San Francisco 49ers: 5 Players Facing Make-or-Break Training Camps
Welcome to the San Francisco 49ers’ latest installment of offseason predicaments.
Well, make that for teams across the NFL.
Players won’t admit it, but training camps are one of the more difficult portions of the offseason. They’ve been away from the practice field for over one month and feel a troubling combination of hyper-motivation and physical inadequacy.
They want nothing more than to play football after four weeks of not doing what they love so dearly. But despite an extensive period of exercise and conditioning on their own time, they aren’t in optimal football shape.
Even upper-echelon, Super Bowl-contending squads like the 49ers experience these issues. The A.J. Jenkins debacle happened in 2012, as did the “raggedy” practice during Fan Fest last year. Overwrought sports cliche or not, it simply takes time for things to come together on the complex entity that is an NFL team.
Yet it’s especially trying for particular types of players—those without practice-squad eligibility and who play exclusively on one side of the ball.
Said hopefuls don’t have the luxury of the eight-man parachute and must make the active 53-man roster. And they must do so by displaying singular excellence on either offense, defense or special teams.
In other words, if you aren’t versatile, then you had better be great at the one thing you do well.
Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh will have the considerable task of evaluating many such players. One-dimensional vets and gridiron journeymen will fall under his discerning gaze, with many finding themselves in the NFL unemployment line before preseason action even begins.
Undrafted rookies and players without any extended regular-season experience generally qualify as fair targets as well. But at least they retain some measure of hope as it pertains to San Francisco’s practice squad.
The likes of offensive tackle Fou Fonoti and second-year linebacker Chase Thomas face substantial pressure. It’s just not quite the do or die kind.
In any case, here are the five 49ers facing make-or-break training camps in 2014.
OT Jonathan Martin
Martin deserves mention on this list, but not for the reasons most folks would expect.
The third-year offensive tackle left the Miami Dolphins midseason in 2013 following the bullying abuse he suffered from Richie Incognito and two other teammates. Many thought his NFL playing days were over.
Yet despite reuniting with Harbaugh—his head coach at Stanford—and praising the Niners locker room culture, Martin remains on the outside looking in.
Josh Dubow of the Associated Press reports that Martin missed over three weeks while recovering from a bout of mononucleosis. He lost 12 pounds and fell further beyond the likes of third-year 49er Joe Looney, 10-year vet Adam Snyder and others.
ESPN’s Bill Williamson is skeptical of Looney’s ability over the long haul if Alex Boone’s holdout extends into the regular season. But from our perspective, the same applies equally to Martin, who hasn’t played a single snap at guard in the NFL.
Whether he plays swing-tackle or moves inside, Martin must establish himself with a monster training camp.
S D.J. Campbell
Campbell is another 49ers hopeful whose practice-squad eligibility has long since expired.
The former Cal Bear defensive back has logged nine games in his two-year career and has been on an active roster for many more with the Dolphins and Carolina Panthers.
The 6’0”, 205-pounder faces a daunting uphill climb at safety. He sits sixth on the depth chart behind Eric Reid, Antoine Bethea, Jimmie Ward, C.J. Spillman and Craig Dahl. Making the active roster would require a veritable gridiron miracle.
The reason Campbell only finds himself on the honorable mentions list is that he never had a chance in the first place. All due respect intended, he is nothing more than a mere training-camp body.
5. WR/ST Kassim Osgood
Three-time Pro Bowlers generally don’t experience make-or-break training camps.
But for those who are in their mid-30s and operate solely on special teams, surviving roster cuts is an expected challenge.
Kassim Osgood suited up for 14 games last year and excelled on the 49ers coverage units. He registered a third-leading seven tackles and whiffed on just one opportunity, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
He also helped seal a Week 7 win over the Tennessee Titans with a touchdown off a blocked punt in the fourth quarter.
Yet Osgood makes his contributions solely as a special-teamer. He only has emergency-level capabilities at wide receiver.
The 49ers, for their part, are for the first time in many years stacked with dynamic receivers (more on this later). They would call the 6’5”, 209-pounder’s name only if something truly drastic occurred at the position.
Osgood is a team-wide favorite among players and coaches alike. Sadly, the NFL is a ruthless business—and one in which personal relationships rarely, if ever, ensure someone’s standing on the roster.
4. S/ST Raymond Ventrone
He might not have a trophy room rivaling Osgood’s, but Raymond “Bubba” Ventrone was every bit as effective on special teams in 2013.
Ventrone tied his teammate’s mark with seven tackles and just one miss. He added three more assists and earned a much higher score than Osgood from Pro Football Focus for his overall proficiency on the 49ers coverage units (plus-1.5 versus minus-5.0.).
Throw in a fumble recovery, an epic hairdo and serving five years under special-teams coach Brad Seely for the beloved veteran of eight NFL seasons.
So, what gives on this particular team favorite?
Unlike Osgood, Ventrone provides zero value on the other sides of the ball. He’s option No. 7 on the safety depth chart—sitting behind even that of D.J. Campbell.
Quality special-teamers Craig Dahl and C.J. Spillman are two other 49ers who offer at least some backup utility. The younger and more versatile Jimmie Ward—San Francisco’s first-round draftee in 2014—does so in a starting capacity as well.
Ventrone fans can only hope at this point that his glorious caveman-like hair will save him from gridiron unemployment this season.
