San Francisco 49ers: Predicting Winners of Training Camp Battles on Offense
The NFL’s long summer break is nearly over. The San Francisco 49ers open their training camp Wednesday morning, with rookies arriving. The first actual practice takes place on July 24, and we’ll finally have more than just raw speculation and semi-educated guesses to report on.
Until then, more raw speculation and semi-educated guesses! One of the most important functions of training camp is defining which players will take on which roles for the team in the upcoming season. Positional battles will rage, and the depth chart will be clarified. This can range from who will be in the opening day starting lineup to who will scrape onto the bottom of the 53-man roster.
But why wait for training camp to be over to determine the winners of these battles? Let’s save time and go down the list right now, predicting who will come out on top of every significant offensive positional battle.
This is, of course, very speculative. I’ll be citing stats and evidence where possible, but a lot of this is based on gut feeling and speculation. After all, before the pads come on and people actually start competing for spots, there’s only so much direct comparison you can actually do. If it were possible to accurately predict who would earn each spot, there’d be no need for a training camp.
That’s never stopped anyone from speculating before. Here, a full month-and-a-half before opening day, are the winners of your San Francisco 49ers offensive positional battles.
It’s a wide open race to be the emergency signal-caller behind Colin Kaepernick. The 49ers acquired Blaine Gabbert from the Jacksonville Jaguars for a sixth-round pick; he has the most starting experience of any of the contenders.
He looked pretty awful in Jacksonville, however, so the door is wide open. Josh Johnson worked with Jim Harbaugh in his college career at San Diego, and he started five games for Tampa Bay between 2009 and 2011. McLeod Bethel-Thompson is the backup with the most experience in San Francisco’s system, having been on the team last year and in 2011. Finally, undrafted rookie Kory Faulkner out of Southern Illinois caught Harbaugh’s eye at his pro day, and he is a potential developmental project.
This one boils down to two numbers: two and two million.
The 49ers are likely to only keep two quarterbacks on their active roster. They’re loaded with talent at other positions, making a third quarterback something of a luxury. The last time the 49ers actually needed three quarterbacks in one game was on December 12 1997, when Steve Young, Jeff Brohm and Jim Druckenmiller took snaps in a meaningless Week 17 game. It just doesn’t happen often enough to justify the use of a roster spot.
Blaine Gabbert will count $2,011,587 against the salary cap whether he’s on the team or not in 2014, per Spotrac. It doesn’t make any financial sense to get rid of him at this point. He’ll win the backup role essentially by default, with Faulkner probably relegated to the practice squad.
Backup Running Back
It’s easy to focus on just the new players behind Frank Gore. The 49ers used a second-round pick on Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde, ranked by CBS Sports as the best running back available in the 2014 draft, despite being the second selected. The previous year, the 49ers used a fourth-round pick on uber-talented, but horrifically-injured, Marcus Lattimore out of South Carolina.
Don’t count out Kendall Hunter, however. Hunter has 262 attempts for the 49ers over the last three seasons, and he has been very efficient as a change-of-pace back. He’s the incumbent backup, meaning Hyde and Lattimore have to actually displace him to win the job.
I’m going to cheat here and list multiple winners, because it all depends on what you mean when you say “backup running back.”
If you mean the back who will get the second-most snaps behind Frank Gore, then Kendall Hunter will come out on top. He’s the veteran with experience in the system, and he knows the little things, like the 49ers’ blocking assignments. I think the 49ers will gradually work Lattimore in as he continues to recover from his knee injury, so Hunter will be the go-to reserve back between the 20s.
Once we get down to the goal line, however, I think we’ll see more of Carlos Hyde, which makes him the backup in terms of fantasy points. There are a couple reasons for this.
First of all, in those goal-to-go situations, pass-blocking is a non-issue. If it takes time for Hyde to learn the blocking assignments, that’s not nearly as big a deal when his primary responsibility is to dive into the line and plow forward for a few yards at a time. That takes away the biggest liability of a rookie in the lineup.
Secondly, Hyde has been phenomenal in short-yardage situations in college. He runs over defenders and can fight for the tough yards. That’s not his only skill, but that’s the one that most immediately translates to the NFL. I see him as a touchdown vulture in his rookie season.
