5 San Francisco 49ers Players Who Will Surprise During Training Camp
Every year, some players make larger-than-expected impacts when training camp rolls around. The San Francisco 49ers are no exception.
Last season, Anquan Boldin was expected to be a safety valve and tertiary option in the passing game. Instead, in the absence of Michael Crabtree, he emerged as the most potent offensive weapon on the team. Corey Lemonier surprised many by becoming a legitimate rotational linebacker in his rookie season, which came in handy when Aldon Smith missed time in rehab. Eric Reid went from rookie to starter to Pro Bowler.
There’s always someone who unexpectedly turns heads. Yes, we expect players like Joe Staley, Patrick Willis and Frank Gore to look good when the pads start coming on, but which players might be the candidates to surprise people this offseason?
No starters, or projected starters, are included on this list. A starter performing well isn’t a surprise, it’s a requirement. Nor are players involved in a battle for a starting spot, removing people like Daniel Kilgore and Marcus Martin, who look to fight for the starting center role.
Instead, we’re looking at players on the back half of the roster. They might be fighting to make the roster entirely, or simply to get a larger role and snap count during the regular season. They range from the future of positions to former starters attempting to regain their roles to intriguing developmental prospects.
With few roster spots available on a team as loaded as the 49ers, and so many established starters locking down their roles early, many of these players have an uphill climb ahead of them. Don’t be surprised, however, if you start hearing their names more and more as training camp goes on.
TE Derek Carrier
Last season, Derek Carrier got all of 42 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That’s something that could change dramatically in 2014.
Carrier is directly competing with Garrett Celek for the third tight end role, and honestly, Carrier brings a lot more potential when it comes to the way tight ends are used in the modern NFL. A former receiver in college, Carrier is athletic, speedy and a good route-runner. He’s not a blocker like Celek is, but rather a potential receiving threat. At tiny Beloit, Carrier is the all-time leader in catches, yards and touchdowns.
There’s plenty of chances for Carrier to show his stuff in training camp, as well. With Vernon Davis probably holding out, that’s more snaps for Carrier, Celek and Vance McDonald to show what they can do. McDonald struggled as a rookie last season, so Carrier could even push him if he has a good enough training camp.
Carrier could develop into the sort of player Delanie Walker was for the 49ers a few years ago, a role the team has missed since Walker went to Tennessee.
Will we see plenty of Carrier in 2014? Probably not; there’s a reason why he’s been cut by both the Oakland Raiders and Philadelphia Eagles in his career. He could still find his way into playing a valuable depth role and earn seven or eight snaps a game with a solid training camp.
OG Joe Looney
Looney only had 71 snaps last season, with the majority coming in Week 13 against the St. Louis Rams. When Staley went down early in that game, Boone moved over to left tackle, and Looney was Boone’s replacement.
With Boone out of the picture, Looney is the logical choice to slide in to get reps with the starting lineup at guard. Martin is a rookie and projects more as a center in the NFL, while Adam Snyder has a much lower ceiling at this point.
The 49ers are well set at guard going into the future, with Looney leading a talented young group that includes the Martin-Daniel Kilgore loser and third-round draft pick Brandon Thomas. Of all of the backups, however, Looney is the one who’s the most ready for action in 2014. Don’t be shocked if he gets plenty of playing time in the preseason, and he possibly could replace Mike Iupati in 2015.
DE Tank Carradine
Tank Carradine’s a bit more well-known than the other four players on the list, but he’s also one of the least proven. Carradine missed his entire rookie season recovering from a right knee injury and is ready to make an impact on the roster in 2014.
Carradine is expected to become a key rotational player, along with Tony Jerod-Eddie, so simply looking good in training camp doesn’t really qualify as a surprise. He’s most likely to get 300 snaps or so, making him by far the player most likely to make an impact on the roster from this list.
So why is he here, if becoming a rotational player is expected?
With Justin Smith turning 35 in September and Ray McDonald’s contract counting nearly $6 million against the cap in 2015, I think there’s a decent chance that Carradine’s a starter by the end of the 2014 season. He’ll get plenty of reps in training camp as the team saves Smith’s aging body for the regular season, and he might surprise people by not giving those snaps up when the games start to count.
DT Ian Williams
In his third NFL season last year, Ian Williams looked poised to finally play a significant role on San Francisco’s defense. He took over as the starting nose tackle from the departed Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois, and he looked good throughout the preseason.
Then, only 13 snaps into his season, Williams broke his ankle and went on injured reserve. Making matters worse, his replacement, Glenn Dorsey, went on to have a solid season against the run, anchoring the line on non-passing downs.
Williams will have to start all over again to earn playing time, but he showed enough in his first three seasons to do that. He’s become something of the forgotten man on the defensive line, but there’s a reason the 49ers gave him the starting nod last season. Williams also has experience playing at defensive end, as well, so he’ll be in the mix for a key reserve spot in multiple positions on the line
OLB Aaron Lynch
Misfortune is often a source for opportunity. With Aldon Smith’s legal issues likely to result in at least some missed games, a fifth-round rookie like Aaron Lynch might find his way onto the 53-man roster, despite a loaded outside linebacker position.
No one doubts Lynch’s physical talent. At 6’5”, 250 pounds, Lynch is a dominating physical specimen. He has a great first step and explodes off the ball, with powerful hands and a large frame. When he’s motivated, he’s not easily stoppable.
Motivation is a serious problem, however. Lynch left Notre Dame to go home to South Florida and was very inconsistent in his effort level in college. His biggest competitor at the NFL level might be himself—can he put in the time and effort needed to hone his technique and contribute at the pro level?
Smith’s probable absence at the beginning of the season means there’s an extra roster spot for an outside linebacker, and I think Lynch will put it together enough to earn it. Maybe his discipline issues will stop his career from blossoming, but he should be able to put it together for at least his first NFL training camp.
Bryan Knowles is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.