Breaking Down the San Francisco 49ers' Biggest Training Camp Projects
As training camp approaches, the San Francisco 49ers prepare to get to work to once again make a run at the Super Bowl.
The 49ers have been very close to the title in the past three seasons, including a loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII two seasons ago. With salary-cap constraints and the advancing age of some of their core players, the time is now for this group.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff come into camp with a solid nucleus. There are realistically only two starting jobs open—at center and at one cornerback position. The nickel or slot corner spot, a key position on the defense, is also up for grabs.
In order for the 49ers to have success this year, they must stay healthy and get positive answers to several currently lingering questions. Many integral players must step up and either do more than they have in the past.
Training camp will be the first in-depth look at these players this season. Let's take a more detailed view of six of these key 49ers. These are the men who must improve and take on a more prominent role on the team.
No. 6: Marcus Martin, Center
The San Francisco 49ers opted to let their starting center over the past three years, Jonathan Goodwin, depart via the free-agent market. Goodwin, who will be 36 years of age later in the 2014 season, was too expensive and too old to bring back.
The 49ers selected USC center Marcus Martin with the third pick in the recent draft. He was the 70th overall selection. Martin will compete with Daniel Kilgore for the 49ers' starting center job.
By selecting Martin so high, it appears as though the 49ers are not totally sold on Daniel Kilgore.
Kilgore has experience at both guard and center, however, he has rarely played. In three seasons in San Francisco, Kilgore has yet to start a game. In fact, when the 49ers needed to use a reserve lineman, typically it was Adam Snyder or Joe Looney who got the call.
At 6'3" and 320 pounds, Martin has the size the 49ers like in their linemen. As reported by 49ers.com, Martin was selected as a consensus first-team All-Pac-12 player.
Although Kilgore most likely has a slight edge due to his experience, Martin has a definite chance to win the starting job. The key will be whether he can learn all of the offensive line calls quickly enough.
Martin has a definite opportunity to win the starting job. His progress will go a long way toward solidifying the lone open position on this unit.
No. 5: Bruce Ellington, Wide Receiver and Return Man
The San Francisco 49ers made Bruce Ellington their fourth-round draft pick, the 106th overall selection.
Ellington will have a tough battle to see playing time with a crowded 49ers wide receiver corps. Ahead of him are Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Stevie Johnson. Ellington will be competing with Brandon Lloyd, Quinton Patton, Kassim Osgood and Jon Baldwin for a spot on the 53-man roster.
Ellington's best chance to stick is on special teams. He will get a long look in the preseason as a kickoff and punt return specialist.
It does not appear as though the 49ers have a strong commitment to LaMichael James as the returner, so if Ellington shows well, he has an excellent chance of winning the job.
No. 4: Tank Carradine, Defensive End
The long wait to see what Cornellius "Tank" Carradine can do to help the 49ers is finally coming to an end. Carradine missed all of the 2013 season, as he worked to rehab a torn ACL suffered in his final year at Florida State.
The 49ers selected Carradine in the second round of the 2013 draft. He was the 40th overall pick. Carradine was a first-round talent that slipped due to his injury. The 49ers have waited patiently, and now they hope that patience will be rewarded.
Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News reports that Carradine has shown well in minicamp. Look for Carradine to see increased action as the season progresses.
Carradine is currently backing up Justin Smith, but he could also push Ray McDonald for playing time. Writes Inman:
Head coach Jim Harbaugh has this to say about Carradine. "You see the flashes and the strength and the ability."
"(We) kind of have to pull him back because we're not in live situations here in practice. But (we're) very excited for where he's at right now."
In the 2013 season, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio gave periodic rest to Justin Smith, who will be entering his 14 NFL season. Smith will be 35 years of age in September, and the rest helped to keep Smith fresh and more productive.
If Carradine continues to develop, look for Fangio to work him increasingly into the rotation. It's possible Carradine could see plenty of action at both defensive end spots.
No. 3: Chris Culliver, Cornerback
One of the biggest uncertainties facing the 2014 San Francisco 49ers is who will be the starting cornerback opposite Tramaine Brock.
With the departure of Tarell Brown to the Oakland Raiders, Chris Culliver will get the first crack at the job. Although not a superstar, Brown was a solid NFL corner. It remains to be seen whether Culliver can do as well or better than Brown.
The two biggest concerns surrounding Culliver are his complete recovery from a 2013 ACL injury that caused him to miss the entire season and secondly, his maturity level. According to Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News, 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio noted that Culliver's 2013 knee injury is "going to be a wild card in his progress."