Third Wide Receiver
Considering the 49ers had the likes of Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham in this role in 2013, the team has almost an embarrassment of riches battling for this position.
You have Stevie Johnson, acquired from the Buffalo Bills in a draft-day trade. Until 2013, when he missed time with injuries, Johnson had gone over 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons. Joining him on the veteran front is Brandon Lloyd, one of the stars of the 49ers’ minicamp. Though he sat out all of 2013, he was a potent weapon in 2012 in New England. It looks like his year off helped his aging legs.
On the youth side, we have last year’s fourth-round pick, Quinton Patton out of Louisiana Tech. Though he missed much of last season with a variety of injuries, he showed flashes of big-play potential when he was on the field. We also have this year’s fourth-round pick, Bruce Ellington from South Carolina. A two-sport star in college, Ellington has a lot of potential packed into an undersized frame.
It’d be a small upset if Stevie Johnson didn’t take control of this spot, even considering Lloyd’s great minicamp and the potential of the young players. Johnson has put up numbers for years behind very poor quarterbacking in Buffalo, and being placed in a better offensive system where he doesn’t have to match up with the top opposing cornerback should help his per-play production, if not his overall gross numbers.
Assuming Lloyd’s body holds up to the rigors of pads and a full season, he’s probably best used as a threat near the goal line, as he’s always been known for his leaping ability. Fades to the back corner of the end zone are an area where Lloyd could really contribute.
Expect to see more and more of Patton and Ellington as the season goes on and some of the veterans need more of a break, but their time to shine will probably start in 2015, when Michael Crabtree is a free agent and Anquan Boldin gets a year closer to retirement.
Backup Tight End
This “backup” role might become more of a starting role if Vernon Davis’ holdout goes on too long. Apart from that, the 49ers are still looking for a replacement for Delanie Walker, who left for the Tennessee Titans last season.
Vance McDonald took this role last season as a rookie out of Rice, but he disappointed. He only caught 47.4 percent of passes thrown to him, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). There are still high hopes for his development in the future, but there are some competitors pushing him for time.
In terms of blocking tight ends, Garett Celek was the third-stringer last season. He spent 83 of his 126 snaps as a run-blocker, per PFF (subscription required), so he’s not really going to battle for too many receptions. At this point, he’s a more polished blocker than McDonald is.
Derek Carrier is the other tight end on the roster, and he’s an interesting option. Carrier is the all-time leading receiver at tiny Beloit, and he maps well to how tight ends are used in the modern NFL—that is, as a receiver first and a blocker second.
Celek’s not taking this spot, as he’s a blocking specialist. Carrier’s been cut by two NFL teams already. No, for all his disappointment last season, this is still Vance McDonald’s role to lose. Hopefully, he’ll take a step forward in his second year in the NFL. There’s really not a lot of competition for the spot, despite everything that happened in 2013.
With Jonathan Goodwin leaving in free agency, the 49ers have one spot open on the offensive line, and two players battling for the starting responsibility.
In the veteran corner, we have Daniel Kilgore. Kilgore’s been a little-used reserve, and he has yet to be used in half the snaps in any single game. However, the 49ers have liked what they’ve seen from him in-house, and signed him to a three-year extension rather than re-up Goodwin. That shows a lot of faith from the front office.
In the rookie corner, we have third-round pick Marcus Martin out of USC. Martin has experience starting at guard as well, but he looks to be a center on the NFL stage. A big-bodied, quick and flexible player, Martin has three years of college starting experience despite being only 20 years old.
Although Martin will almost assuredly have a starting role on the offensive line, be it at center or guard, that might be in the future. He’s only 20 years old, and there’s still a little bit of development to be done there. It’s actually a positive thing if he comes out and wins the job because he is the player with greater potential here but more conservative estimates have him taking the job next season.
With his experience in the system, I expect Daniel Kilgore to win the battle in 2014. You want your center, who is responsible for making the blocking calls at the line of scrimmage, to be experienced. While Kilgore has little in-game experience, he has three years of the system in place and is more likely to be ready to go come opening day.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.