Setting Realistic Training Camp Expectations for Each 49ers Rookie
The NFL offseason is pretty much in sleep mode at the moment, but fear not, training camp is almost upon us. You'll have an assortment of players, including rookies, veterans, injured veterans, etc. arriving sometime in mid July; however, the first training camp practice for the San Francisco 49ers will occur on July 24.
As it should be, rookies will report first. The 49ers will have all rookies in the building by July 16 before quarterbacks and injured veterans report on July 18.
Rookies are an interesting watch during training camp. You tend to hear a lot of hyperbole about their respective roles and career potential before any of the pads come on. Of course, it's not like we don't want to hear Player X is going to be the next great in the league, but the truth eventually comes out.
With this stacked group of rookies, we should hear plenty of news regarding potential roles for the upcoming season. However, I decided to make some predictions of my own before training camp begins.
Let's get started!
Dontae Johnson and Ken Acker, CB
If you told me two mid-round rookie prospects could be in line for major playing time in the 49ers secondary, I would call you crazy. With the addition of Jimmie Ward (more on him later), the 49ers at least addressed the secondary; however, holes still remain in the back end of this defense.
After Tramaine Brock, there seems to be a question mark at the cornerback position. Yes, Chris Culliver should be the favorite to start opposite Brock, but his pending legal issues could force him to miss some time this season.
Not to mention, first-round pick Ward won't be fully healthy until the start of training camp, and we can't forget the slightly shocking news of Eric Wright's retirement.
As painful as this sounds, the 49ers will likely have to rely on Dontae Johnson and/or Ken Acker at some point this season. Of course, the 49ers could still bring in a veteran presence for stability, but for right now, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is rolling with this group.
Now, Johnson should be confident that he can make the roster. He should receive enough snaps on special teams alone to solidify a roster spot.
On the other hand, Acker will have to really impress to make the roster. With plenty of snaps in OTAs, Acker made great strides, but training camp will be a different animal.
Acker and Johnson both benefited from absent and injured players in the secondary. Can they still show the same level of improvement with fewer snaps?
My prediction? It'll be close, but I have Johnson making the roster and Acker just missing the cut. Acker will be a strong candidate to make the 49ers practice squad.
Chris Borland, ILB
The selection of Chris Borland was one of my favorite picks of the 49ers' 2014 rookie haul. This guy fits like a glove on defense. Not to mention, the 49ers got great value with Borland coming off the board in the third round.
After all the hype I just threw at Borland, it's time to come back to reality. While Borland has starting-level potential, I can't see the first-year player jumping ahead of Michael Wilhoite. In relief of the injured Patrick Willis last season, Wilhoite played superb football alongside the now-injured NaVorro Bowman.
We also can't forget second-year linebacker Nick Moody. While Moody didn't contribute much on defense in his rookie season, he did play an important role on special teams.
Like Moody, I expect Borland to start his career on special teams. We should see Borland running with the second and/or third units during training camp.
Marcus Martin, C
The Marcus Martin selection was a bit of a head-scratcher for me. While the 49ers could use the depth at center, I never thought Martin could play either guard position at the next level.
Martin will learn the center position, but the 49ers will also likely prepare their young rookie to play both guard positions along the offensive line. I still have my doubts about Martin playing guard, but who am I to say the 49ers are wrong?
However, his primary position will be at center. If so, he'll have a tough time beating out four-year veteran Daniel Kilgore.
Now, I've been a huge fan of Kilgore since he entered the league back in 2011. After the disaster that was Adam Snyder in 2011, I thought Kilgore was the eventual answer at right guard.
That obviously didn't happen due to the emergence of Alex Boone. The 49ers instead focused on Kilgore learning the center position, where he could possibly take over for veteran center Jonathan Goodwin in a few years.
The succession is going as planned, though Martin could challenge Kilgore for his starting gig as early as this season. This battle will likely play out through training camp, but I expect the 49ers to announce Kilgore as the starting center before preseason action starts.
Martin will still have a role as situational lineman in jumbo or heavy packages. As a natural road grader, Martin could play a similar role to what Leonard Davis did for the 49ers in 2012.
Expect Martin to work with the second-unit offensive line during training camp.
Brandon Thomas (OG), Keith Reaser (CB) and Trey Millard (FB)
What do all three players above have in common? Well, they'll all likely start their careers on the injured reserved list.
Brandon Thomas will likely redshirt his first season as a pro. Keith Reaser and Trey Millard might return before the end of this season, but both players will also likely redshirt.
As we all know, this is a deep and talented 49ers squad. Trying to incorporate rookies into the 49ers scheme that late in the season would do more harm than good.
While Reaser and Millard would have found it tough to make the 53-man roster anyway, Thomas, on the other hand, is someone to watch for in the coming years.
