Key Positional Battles to Watch During San Francisco 49ers' Offseason
Not because the 49ers have a lack of talent in any particular area—although the secondary could be considered to be the weak point of an excellent and deep roster—but arguably because they possess more quality than they have room for.
As a result, the competition for places on San Francisco's final 53-man squad is set to be fierce throughout training camp and preseason.
There will be positional battles on both sides of the ball, leaving head coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke with plenty of difficult decisions to make as they aim to guide San Francisco to yet another deep playoff run.
The fights for spots on the roster should provoke intrigue and debate among observers and fans alike. Here I analyze the battles that are poised to dominate the discussion, as the 49ers prepare for another tilt at the sixth Super Bowl title the organization is so desperate for.
QB3: Josh Johnson vs. McLeod Bethel-Thomspon vs. Kory Faulkner
A trio of quarterbacks are poised to compete for the third quarterback slot on the depth chart, yet there is no guarantee that the 49ers will carry another QB behind Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert in 2014.
San Francisco never really had a confirmed third QB on their 2013 roster, with the likes of John Skelton, B.J. Daniels—who ended up with the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks—and McLeod Bethel-Thompson all bouncing on and off the team at certain points last season.
And it would be no surprise if the situation is the same in 2014.
If there is to be a third QB on San Francisco's squad this term, then Josh Johnson is perhaps the front-runner after coming in on a one-year contract. Johnson—who worked under Harbaugh in his collegiate career at the University of San Diego—failed to make the roster in his last stint with the Niners, signing with them in 2012 only to be released during the final roster cutdown.
A mobile signal-caller who projects as a good fit in the 49ers offense, Johnson's experience and familiarity with Harbaugh could count in his favour when competing with two quarterbacks who have yet to see any game time in the NFL.
Bethel-Thompson was recruited out of high school by Harbaugh when he was coaching San Diego but is still trying to make his way in the pros, despite impressing the Minnesota Vikings with his strong arm, according to The Pioneer Press.
The former UCLA and Sacramento State player ended last season on the 49ers practice squad and was signed to a reserve/future contract in January.
Hoping to beat out both Bethel-Thompson and Johnson will be Kory Faulkner, who arrived as an undrafted free agent. Faulkner, per SBNation, completed 59.5 percent of his passes for 5,339 yards, 34 touchdowns and 22 interceptions in five seasons with Southern Illinois.
Harbaugh visited with Faulkner back in April and was clearly impressed by what he saw. The 23-year-old Faulkner will need to catch the eye again if he is to stand a chance of making the active roster.
Nose Tackle: Glenn Dorsey vs. Ian Williams
Ian Williams was expected to make a big impact in the 2013 season after being named as the 49ers' starter at nose tackle.
However, an ankle injury sustained in Week 2 in Seattle ended his campaign, and now Williams faces a battle on his hands to win back the starting role.
That is because Glenn Dorsey, who lost to Williams in the competition for the nose tackle spot prior to last season, performed excellently in the injured player's stead. Indeed, Dorsey racked up 41 total tackles and two sacks in his debut season in San Francisco, doing more than enough to justify retaining the starting role in 2014.
Yet the 49ers clearly think highly of Williams, and it will be especially interesting to see whether he has the character to bounce back from a terrible injury and again outperform Dorsey in the offseason.
The decision may come down to whether San Francisco want to rely on Dorsey, whose contract expires at the end of the season, producing another fine year, or look to the future and see if Williams has what it takes to perform at the highest level on a regular basis.
Both players figure to gain a decent amount of playing time on a defense that regularly rotates its personnel, but the fight to see which nose tackle earns more snaps promises to be an extremely intriguing one.
Wide Receiver: Brandon Lloyd vs. Everyone
With Michael Crabtree out for much of the 2013 campaign, Colin Kaepernick had few targets to trust in the passing attack last season.
That does not look likely to be the case in 2014 after San Francisco added another three receivers to its depth chart.
San Francisco-born wideout Steve Johnson returned to his hometown team in a draft-day trade with the Buffalo Bills, while former South Carolina receiver Bruce Ellington was selected in the fourth round. The other pass-catcher to come in was Brandon Lloyd, who is back in the Bay for a second stint with the 49ers, as he aims to cap his career with a Super Bowl title.
