Winners/Losers of San Francisco 49ers' Offseason so Far
San Francisco enjoys having one of the most stacked rosters in the league. The group of incumbent players, paired with an influx of draft picks and offseason acquisitions, creates the mandatory competition that successful teams need in order to develop a championship-caliber franchise.
The 49ers are well on their way to doing this.
In formulating the final 53-man roster, San Francisco's coaching staff will have to closely evaluate its plethora of players—90 to be exact—eventually whittling down the number after organized team activities (OTAs), mandatory minicamp and the NFL preseason have taken place.
Some players shine while others disappoint. That's just the nature of the beast.
So let's take a closer look at some of the biggest winners and losers of the 49ers' offseason thus far. Which players, given the opportunity, have seized it to the fullest? In contrast, which 49ers have suffered setbacks?
In this slideshow, we take a look at eight players—four winners and four losers—who have either stood out or are in danger of falling by the wayside.
Additionally, we shall offer a brief prediction as to what the future holds for each individual player entering Week 1 of the upcoming season.
There are a lot of factors that need to be considered. Depth is an obvious concern and injuries can play a significant role. Contractual issues can also work their way into the equation.
These aspects, and more, give us a good insight into exactly what San Francisco has on its plate as the coaching staff evaluates its roster heading towards the 2014 season.
Loser: Jon Baldwin, Wide Receiver
Jon Baldwin, Wide Receiver
Wide receiver Jon Baldwin is the final piece of general manager Trent Baalke's 2012 gaffe of selecting wide receiver A.J. Jenkins in the first round of that year's NFL draft.
Baldwin—another first-round disappointment—was sent to the 49ers in exchange for Jenkins prior to the 2013 regular season. The move itself was more for contractual reasons than any hopes the 49ers offense would get substantial use out of him.
Jenkins was signed through 2015, whereas Baldwin's contract expired after the 2014 season. This move gives San Francisco's brass much more flexibility in determining what to do with the team's expenses.
Following a disappointing three-reception, 28-yard season-long performance from Baldwin in 2013, Baldwin was asked to take a pay cut per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
There is no need to go into detail about the 49ers' woes in their receiving corps last season. Had Baldwin been able to contribute effectively, his future with San Francisco would have been in much better shape.
Nothing of the sort materialized however, and Baldwin's future prospects with the team were put into even further doubt after a number of significant wideout transactions made by the team during the offseason.
The additions of veterans like Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd, along with fourth-round draft pick Bruce Ellington, help thwart Baldwin's chances to earn a roster spot.
Buried behind these players—in addition to returning veterans like Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, Quinton Patton and Kassim Osgood—Baldwin's chances of even making the roster are not good.
This is the stance taken by David Fucillo of Niners Nation. He writes:
His odds are pretty slim at this point. The restructured deal conceivably shows the team likes him enough to give him a chance to compete, but this wide receiver corps just seems too deep. If the 49ers keep six receivers and decide Kassim Osgood's special teams contributions aren't enough, it likely comes down to Baldwin and Lloyd, right? And if the 49ers keep 5 (or 5 + Osgood), who does Baldwin get in over? It's not Crabtree, Boldin or Johnson. I don't see any way Ellington doesn't make the team.
Barring any sort of crazy, impressive performance from Baldwin, the 49ers will likely part ways with him before Week 1—an element made easier given that he is making zero in guaranteed money.
Baldwin will likely be released just before the regular season begins. Head coach Jim Harbaugh will likely try to get the most out of Baldwin during the preseason—perhaps a remote attempt to boost any sort of trade value.
But teams are going to be reluctant to trade anything in exchange for a player who has done little more than disappoint the critics up to this point.
As a result, the 49ers are left with little option but to let Baldwin go.
Winner: Brandon Lloyd, Wide Receiver
Brandon Lloyd, Wide Receiver
Had the 49ers not signed 10-year veteran wideout Brandon Lloyd this offseason, Jon Baldwin's chances of making the roster would have been that much better.
But the 49ers did sign Lloyd—a move that added both depth and a safety net to San Francisco's crop of wide receivers.
Brandon Lloyd signs 1-year deal with San Francisco 49ers http://t.co/gqtdD3otbj— ESPNBoston (@ESPNBoston) April 15, 2014
Initially, the one-year, $1.005 million signing appeared to be a fallback option for this unit in case the 49ers were not able to cash in on talented receivers in the 2014 NFL draft.
At the outset, Lloyd's chances of making the roster appeared grim at best. Would the 49ers really want to take a flier on a player who missed all of 2013? In addition, could his presence thwart the impacts of other wideouts like Johnson, Ellington and Quinton Patton?
