San Francisco 49ers' 5 Biggest Question Marks Ahead of Training Camp
Last week we endeavored an investigation into the San Francisco 49ers that assigned fact or fiction to reports over some of the team’s biggest offseason question marks.
It was a long-term outlook that included late-December stat projections and prospects for attaining the franchise’s sixth Lombardi Trophy.
While still keeping one foot on the speculative discourse train, this week we’ll get more specific and delve into the Niners’ top-five questions ahead of training camp.
Instead of projecting toward the regular season or playoffs, we’ll focus on the quintuplet of Red and Gold unknowns that pertain directly to this next round of offseason activity.
Complete team attendance is set for July 23. Full-contact practice sessions begin three days later.
Ok, so what are these issues and what do they entail?
San Francisco’s roster is stacked but also riddled with injuries. The players have practiced, but not in pads. And the coaches have installed, but haven’t thoroughly implemented the playbook.
Put in a format more appropriate to this article, which 49ers rookie will emerge first from the pack at backup inside linebacker? How will a certain redshirt running back respond to live contact? And how quickly will head coach Jim Harbaugh adapt to Dockers?
That last one may or may not have made the cut.
Satirical fashion campaigns aside, here now are the 49ers’ five biggest question marks ahead of training camp.
Will Wide Receiver Kassim Osgood or Safety Bubba Ventrone Solidify Spots on Special Teams?
Both Osgood and Ventrone were special teams standouts last year for the 49ers.
They each tied for third with seven takedowns and just one missed tackle, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That said, the former logged only 45 snaps and one reception on offense, while the latter didn’t play a single down on defense.
In other words, both of these respected veterans are one-trick ponies.
So, who starts making a better case as a special teams asset?
With three Pro Bowls to his name, the highly lauded Osgood is a physical and intelligent force at 6’5”, 209 pounds. He registered a blocked kick, fumble recovery and touchdown in 2013.
The longhaired Ventrone, for his part, earned a top-eight rating from PFF while his teammate fell into the bottom four. He also has played for five years under Niners’ coach Brad Seely.
Even though the preseason action will ultimately push one ahead of the other, training camp remains an important early battle. We’ll see who helps solidify his case more during this initial evaluation period.
Will a Backup QB Other Than Blaine Gabbert Make Himself Known in Camp?
Welcome to the positional battle that few 49ers fans like discussing. Sorry, folks—it really is a critical source of roster competition.
Or is it?
Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area deems Gabbert a lock as Colin Kaepernick’s backup. He surely has the look (6’5’’, 235 pounds), draft status (No. 10 overall in 2011) and salary ($2.01 million) as guaranteed roster-spot collateral. As such, that leaves five-year vet Josh Johnson, 2013 holdover McLeod Bethel-Thompson and undrafted rookie Kory Faulkner as the forgotten three.
Yet among that trio, any and all pressure lies solely on Johnson—he’s the only one not eligible for the practice squad. Not only must he beat out his fellow gunslingers, he must prove himself more valuable than a host of other players vying for a spot on special teams.
Fortunately for Johnson, history may be on his side.
The Oakland native displayed tremendous execution as a quarterback hopeful during the 49ers 2012 preseason. He produced two touchdowns, zero interceptions and recorded a 115.2 passer rating. And take it for what it’s worth, he also received his NFL training from Jim Harbaugh at the University of San Diego.
Will all that measure up next to Gabbert’s secure positioning in San Francisco?
But if Johnson wants any shot at sporting a red-and-gold uniform once again, he must capitalize on his familiarity with the offense and replicate that past success in this upcoming 49ers camp.
5. Shayne Skov or Nick Moody at Backup ILB? Chris Cook or Perrish Cox at CB?
Two questions on one slide notwithstanding, grouping these two issues together seemed particularly apt.
Free agents Shayne Skov and Chris Cook must both beat out backup incumbents in their respective positional battles. Even though one’s an undrafted rookie and the latter a four-year vet, the same competitive dynamic applies.
