starting spot on this team. So in the spirit of this roster-battle discussion, which specific players make up said competition?
After starters Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver, the 49ers have Perrish Cox, Chris Cook, Eric Wright, Darryl Morris and fourth-round pick Dontae Johnson. Each one offers a particular strength that will challenge Ward’s standing on the depth chart.
Cox is the most versatile and knows Fangio’s schemes inside and out as the longest-tenured member among this group. Cook is the intriguing 6’2” free-agent addition who could serve as secondary coach Ed Donatell’s latest reclamation project.
Furthermore, Wright is the most accomplished veteran but sat behind Cox and did not see action in last year’s NFC Championship Game. Morris is the undrafted second-year player who is a lock on special teams due his blazing speed, while Johnson brings size, speed and potential depth at corner and safety.
In addition to crediting Johnson for his “versatility, intelligence and A-plus character,” Baalke stated his intention to lock him in at corner and “let him go to work.”
Okay, so what does this all mean for San Francisco’s first-round pick?
Even though yours truly believes Ward will log immediate playing time when the Dallas Cowboys throw out a three-receiver set in Week 1, 49ers coaches are really fond of proven vets. Don’t be surprised if Cox, Cook or Wright get the nod on September 7.
We’ll monitor this battle closely as the offseason progresses.
3. Starting Center
Unlike the 49ers' first-round draft choice, their first one in Round 3 was a no brainer.
Former USC standout Marcus Martin was the consensus top center among this year’s class. The draft analysts at CBS Sports, ESPN Insider (subscription required) and the National Football Post, among others, all agreed.
As such, taking a second- or even late-first-round-quality interior lineman—per the venerable Mel Kiper Jr. of ESPN Insider—at No. 77 overall was an easy decision. NFL.com’s Nolan Nawrocki encapsulated his leading draft stock by labeling him with “instant starter potential.”
Prominent accolades aside, does that automatically deem Martin the starting center in Week 1 for the Red and Gold?
Not so fast, ladies and gents.
The 49ers coaching staff has groomed Daniel Kilgore—a fifth-round pick in 2011—for that role since he came to the team three years ago. He has appeared in all 32 games since 2012 as a reserve lineman, not to mention all three postseason contests last year. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) credited him with 169 snaps at center and both guard positions.
Baalke hammered the point home by extending his contract through 2017 back in February and letting Jonathan Goodwin walk in free agency.
If San Francisco follows the Alex Boone path, Kilgore will start and Martin will serve as the primary backup along the interior while he develops his craft. If not, the opposite should prevail. Baalke didn’t side with one player or another but did note the general competition for the “center job,” per 49ers.com.
Either way, this surely qualifies as a heated two-player battle entering offseason camps.
2. Part-Time Starter, Full-Time Backup at Inside Linebacker
Now it’s time for the proverbial bad news, good news report for the Red and Gold.
Let’s get the “bad” over with first.
Niners defensive MVP NaVorro Bowman will miss the first half of 2014 as he continues rehabbing his surgically repaired knee. CSN Bay Area’s Maiocco reported a six-week absence at the very least for the three-time first-team All-Pro.
Good news: The 49ers have a veritable cache of capable inside linebackers.
Michael Wilhoite started two games last season in place of another All-Pro by the name of Patrick Willis. He led the team with 20 tackles (including three for loss) in Weeks 4 and 5. He lacks Bowman’s pass-rushing skills, but he is plenty reliable against the run and in coverage, earning a positive grade in the latter by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Nick Moody is another serviceable option in San Francisco’s repertoire of inside ‘backers. The sixth-rounder out Florida State in 2013 does a great job at “[reading] his keys and [locating] the ball quickly enough to beat blockers to the point,” according to ESPN Insider (subscription required). He broke his hand in Week 1 last year and appeared in only four games but should be in prime position for more playing time following another offseason of development.
The third candidate for Bowman’s spot in the early goings is undrafted free agent Shane Skov. Here is how Scout Inc.’s Steve Muench, via ESPN’s Bill Williamson, evaluated this fantastic value grab by San Francisco.
