Matt Dunham/Associated Press/Associated Press
Second-year pass-rusher Corey Lemonier will try and hold down his role as top backup outside linebacker.
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.