San Francisco 49ers: 5 Players Climbing the Depth Chart This Offseason
Because of their recent success and loaded roster, the San Francisco 49ers don’t have much flexibility in their depth chart. Most starting spots, as well as the backups, are already fairly firmly penciled in as the 49ers try to make their fourth consecutive NFC Championship and move back to the Super Bowl.
That’s not to say that there’s no room for players to move, however, just that any surprises are more likely to come from the bottom of the roster rather than the top. Maybe Blaine Gabbert won’t catch Colin Kaepernick for the starting quarterback role, but perhaps Josh Johnson can replace Gabbert on the second string.
With two weeks of OTAs over, and with the mandatory minicamp looming on June 17, let’s take a look at some players who may have carved out more substantial roles for themselves this upcoming season. In some cases, it may be backups who look to see the field more often than expected. In other cases, it may be players on the roster bubble who seem to have taken solid steps into ensuring their spot on the final 53-man roster.
Because the OTAs are primarily non-contact, some of these improvements might be mirages. Some players trending positively will fade as everyone begins to ramp up to full game speed. Other positions, especially on the offensive and defensive lines, are almost impossible to judge without full blocking drills.
Still, OTAs do provide a bit of clarity when it comes to depth charts and the like. Here are five players who have begun to stake their claim to a more significant role in 2014.
RB Kendall Hunter
The ageless Frank Gore looks to continue to clamp down on his starting role for one last season, and the 49ers have brought in Marcus Lattimore and Carlos Hyde over the past two seasons to take over the future of the position.
All that being said, the player who has impressed the most in practice to this point might just be Kendall Hunter, who was beginning to feel like an afterthought this offseason.
According to Grant Cohn of The Press Democrat, Hunter has been one of the most explosive players on the field during OTAs. He’s making jump cuts, bursting downfield and generally looking in better form than he has in his entire NFL career so far.
This is Hunter’s last year under contract, and he’s looking to carve out a solid role for his future, whether it’s in San Francisco or with another club. With two full offseasons between him and his 2012 Achilles injury, Hunter might find a role as a regular change-of-pace back while Lattimore and Hyde are adjusting to the NFL.
WR Brandon Lloyd
When the 49ers brought in Stevie Johnson and Bruce Ellington during draft-day weekend, it looked grim for Brandon Lloyd’s chances of restarting his career in San Francisco. After all, Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Johnson and Ellington are all essentially locks to make the roster, and it would be surprising to see the team give up on Quinton Patton after only one season. Where is there room for Lloyd?
Lloyd seems determined to make room, however. With many of the top receivers sitting out during OTAs, Lloyd has developed a quick rapport with Colin Kaepernick, per CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco. His experience has put him a cut above some of the other players trying to fight for that last receiver spot; his route running is still excellent, and he still has the ability to make the athletic catches that highlighted his previous tenure in San Francisco.
He does not look like he’s spent the past year out of football. We’ll have to see how this carries over to when the team puts on full pads in training camp, but at least for now, Lloyd’s clearly shown that he’s deep in the middle of the battle for a roster spot.
DL Lawrence Okoye
Former British Olympian Lawrence Okoye has never played in a football game that has counted. The 18 defensive snaps he received during last year’s preseason is the sum total of his entire football experience. He never played the game in high school, and he never played the game in college.
Okoye is an athlete, first and foremost—but what an athlete. Even at 6’6” and 304 pounds, Okoye has been flashing some potential on kick coverage, running down returners, per 49ers.com’s Taylor Price.
If Okoye is a player without a position, to a certain extent, it makes sense to start him at something simple. As a gunner, running down the field and using his speed, size and strength to stop kick returners in their tracks, he’d be a sight to see.
In OTAs, he’s been lining up right next to Phil Dawson and taking lots of work on kickoff drills. “It doesn’t stand out as much now,” coach Jim Harbaugh said about Okyoe’s presence on the kickoff unit.
It looks like Okoye has found his position, at least for the moment. That gives him a much better chance at actually making the 53-man roster.
ILB Chris Borland
With NaVorro Bowman out for the beginning of the season, someone has to fill in next to Patrick Willis in the center of the 49ers defense.
While Michael Wilhoite has been getting the majority of the starting snaps, it’s third-round pick Chris Borland who has been turning heads during OTAs.
“He’s probably leading the team right now in deflections and interceptions,” Harbaugh said. “He’s been around the ball all spring. He’s doing a fine job.”
Admittedly, most of Borland’s plays have come against reserves. He made notable plays during Tuesday’s open OTAs, but they were against Blaine Gabbert and Josh Johnson, not Colin Kaepernick, per 49ers.com’s Taylor Price. Still, the fact that he’s close to dominating that level of competition bodes well for him potentially moving up to greater challenges in the near future.
CB Chris Cook
With Chris Culliver limited to individual drills as he recovers from knee surgery and Jimmie Ward recovering from foot surgery, it’s free-agent acquisition Chris Cook who’s been lining up across from Tramaine Brock as a starting cornerback, per Cam Inman of the Bay Area New Group.
Harbaugh has praised Cook’s impact on the team so far, saying, per Inman: “He’s showing up and making plays. He’s getting his hands on the ball, he’s made interceptions and he’s done a good job.”
Can Cook hold on to snaps once the entire secondary is healthy? That’s a rough proposition—but remember, there’s no guarantee that the 53 best players on the roster will be healthy when the regular season opens up. Cook could very well be earning himself a key depth position and a chance to be the first off the bench in case of injury with his work in OTAs.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.