5 Bold Predictions for the San Francisco 49ers Ahead of 2014 Training Camp
With each NFL season, fans and observers alike are constantly surprised by the impact of a certain player or team.
The 2014 season is unlikely to be any different, especially for a San Francisco 49ers team that added 12 players in the draft and has plenty of competition for places ahead of training camp.
San Francisco will hold its first training camp practice in six days' time as the Niners prepare to try go one better than their run to the NFC Championship Game last term.
As always there will be a plethora of players eager to impress the 49ers coaching staff.
Some will be looking to earn significant playing time, while many others will be doing their best to try to seal a spot on the 53-man active roster.
But which members of the 49ers will make the most surprising contributions in 2014?
Here I make my picks with five bold predictions for the upcoming season.
Chris Borland Will Be Among the Team's Leading Tacklers
With All-Pro NaVorro Bowman likely to be on the sidelines for much of the 2014 season, there is a gaping hole at one of the inside linebacker spot alongside Patrick Willis.
Competition to fill that void figures to be intense, with third-round pick Chris Borland set to fight it out with the likes of Michael Wilhoite, Nick Moody and undrafted free agent Shayne Skov for playing time in Bowman's stead.
Having played well when Willis was on the sidelines for two games early in the 2013 campaign, it is Wilhoite that will perhaps head into the new season as the favorite to start next to Willis, while Bowman continues his rehabilitation from the torn ACL and MCL he suffered in last season's NFC Championship Game.
But Wilhoite will know that he cannot afford to be complacent, especially with a player as talented as Borland aiming to make an instant impact in his rookie year.
After dropping to the third round of this May's draft, there can be little doubt that Borland will be heading into his maiden season in the NFL with a chip on his shoulder.
Concerns over Borland's 5'11" and 248-pound frame, his speed and athleticism were considered to be the main reasons why the Wisconsin Badgers star was not taken earlier in the draft.
The 49ers opted to take a chance on Borland despite those supposed shortcomings, and it is easy to see why.
Borland recorded 100-plus tackle seasons in each of the last three years and ended his collegiate career with 50 tackles for loss, 17 sacks and 14 forced fumbles.
Those numbers are difficult to ignore and 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, according to Eric Branch of The San Francisco Chronicle, is hopeful that Borland can impress at the pro level and prove the doubters wrong.
He's got such good instincts and knowledge of football—and he can make quick decisions—that he's the type of guy that could prove people wrong. Only time will tell. His career at Wisconsin warranted him being drafted higher than he was. His physical question marks pushed him to where he was drafted. But he's the kind of guy—and the type of player—that could prove people wrong.
Borland appears to share that attitude and has expressed his desire to fight and win Bowman's spot.
That determination and desire will serve him well as he looks to transition to the pros, as will the chance to learn from arguably the best linebacker in the league in Willis.
He is hardly likely to fill the void left by a player as talented as Bowman but, with a strong mentor to learn from and a drive to succeed, it would not be wise to bet against Borland earning the starting job and continuing his outstanding production with the 49ers.
LaMichael James Will Emerge as a Premier Return Man
Despite being taken in the second round of the 2012 draft, running back LaMichael James has spent the majority of his career with the San Francisco 49ers watching from the sidelines.
James possesses frightening speed but has barely been utilized as an offensive weapon by San Francisco in his brief in the Bay Area.
The former Oregon speedster played just 36 snaps on offense last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
And, with Carlos Hyde and Marcus Lattimore likely set to compete for time behind starting tailback Frank Gore, an increase to that number does not appear imminent in 2014.
Unsurprisingly James has been unhappy with his role with the 49ers to date, which has seen him largely limited to return duties.
After parting company with Kyle Williams midway through the 2013 season, the Niners installed James as the starting return man and were not disappointed by his performances.
Indeed, James brought solidity to an area of the special teams unit that had long been one of concern for the 49ers and ranked at No. 16 among all return men in the league, according to PFF.
The 49ers have been impressed with the impact James has made on special teams and, in spite of intense speculation over his future, general manager Trent Baalke, per Branch, has insisted that the 49ers have no desire to trade him to another team.
That is not to say that James is guaranteed a place on the the team, though, and even at this early stage of preparations for the new season, it appears that special teams will be his best route to a spot on the roster.
James seems to have realised that and—per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area—is determined to be an elite returner, however, he does not wish to be known as a return specialist.
I want to return kicks. I do feel like I can be one of the best in the league at it. I need to embrace that role right now. I really want to be the best at it.
Prior to last season James was not very familiar with the role of return man, although he did return a punt for a touchdown in his final season with Oregon.
His attitude is admirable and, with pace that saw him turn in a 4.45 40-yard dash at the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine, James has all the capabilities to become an elite returner in 2014 and keep himself in the running for future carries at the running back spot.
Chris Cook to Finally Record an NFL Interception
OK, so predicting a cornerback to record one interception in a season would not normally qualify as a bold prediction.
But for Chris Cook, who does not have a single pick to his name in four years in the NFL, ending that drought could be considered a significant achievement.
Signed to a one-year deal in free agency following the end of his tenure with the Minnesota Vikings, it remains to be seen whether Cook will have what it takes to be a significant factor in the 49ers secondary.
It is not difficult, though, to see what attracted the Niners to the former Virginia Cavalier, with his substantial frame perfectly fitting the mold of the big-bodied cornerback that is fast becoming the norm in the NFL.
At 6'2" and 212 pounds, Cook was brought in to operate in press coverage and get physical with receivers at the line of scrimmage.