Skov doesn’t show great top-end speed on tape and his ability to stay healthy is a substantial concern yet we still gave him a fifth-round grade making him the biggest steal on this list. He is a reliable tackler with good instincts and he’s perfect for the 49ers’ scheme. Remember, he played for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio at Stanford in 2010.
It really is rather shocking that Skov wasn’t one of the 256 prospects drafted with that positive evaluation in mind.
All that said, the best option actually resides in the 49ers' third-round pick (No. 77 overall) out of Wisconsin.
Chris Borland, the 2013 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, racked up 100-plus tackles over his last three collegiate seasons and totaled 50 tackles for loss and 17 sacks for his career. He is who Kiper Jr. called “one of the best pure football players in the draft” and who ESPN Insider compared to seven-time Pro Bowler Zach Thomas.
Those scouts further qualified the 77th overall selection as a “three-down player with excellent instincts and pass rush skills” who will provide San Francisco with a “nice replacement in the middle of its defense.”
Short arms or slow 40-time or not, Borland is an incredible all-around inside linebacker who continually beats the odds stacked against him. He resembles a “bowling ball hitting pins,” according to a wry-smiling Harbaugh, and is “everything you’re looking for from a DNA standpoint,” in the eyes of GM Baalke via 49ers.com.
So instead of good news, let’s instead opt for best news: The 49ers can only win in this battle between stellar backup candidates.
1. No. 3 Wide Receiver
Quickly, when’s the last time the 49ers boasted a depth chart surplus at wide receiver?
Outside of imaginative gridiron dream worlds, it’s safe to say the Red and Gold have never been potentially six-deep at wideout. Let’s take a look.
Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin qualify as the obvious top two. The former is Kaepernick’s most trusted target, while the latter filled that role in Crabtree’s stead by leading San Francisco with 85 catches for 1,179 receiving yards last year.
But the bottom four—if you will—will showcase an absolute battle royal until Harbaugh finalizes the 53-man roster just before the 2014 season begins.
Stevie Johnson, Quinton Patton, Bruce Ellington and Brandon Lloyd comprise this dynamic four-man contingent. Acquired in a trade on Day 2 of the NFL draft, Johnson is a three-time 1,000-yard producer with 28 career touchdowns to his name. He served as the No. 1 option for most of his time playing in the Buffalo Bills offense.
Second-year man Patton was a fourth-round steal in 2013. The 128th overall pick piled up 2,594 yards and 24 touchdowns in just two seasons at Louisiana Tech. NFL.com compared him to Reggie Wayne and underscored his pro-quality “hands, route-running and toughness.” Maiocco of CSN Bay Area reported back in February that the 49ers organization view him as a “potential starting wide receiver in the future.”
Additionally, Lloyd is a former fourth-round selection of the 49ers in 2003 who accumulated 1,510 yards and 13 touchdowns from 2003-2005. He is an outside burner who amassed a career-high 1,448 yards and 11 scores for the Denver Broncos in 2010. But he did sit out last year following a 911-yard, four-touchdown campaign for the New England Patriots in 2012.
Finally, Ellington is a slot dynamo who arrived in San Francisco via a draft-day steal in—you guessed it—the fourth round in 2014.
The former South Carolina Gamecock is a favorite pick of ESPN Insider’s Todd McShay (subscription required) and brings “excellent play speed with quickness and explosiveness out of his cuts.” He also has a “strong feel for the position, strong hands” and “likely will be used in the slot in three-wide-receiver sets.” Harbaugh himself “[looks] forward to exploring how many different ways [the team] can use him,” per 49ers.com.
Now, if the 49ers retained five receivers on their roster and kept another two on the practice squad last year, according to Maiocco, who wins out overall?
Like the fine CSN Bay Area scribe reports, we agree that Crabtree, Boldin, Johnson, Patton and Ellington will fill out the top five. Lloyd’s zero guaranteed dollars, Jon Baldwin’s zero NFL value and special teams ace Kassim Osgood’s lacking in contributions on offense will likely end their time in San Francisco.
But, per the purposes of this investigation, is Johnson a lock for the No. 3 role?
Certainly not—expect a hard-fought, entertaining battle between the former Bill, sophomore Patton and rookie Ellington come offseason camps.
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