Conversely, Nick Moody and Perrish Cox are returning 49ers who must defend their tenuous roster spots against said outside additions. And in this case, the veterans are the ones with less talent and security.
Skov is a high-IQ linebacker with a sense for how to play the position—one of those nose-for-the-ball types of players. The Pac-12 career leader in assisted tackles also displayed his no-nonsense toughness by overcoming a serious knee injury suffered in 2011.
He returned in pure maniacal form and in 2013 notched career-highs with 109 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. He added 5.5 sacks and four passes defensed.
The 6’3”, 244-pounder, who once played for Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio at Stanford must prove his worth on defense and on special teams at the next level. The versatile but far less skilled Moody will try and accomplish the same as a returning second-year player behind third-round pick Chris Borland and Michael Wilhoite. The Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows also reminds us that former 49er and special teams ace Blake Costanzo will make this a three-man race.
One way or another, both Skov and Moody must exploit every opportunity for physical contact in camp to showcase their linebacker-specific strengths.
Speaking of which, Cook fits the mold of a press-cover corner who must use physicality if he’s to succeed in neutralizing opposing wideouts. Prevented from doing so thus far in the offseason, he can now fully utilize his 6’2’’ frame, long arms and overall strength.
Even though he offers a much different skill set, Cox still must fend off Cook for a roster spot. He must show that his versatility as a nickel back and extra safety in dime coverages brings more value than his teammate’s press-man abilities.
Cox currently sits on the outside looking in, according to CSN Bay Area’s Maiocco. His first chance to improve that uncertain standing will come July 26 during the team’s opening full-padded session.
4. How Will Top Pick Jimmie Ward Fair in First Real Practices?
San Francisco’s No. 1 draft pick isn’t going anywhere. Unlike the collection of players that preceded him in this list, defensive back Jimmie Ward has a stranglehold on 53-man-roster real estate.
So, why does he find himself as a top-five offseason question mark? He hasn’t participated in a single practice since being drafted No. 30 overall in May.
Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News reported back on June 18 that foot surgery conducted in March has indeed sidelined the rookie cover man. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio even questioned Ward’s first-team status in Week 1 due to his absence thus far.
“When you’re skipping practice, you’re skipping the most important part,” said Fangio. “[He] has done everything he can under the circumstances to learn our defense and improve. But he’s got to go play.”
The man who CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco said will log 60 percent of the defensive snaps as a backup safety and nickel cornerback in the regular season must show that he can play at all.
Fans, coaches and us scribblers simply want a glimpse of the Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist who racked up seven picks, 10 passes defensed and an interception return for a touchdown for Northern Illinois in 2013.
Plus, it’s not like one of those writers predicted Ward would lead the 49ers in interceptions or anything.
3. Could WR Brandon Lloyd Really Challenge Stevie Johnson in Late-July?
“Wait, so a 33-year-old wideout who didn’t log a single snap last season will challenge a marquee free-agent addition with a $3.9 million cap figure?” says a hypothetical 49er fan.
Believe it or not, Mr. Fan, but Brandon Lloyd is real—and so is the pressure he is applying to presumptive No. 3 receiver Stevie Johnson.
The three-time 1,000-yard pass-catcher, whom the 49ers acquired in a draft-day trade, did not participate in the team’s June minicamp due to a strained hamstring. Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee put it best by saying Johnson “missed some valuable time to create a rapport with Colin Kaepernick.”
CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco even refrained from calling Kap’s new weapon a lock for a top-three role.
Lloyd, meanwhile, has been nothing short of a revelation in his return to the NFL practice field.
In addition to showing impressive humility by gaining insights from position leader Anquan Boldin, he has “excelled in practices open to the media,” per Inman of the San Jose Mercury News. One notable play included a great catch down the right sideline in the final minicamp session.