After an impressive OTA session, the answer to both questions is invariably yes.
Lloyd has done everything in his power to showcase that he is deserving of a roster spot in 2014. His impressive training camp—described further by Grant Cohn of The Santa Rosa Press Democrat—has given plenty of indication that Lloyd is still capable of contributing at a high level.
Another factor that Lloyd has going for him is his effectiveness in the red zone. The 49ers, looking to improve in this area per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, will unquestionably want to see Lloyd be a threat in this regard.
49ers look to improve on red-zone efficiency with more work this offseason. Could Brandon Lloyd be a factor? http://t.co/LUZ4Z2JNjX— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) May 29, 2014
Over his 10-year career, 19 of Lloyd's 37 touchdown receptions have come in the red zone, per Doug Williams of NBC Bay Area.
This statistic alone lends credence to the 49ers' desire to keep Lloyd on the roster entering the regular season. Yes, there is considerable depth and competition at this position, but Lloyd has done more than just bring statistics into the equation.
He is still showing his value, even at 32 years old.
Lloyd will not overtake receivers like Boldin and Crabtree on the 49ers' depth chart. It will also be difficult for him to thwart players like Johnson, Ellington and Patton.
Yet Lloyd's presence on the field will be a vital factor for San Francisco's red-zone efficiency during the regular season. Lloyd will make the roster and be utilized in various packages and formations that benefit the offense when needed.
Loser: Jimmie Ward, Safety
Jimmie Ward, Safety
I know what you're thinking—how can the 49ers' 2014 first-round draft pick already be classified as a loser this offseason?
In all fairness, it is not Jimmie Ward's fault.
As Ward recuperates, the preeminent question is when he can return to the field and start the difficult adjustment to life at the NFL level.
We all know how strenuous it can be for rookie defensive backs to transition from the collegiate to NFL level. This author remembers how San Francisco's 2013 first-round pick Eric Reid described the difficulties associated with the adjustment.
Not being present on the field for such a substantial portion of the 49ers' training camp may have sizable implications on Ward's rookie season.
This is exactly what defensive coordinator Vic Fangio fears. He stated such via Eric Branch of SF Gate:
[Ward] is going to be behind. And it’s going to be important for him—and for us as coaches—to realize he’s behind and just fight through that. Because he’s not going to look good early. You can sit in all these meetings you want, but the best way a players improves is: meet, go practice, come back and meet some more, learn what you did wrong, learn some new things, go practice … He’s not getting any of that practice. He can be practicing mentally in his head all he wants. That only takes you to a certain point. He’s got to go out there and experience it.
The 49ers will obviously not rush their first-round pick back onto the field prematurely. That would be the worst thing they could do. Fortunately, San Francisco has plenty of depth in its backfield, which will take the pressure off Ward's return.
Offseason acquisition Antoine Bethea figures to get the starting nod at strong safety while Perrish Cox and Eric Wright, among others, will battle it out for the slot cornerback position
All Ward has to do is overcome this obstacle before shifting his focus entirely on impacting the 49ers defense. He has dealt with difficulties before and should be able to do so again.
Ward's future with the 49ers is just fine. The injury may have simply delayed his development.
With this in mind, expect Ward to be slotted behind Bethea, Cox or Wright on San Francisco's depth chart at the beginning of 2014. As the season progresses, Ward should get more opportunities as he catches up with his maturation process.
Winner: Perrish Cox, Cornerback
Perrish Cox, Cornerback
One of the primary beneficiaries of Jimmie Ward's foot injury is cornerback Perrish Cox.
With Ward sidelined Cox figures to battle with fellow defensive back Eric Wright for the slot corner position headed towards the regular season.
There are a number of reasons to suggest Cox will earn the role in Week 1, as well as reasons why he may eventually lose out.
The first, of course, is Ward's absence. The 49ers obviously want their first-rounder to be the primary guy who assumes the slot corner role at the start of the season. Yet injuries can easily displace such hopes.
Cox also offers substantial abilities on special teams, which increases his value overall. While this does not necessarily mean he will earn the slot job, it certainly gives him a better chance to remain on the roster.
Then there is the primary competition with Wright.
Wright and Cox could battle it out for the Nos. 3 and 4 corner positions, especially if Ward is sidelined for a lengthy period of time.
Additionally, both players will have to keep an eye on the development of second-year veteran Darryl Morris along with offseason acquisition Chris Cook.
Out of all of those, Cox could be the favorite to earn the job.
