49ers: 5 Top Position Battles to Watch in Camp
With the regular season just over a month away, it finally means football is upon us once again. That statement alone gets my blood going. Football is finally back!
Of course, before any of the real games start, we still have to focus our attention on training camp and preseason football. Some players will report this week for the San Francisco 49ers, but the full roster reports to training camp on July 23.
Now, training camp isn't as glamorous as opening week in the NFL, but who doesn't like an appetizer before starting their full-course meal?
More than anything, we finally get to see or hear about contact practices. As we all know, where there is hitting, true competition lies. We all know Jim Harbaugh loves him some competition!
Until the full roster reports on the 23rd, let's take a look at the top five positional battles to watch in training camp.
Serious Competitors: Daniel Kilgore, Marcus Martin
While the 49ers have preached competition, this is Daniel Kilgore's job to lose. Marcus Martin is an exciting prospect who should contribute in certain packages, but I doubt the rookie lineman can handle the complexities at the position.
Believe me, Martin has the physical attributes and intelligence to eventually start; however, rarely do first-year centers play such a huge role on their respective offenses. Left tackle is the glam position, but I put the center right up there in importance.
As someone who has advocated for more playing time for Kilgore, we should finally see what he can bring to the table. Kilgore is far more athletic than previous starter Jonathan Goodwin and could be dangerous at the second level.
With Kilgore up front, the 49ers boast one of the most athletic offensive lines in the last five to 10 years. This is a special group of starters, and with added depth in Jonathan Martin, Brandon Thomas and Marcus Martin, we could see this dominance extend for years to come.
4. Nickel/Slot Corner
Serious Competitors: Jimmie Ward (R), Darryl Morris, Perrish Cox
This should be an interesting training camp battle. We could very well see a decision sometime toward the end of the preseason. That's how close this battle may end up!
While I'm sure many fans are rooting for rookie first-round pick Jimmie Ward to start, don't count out the speedy Darryl Morris. In terms of pure athleticism, Morris may be the most physically gifted player on the 49ers roster.
Morris can play both on the outside and in the slot, but with his superb speed, he could be a difference-maker in nickel packages. The NFC boasts some shifty slot receivers, and having an athlete like Morris playing inside can hopefully reduce the talent gap.
Perrish Cox played well in the postseason last year, but I doubt he claims this battle. Though, I would not be surprised if Cox starts the season in this role before Ward eventually takes over.
3. Nose Tackle
Serious Competitors: Ian Williams, Glenn Dorsey
Even though I have this position ranked third, this will be my favorite training camp battle. In all honesty, this is a win-win situation for the 49ers.
No matter who ends up as the starter, the 49ers will have one fine nose tackle manning the middle of this defense. You really can't go wrong with either Ian Williams or Glenn Dorsey as your starter.
After Williams suffered a season-ending injury last year, Dorsey proved to be a valuable commodity along the 49ers defensive line. For what the 49ers are paying Dorsey, they sure got a steal in free agency.
Now, Williams could return and reclaim his starting spot. Prior to his injury, Williams was playing some good football. Coming off a serious injury, I wonder if Williams will have the same burst in his first year back.
Right now, I have Dorsey as the favorite, but that could very well change if Williams impresses in training camp.
Serious Competitors: Chris Culliver, Chris Cook, Dontae Johnson
After Tramaine Brock, this is one muddled positional battle.
Look, I love me some Chris Culliver, but his off-the-field issues have left a bad taste in my mouth. If we're judging this based off his on-the-field ability, Culliver is the definite starter opposite Brock. However, you have to wonder if you can even trust Culliver at this point.
Chris Cook is one of the more pleasant surprises in minicamps and OTAs. I never expected Cook to even make it this far, but it goes to show you what a good scheme and supporting cast could do for a struggling young player. From what we hear, via Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News, Cook is doing everything he can to be in consideration for a starting role.
"I’m doing everything I can to put myself in the position to be out there with the starters, whether it being in nickel or base," Cook said.
Dontae Johnson will challenge for a spot in the rotation, but the talented fourth-round pick is still a few years away from making a substantial impact. More than likely, Johnson will be a special teams contributor in his first season or two in the red and gold.
1. Inside Linebacker
Serious Competitors: Michael Wilhoite, Chris Borland, Nick Moody
For my No. 1-ranked positional battle, it has to be at inside linebacker. The key question is can anyone replace the production of All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman?
The short answer is no.
However, the three players mentioned above can at least hold the fort down until Bowman returns sometime midseason. Yes, you read that right. All three of the players mentioned above can play at a high enough level to get the job done.
Unfortunately, only one can be chosen. Since hearing the news of Bowman's injury, my immediate answer was Michael Wilhoite. After the draft and free agency, my answer still hasn't changed.
Wilhoite did a fantastic job in filling in for the injured Patrick Willis last season and should have similar performances now playing alongside No. 52. Let's be honest, anyone playing alongside an All-Pro linebacker in Willis is going to benefit.
Bar none, Willis is the best linebacker in the league. Of course, this is a separate discussion for another day.
Regardless, the drop-off shouldn't be dramatic with Wilhoite in the lineup. Now, can the same be said for Chris Borland and Nick Moody?
Well, I already boasted that all three players could play at a high enough level. I stand by the comment. You insert Moody or Borland, and again, the drop-off shouldn't be that dramatic.
The problem with linebackers, and about every position in the NFL, is you need playing time to get better. Linebackers are instinctual players who need live snaps for constant development. I just can't envision the less experienced Borland or Moody getting the nod over a veteran lie Wilhoite.
My pick is Wilhoite, but if the 49ers decide to start either Borland or Moody instead, you should still expect high-level play from the inside linebacker position.