All that said, Lloyd doesn’t offer any utility on special teams. Lacking such versatility will hinder his chances when competing against the likes of second-year receiver Quinton Patton and fourth-round pick Bruce Ellington.
And considering how both those young guns at times have impressed in offseason practices, Lloyd faces ample pressure of his own (happy birthday though, buddy).
We’ll keep a close eye on this compelling battle as the start of training camp approaches.
2. Can Marcus Lattimore, Tank Carradine Rediscover Explosive Abilities?
October 27, 2012…November 24, 2012—these respective dates probably won’t elicit an emotional chord among the casual football-watching demographic.
But present them to 49ers running back Marcus Lattimore and defensive end Tank Carradine, and an acute response would most likely ensue.
Two years ago, Lattimore played his last college game on the fourth Saturday of October. It was a game in which the South Carolina record-setter feared he had lost his right leg due to a catastrophic knee injury that inflicted damage to his circulatory system.
Carradine, meanwhile, logged his final collegiate outing for Florida State during Thanksgiving weekend of that same year. He wasn’t entirely thankful himself, though, as a torn ACL prematurely ended his career as a Seminole.
Now after nearly two years of tedious, painstaking and seemingly endless rehabilitation, both are primed for live contact.
Albeit in a controlled setting of 49ers minicamp, Lattimore looked “noticeably better and explosive” on the first day of practice, according to Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee. He hasn’t ascended to pre-injury level just yet, but he has “made significant progress during the nine weeks of [offseason] workouts,” per CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco.
The resilient backfield dynamo, who’s respectfully “trying to take [Frank Gore’s] job,” now must put on the pads in three weeks' time to show what he’s got—both to the world and, most importantly, himself.
While not quite as dramatic as his 49ers brethren, Carradine must display in a football capacity his newfound strength and “full range of motion." The heir apparent to Justin Smith must rediscover his explosiveness off the snap as both a run-defender and pass-rusher.
Now, will either of them return—or at least come close—to maximum gridiron functionality in training camp?
Only they can know. May the 22-day countdown begin.
1. Will TE Vernon Davis or OL Alex Boone Report to Training Camp?
Speaking of things only certain 49ers players can know, let’s just stop and acknowledge the prevailing question(s) on everyone’s mind:
Will Vernon Davis or Alex Boone report to training camp? And if so, when will they share this information with the public?
The NFL’s third-highest-paid tight end and the increasingly dominant offensive lineman have both skipped offseason workouts and are seeking new deals.
Davis ostensibly desires his present top-three positional salary to look more like Rob Gronkowski’s top-one money of $9 million. Even though the holdout “hasn’t been difficult” and won’t cause him “to lose any sleep,” his brand-enhancing contract demands remain, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
Boone, on the other hand, has at least outplayed the deal he signed as a backup tackle three years ago.
The powerful run-blocker consistently paves lanes for his running backs, not to mention he surrendered the fewest sacks by a 49er starting offensive lineman in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
And any lineman who anchors the right interior, serves as the unit’s top backup and plays more snaps than any of his offensive teammates deserves more than the 40th-ranked average salary among NFL guards.
But according to recent history chronicled by Maiocco, not showing up—and thus abandoning your duty as a team player—is simply not the “49er way.” If team president and chief negotiator Paraag Marathe wouldn’t negotiate with Frank Gore until he reported to camp back in 2011, he certainly won’t do so now.
Double-digit touchdowns and unmatched O-line versatility or not, the 49ers are just too deep, too skilled and too good. Vance McDonald, Derek Carrier, Joe Looney and Adam Snyder would step up, and others would gladly help compensate if called upon.
Then again, Davis and Boone are too smart, too beloved and too good themselves for these understandable, but unnecessary shenanigans.
Or so hope the Red and Gold faithful.
All team and player statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference and Sports-Reference unless otherwise noted. Advanced metrics courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Salary information provided by Spotrac.
Joe Levitt is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, waxing academic, colloquial and statistical eloquence on the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him on Twitter @jlevitt16