Lloyd's move is strikingly similar to Randy Moss' decision to sign with the Niners in 2012.
Just like Moss, Lloyd comes to San Francisco following a year out of the game. However, while Moss came agonizingly close to finally earning a Super Bowl ring, Lloyd has much work to do if he is to reach the same point.
Crabtree and Anquan Boldin will all but certainly begin the year as the two starters, with Johnson the probable No. 3 after reaching the 1,000-yard mark in three of the previous four seasons.
Below that trio the picture becomes more crowded and, although Lloyd has shown a good rapport with Kaepernick in OTAs, the more you assess the situation, the more unlikely it looks that Lloyd will actually make the team.
Second-year receiver Quinton Patton impressed towards the back end of an injury-hit rookie campaign and will be expected to make further progress in the upcoming season. Additionally, it would be a major surprise if the 49ers were to cut Ellington after spending a mid-round pick to acquire him.
Meanwhile, Kassim Osgood has developed a reputation as an exceptional special teams performer, meaning that he should be in a good position to secure a roster spot after re-signing with San Francisco on a one-year deal.
It is fair to assume that the 49ers will carry a maximum of six receivers in 2014. Those slots appear filled, but Lloyd made himself noticed during the OTAs; it would be foolish to rule out his talent from shining through during training camp.
Center: Daniel Kilgore vs. Marcus Martin
The departure of experienced center Joanthan Goodwin has left the 49ers with a big hole to fill on the offensive line.
Goodwin was not brought back after three strong seasons with San Francisco, and the two candidates to step into his shoes figure to be locked in a battle for the starting role for the entire offseason.
Daniel Kilgore has been the favorite to take the job ever since it became apparent that Goodwin would not be returning in 2014. Kilgore was signed to a three-year extension in February, but his future as the No. 1 center is no longer as cut and dry as it originally appeared.
Competition was infused at the position in the draft when the 49ers made something of a splash by landing USC's Marcus Martin in the third.
Viewed by many as the best center in the 2014 class, Martin—who stands at 6'3" and 320 pounds—is a big bodied lineman who fits the 49ers' run game perfectly and has the ability to serve as an anchor in pass protection.
Martin has instant starter potential and is a very real threat to Kilgore's hopes of taking over from Goodwin. Kilgore does have NFL experience on his side, yet his only playing time has come on special teams and as an extra blocker in San Francisco's jumbo offensive packages.
The former Appalachian State Mountaineer has insisted that he is "ready to lead" the 49ers' offensive line in 2014, however, if Martin impresses sufficiently enough, he may not get the chance (per 49ers.com).
Inside Linebacker: Quartet in Competition for Bowman's Spot
The 49ers head into the 2014 season with the challenge of compensating for the absence of inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman.
Bowman is slated to miss much of the coming campaign as he recovers from the devastating knee injury suffered in the NFC Championship Game defeat to the Seattle Seahawks.
Ranked as the No. 1 player at the position in the NFL in 2013 by Pro Football Focus, Bowman will be extremely difficult to replace, and a drop off at the second middle linebacker position next to perennial All-Pro Patrick Willis may appear to many to be inevitable.
The most likely scenario is that the candidates to fill in for Bowman split time, yet the battle to win the most snaps should be a compelling one.
But Wilhoite's prospects of making an increased impact while Bowman recuperates took something of a hit when San Francisco used a third-round choice in this year's draft on Wisconsin's Chris Borland, who enters the NFL after being named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in his final season with the Badgers.
Concerns over Borland's size and speed—he stands at 5'11" and 248 pounds and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.78 seconds—may have dropped him down the boards. Still, the fact remains that in Borland the Niners have got a linebacker who plays above his physical tools and one that totaled over 100 tackles in each of his last three collegiate seasons.
Borland figures to push Wilhoite for the starting spot, although there are two other players in the conversation to help offset the loss of Bowman.
Nick Moody—a sixth-round pick out of Florida State in 2013—will be out to prove his worth after spending his rookie year as a special teams player, but the wild card of those vying for Bowman's spot is undrafted free agent Shayne Skov.
Questions have been raised over Skov's speed and his athleticism since he returned from an ACL and MCL tear combined with a fractured tibia sustained in 2011. However, Skov put together a superb 2013 season at Stanford, and his proficiency on the blitz could see him cause a stir in competition for one of the most important positions on the 49ers roster.
