Early Predictions for San Francisco 49ers 2014 Training Camp Battles
With OTAs starting next week, its time for us to look at some positional battles on the horizon. Unlike last season, we have several key positions in need of a starter.
The roster of the San Francisco 49ers in recent years has boasted a mix of wily veterans and youthful upstarts. Many of these positional battles represent that very balance.
Though unlikely, it's possible that as many as four rookies could end up starting in 2014, which adds another element of intrigue to the individual competitions.
Let's get started!
* indicates the player is a rookie.
Serious Competitors: Daniel Kilgore, Marcus Martin*
This should be one of the more interesting battles come training camp. With the departure of veteran center Jonathan Goodwin, the 49ers will look to either Kilgore or the rookie Martin to fill the vacancy at center.
Let's start with Martin. The 49ers took him in the third round of the 2014 NFL draft. Martin was considered the top center on many analysts draft boards.
I'm not sure the 49ers were looking to select a center early in the draft process, but the value was too great for general manager Trent Baalke to pass up. Not to mention, Martin also has the versatility to play either guard position.
On the other hand, Kilgore is strictly a center. While I once believed he could play either guard position, it seems that center is his more natural spot.
The former fifth-round pick is finally eying a starting role after backing up Goodwin for three years. Baalke reinforced his faith in Kilgore by giving him a nice little pay raise earlier in the offseason.
Who has the edge? In my eyes, it has to be Kilgore.
I love what Martin brings to the table, but he's more of a situational player at this point. Kilgore has been groomed for this position for over three years.
This is Kilgore's job to lose.
Edge: Daniel Kilgore
Outside Linebacker/Defensive End
Serious Competitors: Corey Lemonier, Dan Skuta, Aaron Lynch*
Ahmad Brooks will return as the starting left OLB in the 49ers 3-4 defense, but the same can't be said for Aldon Smith.
As Niner fans are aware, Smith now has a history of run-ins with the law. We could legitimately see the league bring the hammer down on the pass-rusher, meaning his 2014 season is very much in jeopardy.
If Smith misses time, the 49ers will have to find a viable replacement to start in his place.
Of the three mentioned above, Lemonier has the most talent and upside. In limited action last season, Lemonier helped to compensate for the absence of Smith's pass-rushing prowess. But it wasn't Lemonier who actually started in place of Smith last season.
That role went to Dan Skuta. Skuta doesn't have the same upside as Lemonier, but he's a good fit on first and second down. He provides a good enough pass rush while also exhibiting solid awareness in coverage. Not to mention, Skuta is very stout in defending the run.
Lynch should be in the discussion, but the rookie pass-rusher will likely be a special teams player to start his career. Like Lemonier, Lynch is an intriguing prospect with a ridiculous upside.
Nevertheless, expect defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to give Skuta the start. Lemonier will likely serve as a pass-rush specialist on third down.
Edge: Dan Skuta
Mike Inside Linebacker
Serious Competitors: Michael Wilhoite, Nick Moody, Chris Borland*, Shayne Skov*
Like Aldon Smith, the 49ers will need to find a temporary replacement for injured linebacker, NaVorro Bowman. With the 49ers featuring two Mike defenders at inside linebacker, finding a candidate to play alongside Patrick Willis will be crucial.
Now, I love every player mentioned above. I believe any one of these linebackers can step in and have immediate success.
Considering their rookie status, Borland and Skov will have a learning curve that Wilhoite and Moody will avoid. For the most part, the 49ers have played it safe when it comes to playing rookies.
Skov and Borland will likely play a bigger role on special teams. Heck, we may not even see the undrafted Skov make the 53-man roster.
Moody is an intriguing name to watch. He contributed mostly on special teams last season, but has all the athletic gifts you would want at the position.
However, I still see Wilhoite coming out on top in this competition. Wilhoite temporarily started in place of Patrick Willis last season and proved very reliable. There's a reason Baalke decided to bring back the veteran 'backer.
Edge: Michael Wilhoite
Serious Competitors: Jimmie Ward*, Eric Wright, Perrish Cox
This should be one heck of a battle.
Fans and analysts alike have already given the job to first-round pick, Jimmie Ward; however, I think all three players above will have a fair shot at becoming the starter.
Even Cox has a legitimate shot at winning the position battle. Despite my criticism of Cox throughout his tenure with the 49ers, he played solid football in last year's postseason. As did Eric Wright, though he was injured for most of the 2013 season.
Both players are familiar with the playbook and, if healthier heading into training camp, could have an advantage based on experience. The news out of Santa Clara is that Jimmie Ward won't see the field until the start of training camp.
Nonetheless, I still envision Ward winning this battle. We could see this competition play out for most of the preseason before a decision is finally made.
The 49ers could also take a different path. They may let Wright or Cox start the season in the nickel before giving Ward the nod sometime midseason.
For now, I'll give the edge to Ward.
Edge: Jimmie Ward
Serious Competitors: LaMichael James, Bruce Ellington*
If LaMichael James is still a part of the 49ers organization after training camp, then we have a competition. However, I just don't see James donning the red and gold this year.
Even if diminutive RB/KR were to stay, he'll have a tough time keeping his return role. Rookie receiver Bruce Ellington will definitely present a challenge at both return roles.
Ellington has the speed and shiftiness you're looking for in a returner. Despite his small frame, Ellington can take a big hit. Unlike James, Ellington also doesn't have any concerns with fumbling.
If the 49ers decide to use a combination of the two, I envision Ellington taking over on punt returns, as James, because of his experience, would seem to be a more reliable option on kick returns.
Assuming James does get traded, I'll give the edge to the rookie.
Edge: Bruce Ellington