Starting guards Mike Iupati and Alex Boone could end up leaving for greener pastures in a few years. While I'm sure the 49ers will at least keep one of their two starting guards, it should at least give players like Joe Looney and Brandon Thomas potential opportunities to start along the offensive line.
For now, don't expect much of anything from these three rookies.
Carlos Hyde, RB
As teams turn to more of a committee approach when it comes to running the football, the 49ers have stayed true to the old-school method. Frank Gore has been the 49ers bell cow for almost 10 years, but that could all change with the addition of rookie running back Carlos Hyde.
Now, I've always been a huge Kendall Hunter supporter. I still believe Hunter can be a lead back in many NFL offenses, but the addition of Hyde may shuffle some roles on offense.
For starters, I can't imagine the 49ers will give Gore a heavy workload during the regular season. Come playoff time, the 49ers will, of course, run their offense through Gore. The veteran still has one or two good years left in a red and gold uniform.
Until the playoffs, I'm sure we'll see plenty of Hyde and Hunter. In particular, Hyde should have no troubles assuming the role Anthony Dixon played for the 49ers the last several years. Dixon was the 49ers' designated goal-line back.
Look for Hyde to work with the second or third unit during training camp.
Aaron Lynch (OLB) and Kaleb Ramsey (DE)
Aaron Lynch was quite the selection in the 2014 NFL draft. In terms of pure talent, Lynch is a second or third-rounder, but questions about his motor and fluctuating weight while at Notre Dame and South Florida contributed to his slide.
While raw, Lynch has all the physical tools to be a dominant edge-rusher in a 3-4 scheme. He'll likely start his career on special teams, but if developed properly, I wouldn't be surprised if Lynch turns into a great situational pass-rusher.
Unfortunately, Lynch will likely ride the bench for the next two years, but that should give him some much needed developmental time. The 49ers have a ton of quality depth along the defensive line, so Lynch will have to earn his spot on the roster.
The same can be said for Kaleb Ramsey. When healthy, Ramsey proved to be a really good college football player. Of course, health is always a concern for the oft-injured Ramsey.
Ramsey somewhat reminds me of former 49ers defense lineman Ricky Jean-Francois. They both posses the same physical build and skill set. It took Jean-Francois a few years before he was ready to make an impact on the field, but I think Ramsey can use that blueprint for his career.
It'll be a long shot that Ramsey makes the 49ers 53-man roster, but he should be a great candidate for the practice squad.
Bruce Ellington, WR
As much as I love talking about Bruce Ellington, fatigue is starting to kick in. The 49ers receiver situation is pretty much settled heading into the start of the season, yet some are buying too much into Jim Harbaugh's competition mantra.
The 49ers will most certainly trot out Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Stevie Johnson as the top three receivers. Many have questioned if Johnson could be fighting for the third receiver spot behind Crabtree and Boldin, but I say hogwash.
When healthy, Johnson is a premier slot receiver. Johnson will make his presence known against some of these physical NFC West secondaries, namely the Seattle Seahawks.
With that settled, how will the speedy Ellington fit within this 49ers passing offense? As a legitimate deep threat, Ellington's presence could make it easier for Boldin and Crabtree underneath. Not to mention, tight end Vernon Davis would benefit tremendously with a deep threat like Ellington on the field.
The million dollar question is how will the 49ers get Ellington on the field? Originally, I believed Ellington would play as the fourth receiver behind the three receivers mentioned above, but that seems to be in doubt with the news of Brandon Lloyd's resurgence in OTAs and minicamps.
If Lloyd makes the roster, that pushes Ellington back to fifth. And that's if Ellington can beat out promising second-year receiver Quinton Patton.
However, at the very least, Ellington will likely make an impact on special teams. As a kick/punt returner, Ellington could be a dynamic threat for special teams coordinator Brad Seely.
Look for Ellington to assume either return position while practicing his craft at receiver with the second unit on offense.
Jimmie Ward, S/CB
Jimmie Ward won't see the actual field until training camp, but I still envision the rookie defensive back making huge contributions in his first NFL season.
As many already know, rookie defensive backs look routinely awful during parts of training camp. 49ers safety Eric Reid was awful during parts of training camp last season. He obviously improved as camp progressed, but the transition to the next level was not easy.
Ward will likely experience similar growing pains in trying to win the nickel or slot position in the 49ers secondary. The competition isn't exactly stiff, but don't sleep on young upstart Darryl Morris and veteran cornerback Perrish Cox.
I've said this before, Ward may not end up with the slot job at the start of the season; however, I fully expect the versatile defensive back to finish the season playing significant snaps.
Look for the 49ers to bring Ward along slowly from injury. We could see the first-rounder playing with the second or third unit during training camp.