5 Sleepers to Watch in San Francisco 49ers' Camp
Inevitably, every season a sleeper or two surprises us and makes the San Francisco 49ers' 53-man roster.
Among the surprises last year were long-snapper Kevin McDermott and special teams ace Raymond Ventrone.
Going into this year's training camp (which starts for rookies on July 16), the 49ers have plenty of sleepers who could wreck the team's predicted depth chart.
A sleeper for this article is defined as a player who is a long shot or on the roster bubble. I'm also looking for players who haven't had much on-field success. For example, Brandon Lloyd is on the roster bubble, but we all know he's capable of making plays on Sundays. Some of his teammates, mostly younger players, are relatively unknown and have a shot at shooting past veterans onto the roster during training camp.
I considered these players, among others, as nearly roster locks (eliminating them from inclusion on this slideshow): Bruce Ellington, Chris Borland, Corey Lemonier and Joe Looney.
Shayne Skov, ILB
I predict Skov won't make the final roster cut due in large part to his lack of speed and the quality competition at the inside linebacker spot. However, if he looks as explosive as he did before tearing his ACL in 2011, watch out.
Kaleb Ramsey, DE
The seventh-round pick looked great in minicamp, according to multiple reports, including this one by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson. As CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco outlined, however, he's probably behind eight defensive linemen as of now.
Dontae Johnson, CB
The fourth-round pick has the physical tools—6'2", 4.45-second 40-yard dash—to be a great NFL player. I think he'll ultimately make the roster, but as you'll learn from my next two slides, he may find it tough to earn playing time as a rookie.
Darryl Morris, CB
After drafting four defensive backs, signing Chris Cook and re-signing Perrish Cox, second-year cornerback Darryl Morris became a bit of an afterthought.
He has a great chance to work his way into a big role in 2014.
First off, Morris has more experience in the 49ers' system than Cook and rookies Jimmie Ward, Dontae Johnson and Kenneth Acker. This could help him stand out in camp and the preseason.
Morris was also effective covering kickoffs and punts last year. This gives him an important advantage over several players on the roster bubble. For example, Cook has had two solo tackles in his NFL career on special teams. Morris had five in just one season.
Lastly, Morris is likely the fastest player on the team. According to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, he ran a 4.33-second 40-yard dash at his pro day.
What makes Morris a long shot is his height (5'10") and undrafted status.
Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee reported that Morris is focused on playing nickel cornerback. He has a bit of a learning curve, as Vic Fangio explained:
He just has to learn to play the position and all the nuances that go at that, which is a tall order for him coming from a small school, just making the team, making the practice squad and then being called up is a major victory. And now to ask him to take this next step, we’ll see how he does with it. And he’s made slow but steady progress through the offseason.
Nickel cornerback is Morris' ideal position. Most offenses put their quickest receivers in the slot, and Morris' biggest strength is defending speed.
However, he'll have to prove he's a quality tackler to see the field on early downs. If he shows he's an effective tackler, he should secure the backup nickel cornerback spot at the very least.
Kenneth Acker, CB
Another cornerback, you ask?
Well, it's the position with the most question marks heading into training camp. Spots are up for grabs. Even for a sixth-round pick.
There's no doubt that Acker has an uphill climb. At this moment, one would assume Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver, Chris Cook, Darryl Morris, Jimmie Ward and Dontae Johnson are ahead of him on the cornerback depth chart.
But when you look more closely, you'll see he has an opportunity to crack the 53-man roster and see some playing time to boot.
We have no idea how healthy Culliver will be for the 2014 season. He missed the 2013 season with a torn ACL, and he hasn't taken part in any team drills since.
Both Ward and Morris are battling for the nickel cornerback spot. I'm assuming neither will be ready to play outside this season.
Chris Cook is coming off a disastrous season with the Minnesota Vikings.
So that leaves Perrish Cox, who has played mostly slot cornerback in his tenure with the Niners, and rookies Dontae Johnson and Acker.
With all due respect to Johnson, who has better physical traits, Acker was the better college player.
In his final two seasons at SMU, Acker had 28 pass breakups and six interceptions. Johnson had 15 pass breakups and three interceptions in his four years at North Carolina State.
Even if Culliver shows he's healthy and starts on the outside with Brock, the 49ers need somebody to back them up. Acker could be that guy with a strong training camp.