This is the same argument made by David Fucillo of Niners Nation. He suggests that Cox will be the primary beneficiary of an elongated absence.
Fucillo also notes that up-and-coming talent could thwart Cox's chances of making the roster. Both Cox and Wright could find themselves released if players like Morris, Dontae Johnson or Kenneth Acker prove themselves worthy in training camp.
We take a look at 49ers cornerback Perrish Cox in our latest 90-in-90 breakdown http://t.co/sWO8geDoSD— Niners Nation (@NinersNation) June 10, 2014
Still, it is hard to overlook the fact that Cox is getting a lot of reps during OTAs as pointed out by Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
The 49ers are obviously looking to see where Cox will fit in with their short- and long-term plans in the upcoming season. On the one hand, Cox is probably best suited as a backup. Yet veteran presence here is never a bad thing.
According to Kevin Lynch of SF Gate, Cox is still a long shot to make the team. But he does look a lot quicker in training camp and lost some weight according to Lynch. We will continue to see whether or not this plays a factor, but for now Cox's future with the team looks pretty good.
As stated by Fucillo, Cox could be the favorite to earn the starting slot corner job in Week 1. This would likely mean the end of Eric Wright's tenure in San Francisco, especially if some of the younger crop of defensive backs continue to impress.
Yet this progression—combined with the pending debut of Ward—points to the likelihood of Cox eventually being surpassed on the depth chart at some point during the season.
After that, who knows where Cox lands.
Loser: Vernon Davis, Tight End
Vernon Davis, Tight End
This is more of a contractual concern rather than a performance-based issue.
From a performance standpoint, tight end Vernon Davis should be just fine entering the 2014 season. His 52-reception, 850-yard performance in 2013 suggests that there should be little-to-no drop off from the 30-year-old Pro Bowler.
But with the production comes the desire to have an increase in pay, which is precisely what Davis has been pursuing this offseason.
In 2010 I signed a five-year, $37 million contract extension with $23 million guaranteed. It was the biggest contract for a tight end in league history. Four years later, and I’m playing at a higher level than I was then, which brings me to why I’m holding out. It’s all about getting paid what you deserve. It’s not that complicated.
Last week, Vernon Davis said he plans to show up for mandatory minicamp. His plans apparently have changed. http://t.co/JWfSNFL95y— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) June 16, 2014
Whether or not he actually shows up for the mandatory minicamp—which starts on June 17—remains to be seen. Davis has hinted that he will not show, awaiting contract negotiations.
Will he or won't he? We won't know for sure until Tuesday because Vernon Davis seems to keep changing his mind and saying different things.— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) June 16, 2014
Davis' hopes to increase his current contract in the wake of ongoing discussions with New Orleans Saints' tight end Jimmy Graham. Davis has closely monitored this situation per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee and, as Barrows points out, the 49ers tight end would be a primary beneficiary if Graham cashes in.
Herein lays the problem—Davis is already the second-highest paid 49er on offense behind Colin Kaepernick and makes more than wide receivers Anquan Boldin's and Michael Crabtree's combined salaries.
Add that to the fact that Davis is 30 years old now while Graham is only 27, and it is impossible to think Davis will ever get the type of money Graham is seeking.
Vernon Davis has lost his marbles if he thinks he's getting Jimmy Graham money with a speed-based game at his age.— Dylan DeSimone (@DeSimone_80) June 4, 2014
We won't know exactly where this issue will go as much of it depends on whether or not Davis physically attends the mandatory portion of offseason activities.
If he does show, signs point to Davis giving into his situation and accepting his current contract. If not, the 49ers may be put into a somewhat precarious position.
As stated, it is hard to see San Francisco giving in to Davis' contractual demands. They already have another holdout in Alex Boone, who should be the primary concern when it comes to an extension.
Davis may eventually settle for a slight renegotiation—or none at all—as the preseason draws near. At any rate, do not expect him to cash in on the contract numbers he desires.
Winner: Josh Johnson, Quarterback
Josh Johnson, Quarterback
What if this author told you the 49ers' backup to quarterback Colin Kaepernick was not going to be trade acquisition Blaine Gabbert, third stringer McLeod Bethel-Thompson or undrafted free agent Kory Faulkner?
What if the guy who earned that job was 28-year-old veteran Josh Johnson?
If OTAs were any indication of who would receive the backup job, it would be hard for head coach Jim Harbaugh to overlook what Johnson has done thus far.
More on that later.