Running-Back: Four-Way Battle for Carries Behind Frank Gore
Few teams in the NFL have better depth at the running back position than the 49ers.
San Francisco selected Ohio State's Carlos Hyde in the second round of the draft, making it the sixth consecutive year that the 49ers have used a pick on a tailback.
The Niners now have six backs on the roster with Jewel Hampton the only one almost certain not to make the team when the group is chopped down to 53, leaving four players to compete for time on the field behind the seemingly ageless Frank Gore.
Gore put together the seventh 1,000-yard season of his career in 2013 and is set to lead the 49ers running attack again in 2014. However, Gore recently turned 31 and will need to have his carries limited if he is to remain effective.
And with Gore's contract set to expire in 2015, the contest to be his primary backup this year could serve more as an audition to replace the veteran should the 49ers opt not to renew his deal.
Kendall Hunter has served as a reliable deputy for the last three seasons but, although his experience in the NFL may see him carry on as Gore's No. 2, the fact that his deal is also poised to come to an end following the 2014 campaign could count against him as the running back picture takes shape in the offseason.
The battle for playing time behind Gore should be high on quality considering the the talent of the young backs competing.
Much of the focus will be on Hyde, who was viewed by many as the top back in the 2014 class after a magnificent senior season in which he rushed for over 1,500 yards and scored 18 total touchdowns.
However, Marcus Lattimore—a fourth-round pick in 2013—is also in contention and has been described by Harbaugh as "getting better every day" as he prepares to make his long-awaited NFL debut after tearing three ligaments in his knee in October 2012.
The battle to earn snaps in relief of Gore could seriously heat up if Lattimore shows signs of recapturing the form that led him to 38 touchdowns at South Carolina. Additionally, speedster LaMichael James will be out to prove he can contribute on offense after growing increasingly frustrated at being limited to kick-return duties last year.
San Francisco's running-back spot has been locked down by Gore since bursting onto the scene with a franchise-record 1,695 yards in 2006 but, heading into the 2014 season, it is perhaps the position with the most intrigue surrounding it.
Nickel CB: Perrish Cox vs. Eric Wright vs. Jimmie Ward
The secondary is arguably the only area where the 49ers could be considered to somewhat lacking in strength.
San Francisco cut cornerback Carlos Rogers and lost Tarell Brown to the Oakland Raiders, leaving the Niners somewhat thin at that position.
General manager Trent Baalke picked three cornerbacks on the third day of the draft to try and negate the impact of those losses. However, the real move to address the depth in the secondary came in the first round as the 49ers made the surprise selection of Northern Illinois' safety Jimmie Ward.
It was a direction in which few expected San Francisco to go, but the franchise's reasoning for taking Ward soon become clear—they intend for Ward to compete for the nickel cornerback spot.
San Francisco had a hole at nickel following the exits of Rogers and Brown. Should he succeed in winning the job, Ward is excellent fit to plug that gap with his impressive quickness and coverage skills, which enabled him to register seven interceptions and 30 passes defensed in four seasons with the Huskies.
A terrific all-around football player with a tendency for levying violent hits, Ward should bring an intimidating presence to the 49ers secondary. However, as was confirmed by coach Harbaugh, the rookie will have to earn the right to become an immediate contributor, and he is set to battle Perrish Cox and Eric Wright for the nickel spot.
This particular position battle will pit youth against experience, yet, while Cox and Wright each have NFL game time and knowledge of the 49ers defense on their side, it is questionable whether either has the talent to beat out Ward.
Neither Cox nor Wright has really proven himself during their respective pro careers, although the former should approach the offseason competition with confidence having performed to a high standard in the 2013 postseason after being preferred to Wright—whose first season with his hometown team was heavily marred by injury—during the playoffs.
The Niners evidently have faith in both Cox and Wright, re-signing them to one-year deals in free agency, yet it would still be a big surprise if their play is good enough to prevent Ward from earning significant playing time in his rookie year.
Note: All statistics courtesy of Sports Reference unless otherwise stated.
Nicholas McGee is a San Francisco 49ers Featured Columnist based in Leeds, England. Follow him on Twitter @nicholasmcgee24