Derek Carrier, TE
Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle recently made a list of his 10 sleepers for San Francisco's training camp. His biggest sleeper was Derek Carrier.
"With Vernon Davis fighting for a new contract, Carrier is the guy on the roster who most closely replicates what Davis does," Lynch wrote. "Carrier is athletic, fast, runs routes like the receiver he used to be and is making rapid strides with his blocking."
On talent alone, Carrier would be worthy of a mention on this slideshow. But opportunity makes him a no-brainer.
Starting tight end Vernon Davis hasn't ended his holdout yet. Backup tight end Vance McDonald had a disappointing rookie season.
Garrett Celek is merely a blocking tight end. He offers very little in the passing game.
If things fall right for Carrier, he could be playing several snaps per game during the regular season.
Even if Davis ends his holdout, the 49ers will want to have another quality receiving tight end. If McDonald plays up to his potential and outperforms Carrier, the Beloit College product would be in a battle with Celek for the last tight end position (assuming they commit three spots to the position). And the way the 49ers value blocking from their tight ends, Carrier would have to show immense improvement to secure that spot.
With a 4.51-second 40-yard-dash time and a 38-inch vertical leap, per Lynch, he has the athleticism to make a name for himself. This training camp may be his best opportunity to prove his worth.
Aaron Lynch, OLB
Aaron Lynch may just be the wild card of wild cards. CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco put it best:
Lynch is a wild-card. He has regained the weight he lost after his transfer from Notre Dame to South Florida. He is capable of easily securing a roster spot as a key backup or pass-rush specialist. But he is also capable dropping off the map altogether.
The 6'5" pass-rusher totaled 11.5 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks in 2013 for South Florida. He's talented enough to back up Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks and Corey Lemonier at outside linebacker.
It sounds like he's caught Jim Harbaugh's eye, via ESPN.com's Bill Williamson:
I think Aaron Lynch is going to be a real good player, too. He's shown some real good things before he hurt a hamstring. So that's a real position of, not only strength, but a position of dominance for us. Feel real good about that position.
If Lynch has a so-so camp, you have to believe he'll be right on the roster bubble. The 49ers only need four outside linebackers suited up on Sundays, so if Dan Skuta outperforms Lynch, the rookie will be sweating out the final roster cut.
The 49ers surely don't want to risk having their fifth-round pick poached by another team if they try to sneak him onto the practice squad before the start of the regular season. If Lynch proves he's ready for the NFL in training camp, they can avoid that predicament.
Lawrence Okoye, DL
It's year two for the British ex-Olympian. This time around, Lawrence Okoye has a better chance of making the 53-man roster.
Last year, the talk was mostly about how quickly a 6'6", 300-pound bowling ball with a 4.78-second 40-yard dash could translate his discus and rugby skills to the gridiron. Realistically, he didn't have much of a shot to make the roster as a defensive lineman or special teams player. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said in June of 2013, via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area:
He hasn't had anybody hit him, yet. He hasn't had a double-team, yet. He hasn't figured out if it's a run or pass, whether he should rush or play the run. So it'll probably be a very slow process with him much more than a normal rookie.
The telling quote came from Jim Harbaugh:
You just kind of wonder what the jump would be from Year 1 to Year 2 for him. And I hope that he continues to show up, listen, work extremely hard, and show enough that we'll be able to go from Year 1 to Year 2.
He was placed on injured reserve in late August.
Now, he's turning heads on special teams.
“Fun to watch, wasn’t it?” Harbaugh said, via Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle. “A big, 300-and-however-many-pound guy running down on the kickoffs. I’d love to see it."
But Harbaugh and Fangio both want to see more improvement on the defensive line.
"He’s got to make it as a position player and that’s what he’s trying to get done," Harbaugh said when asked whether Okoye could make the team as a special teams ace, via David Fucillo of Niners Nation.
"He looks a lot better than he did last year at this time," Fangio said. "Hopefully it’s easier for us to put him into some preseason games, give him some more practice reps and actually see where he’s at."
Based on Fangio's quote, he sounds like a long shot. However, his special teams skills could give him a leg up on the competition.
Okoye is the biggest long shot on this list but don't count him out. With a breakout performance on the defensive line in training camp, he could steal a roster spot from the older and more expensive Demarcus Dobbs.