Johnson was once part of the 49ers' roster prior to the 2012 regular season. After a two-season stint with the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals, Johnson feels as if his second tenure with San Francisco is a much better opportunity. He stated so via Eric Branch of SF Gate:
Alex [Smith] was the starter then. Kap is the starter now. Kap is an athletic quarterback. I’m an athletic quarterback as well. Once I talked to coach (he) said they do things now that fit my skill set a little bit more. When I was here last time the whole athletic-quarterback deal wasn’t as big as it now. It’s kind of like a different opportunity (and) a better opportunity.
The backup quarterback competition may be one of the more interesting elements of the 49ers' offseason thus far. The team traded for Gabbert before the draft and it would have been reasonable to assume the former first-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars would have been the favorite to earn No. 2 duties.
San Francisco then tabbed Faulkner as an UDFA following the 2014 draft with the hopes of creating competition with incumbent No. 3 guy Bethel-Thompson.
Now, Johnson has been placed back into the mix.
Various reports—such as those from The Santa Rosa Press Democrat's Grant Cohn—have heralded Johnson's OTA performances and have made note that Gabbert has struggled. In this particular evaluation, Johnson actually lined up at wide receiver since the 49ers' squad was relatively thin during the session.
Other notes, including Sacramento Bee columnist Matt Barrows, also give Johnson praise.
Further adding to the likelihood of Johnson earning a roster spot is the fact that San Francisco is utilizing an offense that features the dynamic, playmaking abilities of Kaepernick—a situation that Johnson did not have a luxury with in 2012.
There is still plenty of time to determine whether or not Johnson earns a roster spot in 2014. One has to point to last year to see the flurry of quarterbacks the 49ers have experimented with during the preseason. They could very well be doing the same in 2014.
But for now, Johnson looks as if he is a legitimate contender on San Francisco's depth chart behind Kaepernick. That is never a bad thing.
In spite of his impressive offseason performances, Johnson still has a long way to go in securing a final spot on the 53-man roster. The 49ers can afford to be patient with Gabbert given his first-round pedigree, but it will be interesting to see how long they wait with his development.
Johnson's best chance may be to thwart both Bethel-Thompson and Faulkner for the No. 3 quarterback spot. This is probably the most likely of scenarios heading into 2014.
Loser: LaMichael James, Running Back
LaMichael James, Running Back
It is no secret to 49ers fans that running back LaMichael James is frustrated with his role on offense.
He has made this case multiple times, often utilizing his Twitter account to voice his discontent with the lack of playing time.
Much of this emanated from his lack of use back in 2013 when he was the No. 3 running back behind Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter.
In 2014, the 49ers now have Marcus Lattimore and 2014 second-round pick Carlos Hyde added to the mix.
If James was frustrated with his role last season, he must be fuming with San Francisco's choices entering this year.
On one hand, it is hard to blame James—a dynamic collegiate runner whose performances at the University of Oregon deserve their own accolades. He wants to be a bigger part of the offense and stated so via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area:
It’s nothing against our running backs. I think Frank’s the best, and I think Kendall is super-good, too. It’s nothing against them. But with that being said, am I supposed to be happy just returning kicks and catching punts? No, not really. I’m a competitor. I want to go out and compete. Whatever it is, catching some passes, whatever. I want to play running back, too. I feel I can do it at the highest level. That’s the only thing that frustrates me. If I said I wasn’t frustrated, you know, I’d be lying to you. And I’m not going to lie.
Perhaps he has been underutilized by offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Perhaps the 49ers' emphasis on a power-run game leaves James out of the equation.
Such would appear to be the point. Both Lattimore and Hyde figure to fit the mold of what San Francisco has done with its running game during the Gore era.
With Gore on the way out in the foreseeable future, Hyde and Lattimore look to be the preeminent figures in San Francisco's ground game for years to come.
James does not appear to fit into that mix.
This has drawn many conclusions that James will be traded or released at some point before the season. Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee was one of those who suggested James was on the trading block.
Chris Wesseling of NFL.com also hints James could be a viable trade commodity before the 2014 season begins.
But the problem is simple. James is an unproven, potentially inadequate commodity at the NFL level. Sure his collegiate stats are worth mentioning, but his contributions on the NFL stage would hardly inspire teams to give up a mid- to late-round pick in exchange.
Regardless, a chance in scenery is probably the best thing for James moving forward. With Hyde and Lattimore appearing to be the future of the 49ers' backfield, the best thing for James is to somehow find a new role with a new team.
Exactly how that happens remains unclear.
The 49ers will try to shop James up to the regular season, attempting to get the best deal available. Yet it will be hard to net anything in return, even a late-round pick.
