The Most Intriguing Rookie Storylines at the San Francisco 49ers' OTAs
The NFL is entering the doldrums between player signings and the start of training camp proper, at the end of July. That’s not to say things aren’t happening, however—we’re about to enter the middle of OTA season, as teams begin to train and build back up to full football speed.
For a veteran team like the San Francisco 49ers, the OTAs are the most valuable as refreshers, with experienced players taking the time to take in any new wrinkles added to the scheme during the offseason and to polish up their technique.
For rookies and other first-year players, however, OTAs are a crucial period. They need the time to absorb the new plays and terminology used by their new club. They need to show their new coaches what they can do and that they deserve time with the first team. It’s their first chance to showcase their skills for their new employers.
Every player has a storyline to watch over the course of OTAs, but for rookies and other first-year players, those storylines can have a huge impact on their careers. Let’s take a look at five of the biggest storylines entering San Francisco’s OTAs, in terms of how it will affect the 49ers in 2014.
Will Marcus Lattimore Return at Full Strength?
Marcus Lattimore was drafted last year, but as he stayed on the reserve/non-football injury list all of last year, 2014 will technically be his rookie season.
That assumes Lattimore will see the field at all, which was briefly in question over the weekend. Coach Jim Harbaugh noted that Lattimore was “working through something” and would be limited at the team’s rookie minicamp, although he stressed that it wasn’t directly related to the right-knee injury Lattimore suffered at South Carolina in 2012.
The 49ers have cleared Lattimore to take handoffs and to run through holes at half speed, and he participated in the minicamp next to second-round pick Carlos Hyde. The team has released a video of Lattimore working out, which is nice to see considering he missed all of last season.
The question is whether or not the explosiveness that defined him at South Carolina will return this season, or at all. Lattimore is battling with Hyde, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James for carries behind Frank Gore, and unless he’s back at full strength, he’s going to find it hard to climb the depth chart.
When Lattimore was healthy, there wasn’t a more feared back in the SEC. The sheer severity of his knee injury, however, raises the question of whether or not he’ll ever be more than a shadow of his former self.
It’ll be important to keep an eye on how much Lattimore contributes in practice and how many drills he’s fully cleared to run in. If he continues having to go at half-speed while he recovers, it doesn’t bode well for his long-term future.
Can Bruce Ellington Win the Returner Position?
Bruce Ellington will find it hard to find the field on offense in his rookie season. The 49ers were dead last in using three-receiver sets in 2013, using “11” personnel (one running back and one tight end) on only 21 percent of plays, as compared to the league average of 51.2 percent.
While that number is likely to increase in 2014 with a healthy receiving corps, Ellington needs to fight through a crowded field of receivers, including Stevie Johnson, Quinton Patton and Brandon Lloyd, to see the field this season. It’s a hard ladder to climb at this point.
What Ellington can do right off the bat, however, is compete for the role of kick and punt returner. Ellington averaged 22.7 yards per return on kickoffs in college. That’s not exactly Devin Hester numbers, but it’s a very solid jumping-off point.
The 49ers current kick returner is LaMichael James, who took over the role mid-season last year when Kyle Williams was cut. With so many running backs fighting to make the roster, however, James might become surplus to requirements.
Rumors persist that James is on the trading block, with even NFL.com getting in on the action. If Ellington could win the returner job, that would open up a roster spot, because James won’t make the team for his contributions at running back.
Ellington has been working on returning kicks and punts already in San Francisco, so that’s a training-camp battle waiting to happen. If Ellington can prove he’s even average in the return game at an NFL level, we could see James leave town.
Can Marcus Martin Win the Starting Center Job?
The 49ers look to have only one starting position up for grabs on offense, after letting Jonathan Goodwin depart this offseason. That opens up a hole in the center of San Francisco’s offensive line, which should be a battle between third-round pick Martin and re-signed career backup Daniel Kilgore.
As of right now, Martin is “the understudy” according to Jim Harbaugh, with no set timetable on getting up to speed. However, considering Kilgore has less than 200 career snaps and was a lower-regarded prospect entering the league, Martin should have every opportunity to claim the starting role sooner rather than later.
Watch which player gets starting reps with the first-team offense during OTAs. Kilgore should be the first player in to work with Colin Kaepernick and the others, but if Martin stats getting work before training camp even begins, that could bode well for his chances of winning the role outright.
The longer Kilgore stays atop the depth chart, the more likely it will be that Martin will serve as depth in his rookie season. However, the 20-year-old rookie from USC is going to be a starter somewhere on this offensive line sooner rather than later. Whether or not he gets the call in 2014 or has to wait until Mike Iupati’s contract runs out before the 2015 season is somewhat up to his performance in these camps.
How Quickly Will Jimmie Ward Heal?
One player you won’t see much of during OTAs is first-round pick Jimmie Ward, who is recovering from a surgically repaired foot.
At the combine, it was discovered that Ward had a Jones fracture, requiring a screw to be put into his metatarsal. As a result, Ward was unable to take the field during the team’s recent rookie minicamp, and likely he won’t get on the practice field at all until training camp starts at the end of July.
For a veteran player, this isn’t a big deal. Missing the on-field action during OTAs isn’t particularly crucial. For a rookie, however, every second of practice time you can get with your NFL coaches can make a huge difference.
Ward will be able to sit in on all the team meetings and learn the defense that way, but there’s really no substitute for on-field action. The sooner he can get out there and start working his way into the nickelback position, the better.
A Jones fracture is not too difficult to recover from; it’s certainly preferable to Lisfranc injury or something of that nature. The injury shouldn’t affect Ward’s future as a player, but any setback would severely cut into his preparation time leading up to this season.
With Ward penciled in as the starting nickelback, it’s imperative he sees the field sooner rather than later.
Can Kory Faulkner Win the 3rd Quarterback Job?
When Jim Harbaugh attended Northwestern’s Pro Day, people assumed he was looking at quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. It turns out he was watching a quarterback, but the one who turned his head most was Kory Faulkner out of Southern Illinois.
The 49ers added Faulkner as an undrafted free agent, where he’ll compete against McLeod Bethel-Thompson and Josh Johnson for a spot on San Francisco’s roster. Faulkner is an interesting prospect with a good arm who led the Missouri Valley Conference with 221.9 passing yards per game.
As the only rookie quarterback in town, he got every single rep at the rookie minicamp, which he needs to not only impress the coaching staff, but also to practice his mechanics. Faulkner has been spotted practicing his footwork in the hallways of his hotel, which is sure to impress his new coaching staff.
It seems highly unlikely that Faulkner would make an NFL roster, considering he was undrafted and didn’t light up the Missouri Valley Conference. What is possible, however, is for Faulkner to earn a spot on the team’s practice squad, where he could continue to develop his game.
If the 49ers are happy with Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert as their top-two quarterbacks, they could choose to only keep two on their active roster. That would open a path for Faulkner to earn a practice-squad role. If the team is less confident in Gabbert’s abilities, however, they may decide they need to keep a more experienced player, like Josh Johnson, as their backup.
Keep an eye on how many reps Faulkner gets. If he’s getting as many as Johnson and Bethel-Thompson, then there’s a chance he could beat them out and earn a spot on the team.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.