Yet, after four disappointing seasons with the Vikings, Cook will need to make substantial improvements if he is to make an impact for a defense that has consistently ranked among the best in the league in recent years.
Responsible for conceding nine touchdowns while in coverage, according to PFF, one of the main areas where Cook will be required to up his game is in locating and making a play on the ball.
The 27-year-old corner has already been working on getting better in that aspect of his game with another ex-Viking and potential third-string quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
San Francisco will hope that Cook's determination to get better yields results, and the good news for both Niner fans and Cook is that the 49ers have arguably one of the best position coaches in the game in secondary coach Ed Donatell.
Donatell inked a two-year contract extension in the offseason, and San Francisco's desire to keep hold of him is not surprising given the impact he has had on the back end of its defense in three seasons.
The likes of Tramaine Brock and Carlos Rogers serve as shining examples of Donatell's excellence.
Brock broke out in a huge way in 2013, totaling five interceptions, and will serve as one of the starting corners in the coming season.
Rogers may have been let go by the Niners, but the now Oakland Raider will be hard pressed to top his debut season in San Francisco in 2011, when he racked up a career-high six picks following a difficult end to his spell with the Washington Redskins.
Predicting a similar turnaround for Cook may be a stretch, but do not be shocked if Cook is finally celebrating an interception at some point in 2014.
Tank Carradine to Post at Least 5 Sacks
Another player who the 49ers stashed on the reserve/non-football injury list last season, defensive end Cornellius "Tank" Carradine approaches what is effectively his rookie season with much buzz surrounding his potential impact.
The 49ers elected to take Carradine in the second round of the 2013 draft, betting that he would be able to recover from a torn ACL suffered in his final collegiate season and still be the same player that impressed so much at Florida State.
It remains to be seen whether Carridine can justify the trust shown in him by the Niners, but even the most pessimistic of observers will accept that their reasoning is sound.
Carradine finished his last campaign with the Seminoles with 80 tackles with 13 for a loss and 11 sacks.
Putting up the same gaudy numbers in his first true year in the NFL figures to be a much tougher task, especially given the fact that he will be transitioning from a 4-3 to 3-4 defense.
However, due to his year on the sidelines, Carradine has had the benefit of learning from experienced veterans like Justin Smith, who appears to have already made an impact on the sophomore.
But, while Carradine sees Smith as something of an inspiration, he is keen to forge his own path in the pros, per Andrew Pentis of 49ers.com.
To see everything he [Justin Smith] and Aldon Smith did together, it was amazing. If I compare myself to him, there are some similarities, but I am my own player. He is his own player. Learning the game of football in the NFL is much different than in college. I was able to take in everything. I feel like I'm ahead of the game.
Expectations surrounding Carradine should be tempered by the fact that he has yet to take part in a padded practice during his short NFL career.
Carradine will have to beat out the likes of Demarcus Dobbs and Tony Jerod-Eddie in order to earn significant playing time behind regular starters Smith, Ray McDonald and Glenn Dorsey.
Yet regardless of the challenges facing Carradine, a player with his frame—which was reportedly up to 295 pounds in March—speed and pass-rushing abilities is more than capable of causing opposing offenses major difficulties and becoming a force in the 49ers front seven.
Normally it would take a player that has been through Carradine's setbacks some time to adapt to the NFL. However, if the 24-year-old really is ahead of the game, then there is little reason why he won't be able to hit his stride in the pros and post at least five sacks in his first proper season at this level.
Carlos Hyde Will Displace Frank Gore as Starting Running Back
The running-back spot is arguably the most intriguing position on the 49ers team going into training camp.
Few spots on the roster are filled with as much talent as the key role in the backfield, and the battle to earn playing time behind incumbent Frank Gore promises to be an extremely competitive one.
Competing to effectively become the No. 2 behind Gore are Kendall Hunter, Carlos Hyde, Marcus Lattimore and James, although the latter will, as has already been mentioned, likely be limited to special teams snaps again in 2014.
Lattimore, who has bravely fought his way back from two serious knee injuries sustained in college, has been placed on the non-football injury list for the start of camp, leaving Hunter and Hyde as the favorites to be the primary reserve.
With three seasons of strong performances in relief of Gore under his belt, Hunter perhaps has the inside track to continue as the deputy for the 49ers' all-time leading rusher.
However, Hyde—taken in the second round by San Francisco—has a frightening skill set and is the perfect player to be Gore's heir apparent.
A powerful and determined back, Hyde excels in between the tackles, finishes runs and also has the capability to catch passes out of the backfield and be a factor in the aerial attack.
Despite totaling 1,000 rushing yards or more in seven of his last eight seasons, there have been signs that the 31-year-old Gore is slowing down.
Hyde could help extend Gore's time at the top by eating into his carries and saving the veteran's legs.
But the drop off in Gore's workload could be even more dramatic than most expect, with ESPN.com's John Clayton indicating that he may see 50 fewer carries in 2014.
That would potentially give Hyde—who racked up over 1,500 rushing yards and 18 total touchdowns in his final season at Ohio State despite missing the first three games because of a suspension—a huge chance to make an impression at the highest level.
And, given his record of outstanding production at the collegiate level and the Niners' dedication to the running game, expect Hyde to make the most of his prospective opportunity and leave Gore watching from the sidelines more and more often.
Nicholas McGee is a San Francisco 49ers Featured Columnist based in Leeds, England. Follow him on Twitter @nicholasmcgee24.