Culliver is a very good athlete and has the physical tools to play cornerback in the NFL. He will need to prove to the 49ers that his knee is sound and he has the same speed, cutting ability and explosiveness he had prior to the injury. Training camp and preseason will be very important for Culliver.
The 49ers do not have a lot of depth at corner, so it will be critical that both Culliver and Brock stay healthy.
Culliver will also need to show more professionalism and maturity. In the past couple of years there have been several incidents that have placed Culliver in a very bad light.
Prior to the 49ers' Super Bowl game against the Ravens, Culliver made anti-gay remarks, which shifted the focus away from the team and squarely on him. He proceeded to have a terrible game in the Super Bowl and the distractions were likely a contributing factor.
It is never wise to lay blame on a teammate and safety Donte Whitner, from whom Culliver was expecting help, took offense. Whitner stated what his defensive assignement was on the play and put the responsibility right back in Culliver's lap. Culliver's initial comments were out of line, and even more so if he was, in fact, the one responsible for maintaining coverage on the play.
Then, only a few months ago, Culliver was involved in an alleged hit-and-run car accident. After trying to flee, Culliver also allegedly threatened another motorist that was trying to detain him.
David Fucillo of NinersNation.com has the latest on this case.
In addition to the off field problems that have dogged Culliver, he has also been a notorious trash talker and gotten himself in trouble with his overly aggressive play.
Trash talking is one thing, but it looks really stupid when you get beaten, then jump up in the face of the receiver who has just beaten you. If you are trash talking, you better be able to back it up, and therein lies the problem when Culliver insists on doing it.
His overaggressive style has also caused him to bite on hitches or out patterns. This undisciplined play also has resulted in too many personal-foul and unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties.
Culliver has the skill and athleticism to be a very good NFL cornerback. The key for the 49ers will be if his knee is sound and also if he can learn to be more of a professional. Culliver has yet to show the maturity it takes to be consistently successful both on and off the field.
No. 2: Jimmie Ward, Defensive Back
The San Francisco 49ers made Northern Illinois defensive back Jimmie Ward their first-round pick in the 2014 draft. Ward played mostly safety in college, although he has experience in man coverage and has played a lot as a slot corner.
His role with the 49ers will initially be as the nickel back, covering the slot receiver. This is a key role for the 49ers defense and the position will be on the field for about 65 percent of all defensive snaps.
The unexpected retirement of corner Eric Wright makes Ward's contribution even more critical to the 49ers' suspect pass defense. Initially, Ward was expected to compete with Wright for the slot corner job, but now Ward is the primary option.
Not only is it tough for a rookie to step into such a pivotal role in the secondary, but Ward has also missed OTAs and minicamp as he underwent surgery on his foot in March.
Ward is expected to be fine for training camp, but it will be absolutely critical for him to stay healthy if he is to make the kind of impact the 49ers need him to this year.
Ward has yet to see any action on the practice field with the 49ers defense, putting him behind where the 49ers would ideally like him to be. So it is imperative for him to ramp up his progress once training camp begins in a couple weeks.
Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News reports that the pressure will be on Ward to learn quickly.
In the long run, Ward may eventually team up with 2012 first-round draftee Eric Reid to form an outstanding safety tandem for the 49ers. However, the more urgent matter is to get Ward prepared to handle the role of slot cornerback.
No. 1: Colin Kaepernick, Quarterback
Although nobody would consider Colin Kaepernick a "project," this training camp is vital for him to come in and show the leadership and growth the 49ers are expecting.
Kaepernick recently signed a six-year, $126 million deal and the pressure will be on him to produce. In the 2013 regular season, Kaepernick completed 58.4 percent of his passes and threw for 3,197 yards, 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions. A dual-threat quarterback, Kaepernick also ran the ball 92 times for 524 yards and four touchdowns.
As Kaepernick prepares to begin his fourth NFL campaign, the 49ers have put together the best set of receivers they have assembled in many years.
If the 49ers hope to win their division and get another crack at the Super Bowl, Kaepernick will need to step up his leadership, accuracy and ability to go through his progressions.
Kaepernick seems poised to have an outstanding year, and the 49ers need it from him. At 26, he still has a tremendous upside.
The 49ers have made a strategic decision and commitment to Kaepernick as their franchise quarterback. His ability to lead the San Francisco to a Super Bowl title is the only thing that will make its investment worthwhile.
NFL stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com.