3. WR Brandon Lloyd
The aftereffects of Brandon Lloyd’s foray into zombie-based cinema led to a year-long hiatus from football and a non-guaranteed contract when he returned.
Of course, said deal came from the 49ers—the team that originally drafted him in 2003.
Fast-forward through 10 years and five NFL stops, Lloyd once again finds himself jockeying for position in San Francisco. And surprisingly enough, he has looked as dynamic as a receiver can possibly look on an offseason practice field.
CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco highlighted his most notable impact during the Niners’ May OTAs.
He reported that Lloyd and Colin Kaepernick appeared “to have built good chemistry” in quick fashion. The duo even connected for an impressive touchdown during an 11-on-11 session in the red zone.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh, for his part, had these words for the veteran wideout’s refreshing performance thus far.
Seeing really good things…Seeing surge off the line of scrimmage. He’s got ability to burst at the top of his routes. Runs excellent routes. Acrobatic type of catches that he’s able to make. Really good hands. So far, really good. It does not seem like a guy that’s had a layoff from football for a year.
The words, “Um, wow” were all we could muster when first hearing of this report.
All that said, Lloyd has little, if any, room for error.
He has done his part producing on his own, connecting with teammates and taking advantage of Stevie Johnson’s hamstring injury. But one slip and Johnson and the remaining corps of receivers will catapult even further past him than they already are (again, more on this later).
Far from the young stud who once made acrobatic catches look routine, Lloyd must tap into the fountain of his 2010 Pro Bowl youth. He must resurrect some of that league-leading 1,448 yards and 11 scores in training camp if he wishes to resume his NFL playing career with the Red and Gold.
At an advanced age of 33 in the world of professional football, only one positional competitor faces worse odds at making this team.
2. WR Jon Baldwin
Some might call his NFL career already broken, but we prefer a world where second chances still exist.
Former No. 26 overall pick Jon Baldwin has never realized his first-round potential. Since being drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2011, the former Pittsburgh standout has all of two touchdowns and 607 yards to his name.
A trade to the 49ers back in August of 2013 for fellow first-round bust A.J. Jenkins didn’t revitalize Baldwin in the way some had hoped. He totaled an inconsequential three catches for 28 yards over a period of seven games (one start).
So, what does the Niners’ coaching staff make of the 6’4”, 230-pound specimen who once drew comparisons to fellow Pitt alumnus Larry Fitzgerald? Is there even a role for a physical marvel who lacks everything else?
According to ESPN’s Bill Williamson, tight end remains in play—albeit his last and only shot at an NFL existence.
The respected scribe notes that he has “virtually no chance to make the roster as a receiver.” Throw in Vernon Davis’ ongoing holdout, and a position switch is still theoretically possible.
Due to the 49ers’ annual desperation for red-zone help, Baldwin can, again, theoretically provide some utility. But with the additions of Lloyd, Johnson and stellar rookie Bruce Ellington to incumbents Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Quinton Patton, Kaepernick has more than enough receiving targets at his disposal.
If the big-bodied Baldwin doesn’t make miracles on the training camp gridiron, not even an already brutal pay cut or banishment to special teams will keep him on this championship roster.
1. QB Josh Johnson
To 49ers backup quarterbacks not named Blaine Gabbert: If you plan on logging playing time in 2014, you might want to start updating your LinkedIn profile and sending out your resume to all other 31 teams.
Switching positions might not hurt, either.
Behind starter Colin Kaepernick, Gabbert stands firmly entrenched as the primary backup. San Francisco having sacrificed a sixth-round pick and guaranteeing him $2.01 million this season certainly indicates as much.
A “strong series of offseason performances” and endorsement from the coaching staff, per CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco, all but secures Gabbert the No. 2 spot.
Now, most teams—especially Super Bowl-contending ones—will only keep two quarterbacks on the active roster. They’ll also stash a high-upside project on the practice squad.
The 49ers, for their part, will likely assign undrafted rookie Kory Faulkner to that latter eight-man contingent. Head coach Jim Harbaugh really “likes what he’s seen” out of the raw but big-armed Southern Illinois product so far in the offseason, according to Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
McLeod Bethel-Thompson is another Niners practice squad hopeful. He spent time on that unit in 2013 and remains eligible this year. It’s quite a long shot, but an opportunity nonetheless.
Unfortunately for Josh Johnson, his one and only shot resides in the 53-man roster.
The former Harbaugh pupil at the University of San Diego and 49ers’ preseason leader in 2012 exhausted his eligibility for that aforementioned secondary unit long ago. He’s played in 29 career games and has recorded five starts since being drafted No. 160 overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2008.
But, if Johnson has any real desire to make this team, he must forget his disastrous regular-season statistics. He must instead bank off his athleticism, knowledge of Harbaugh’s offense and the numbers he posted in preseason action two years ago.
The dual-threat talent who registered two passing touchdowns, a 115.2 passer rating and 5.7 yards per carry for the 49ers in 2012 must realize that proficiency in training camp. Displaying anything resembling the 54.2 completion percentage, 10 interceptions and 57.7 rating will kill his chances with this team and quite possibly his NFL future.
If not for Harbaugh’s undying love for positional competition in the offseason, the Oakland native might have already been pursing a career change.
It’s make or break time, Mr. Johnson—the floor is yours.
All team and player statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference unless otherwise noted. Advanced metrics courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Salary information provided by Spotrac.
Joe Levitt is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, waxing academic, colloquial and statistical eloquence on the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him on Twitter @jlevitt16