If San Francisco is unable to move James, he will still hold value as a return man on special teams. But this would lead to yet another frustrating season in San Francisco and will continue to drive a wedge between him and the team.
Perhaps an outright release is in order if the 49ers can manage the guaranteed salary numbers, which they assuredly can.
Winner: Carlos Hyde, Running Back
Carlos Hyde, Running Back
Forget for a moment the apparent transition the 49ers are making towards a dynamic passing offense. Forget the contract extension to Colin Kaepernick and forget the multiple additions at wide receiver during the offseason.
San Francisco is a run-first, power-running team. This concept has been at the heart of the 49ers offense for years and why should we speculate a lot of changes moving forward?
#49ers strength is their power run game. Line up behind the best offensive line in the NFL and pound the rock and run the clock down.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) February 4, 2013
Running the ball down the oppositions' throat is one of the primary reasons behind San Francisco's success in recent years.
In an age where the passing game has become ever more prevalent, the 49ers' theory of run-first attacks on offense stands in stark, but successful, contrast. Three straight NFC Championship game appearances do enough to warrant this suggestion in this author's view.
But there is a pending problem.
For years, Frank Gore has been the bell cow of San Francisco's offense. At 31 years old however, Gore is winding down. There is simply no getting beyond that fact.
With Gore under contract for one more season, the 49ers are looking to turn the page without having to change the philosophy or impact.
In 2013, Marcus Lattimore was destined to be that guy. Redshirting his rookie season after recovering from a collegiate knee injury, the former Gamecock prospect looked as if he would be the favorite to take over Gore's role.
Then San Francisco added Ohio State's Carlos Hyde in Round 2 of the 2014 NFL draft.
Hyde was shocked, but pleased that the 49ers drafted him per Jimmy Durkin of The San Jose Mercury News:
[That’s] definitely a smile on my face to go to an organization that leads the NFL in rushing and rushing attempts (49ers actually ranked No. 3 in both categories). Knowing that, I definitely got excited because, in college, all I wanted to do is run that ball. To come to an organization that that’s what they do, that’s exciting.
Combine this mindset with the elements that comprise Hyde's style of play, and it is easy to see why the 49ers drafted him.
Yet there is an even greater intangible when it comes to comparing Hyde to Gore.
Nikhil Ramgiri of Fansided.com points out a couple of key attributes to Hyde's game:
Like Lattimore, Hyde shares several traits with Gore, but he is not an exact clone of the incumbent Niner tailback. Hyde has something that Lattimore and Gore do not—big-play ability. That isn’t to say that Lattimore and Gore do not have the ability to rip off a game-changing run ... But Hyde possesses real north-south and east-west speed. He didn’t really display that speed at the combine (4.66 40-yard dash time), but he has natural football speed.
Ramgiri does point out that Hyde does not possess the elite vision that Gore has, but Hyde can make up for this given his uncanny ability and strength.
It is power running at its best.
Now, the question is which one of the young 49ers backs eventually earns the nod when the time comes for Gore to end his San Francisco career. Will it be Lattimore or Hyde?
Marcus Lattimore and Carlos Hyde are at 49ers rookie minicamp. Just let that talent sink in for a second.— Vincent Frank (@VincentFrankNFL) May 23, 2014
ESPN 49ers reporter Bill Williamson feels as if Hyde is the favorite to get the most reps behind Gore, citing San Francisco's desire to be patient with Lattimore post injury.
This author holds the same reservations as Williamson and many other 49ers pundits. Hyde looks as if he has a brighter future as San Francisco's featured back.
Carlos Hyde not insurance for 49ers, he's the feature back of the future http://t.co/NE573OQ9pB— Niners Nation (@NinersNation) May 11, 2014
Hyde obviously is the best beneficiary of San Francisco's offensive scheme. We all know how much the 49ers love to run the ball and now they have yet another back who can fit right into that job.
It is the perfect situation for Hyde and the 49ers stand not to lose too much at the conclusion of the Gore era.
Gore will still be the primary back, at least at the initial phase of the season. Hyde will be directly behind him and eventually receive more touches as the 49ers rest Gore for a playoff push. Lattimore's development should continue to be brought along slowly.
The real question is what happens in 2015. Gore is likely gone at this point and Kendall Hunter will be a free agent. Perhaps Hyde and Lattimore wind up being a two-headed monster emanating out of the San Francisco backfield.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Be sure to check out his entire archive on 49ers' coverage, analysis and insight.
Follow @PeterMcShots on Twitter.
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