San Francisco 49ers: Predicting Winners of Training Camp Battles on Defense
With the San Francisco 49ers beginning to report to training camp, it’s time to start settling some of the positional battles that have cropped up since the end of the 2013 season. Finally, after months of free agency, the draft, contract negotiations and good old-fashioned rumors, we’ll start getting some hard data on who will be taking the field in the 2014 season.
Yesterday, we took a look at the offensive side of the ball, but the bread and butter of this team over the past few seasons has been the defense. Thanks to injuries, suspensions and turnover, there are more question marks there than on offense, as well. The offense is trending upward, while the defense fights to remain elite.
Like yesterday, this is a very speculative list. If there was enough hard data to make a definite decision on which player would win which role, there’d be no reason to hold training camp. These are the best educated guesses possible with the information that we have at present.
Let’s go down the list right now, predicting who will come out on top of every significant defensive positional battle.
Last season, Ian Williams was given the starting nose tackle job after spending time as backup to Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois. Williams had several solid seasons as a reserve defensive lineman and was finally getting the nod to take over one of the 11 starting roles.
Unfortunately, Williams broke his ankle in the second game of the year and missed the rest of his season. He was replaced by Glenn Dorsey, the former Kansas City Chief bust. Dorsey turned out to be a very solid defensive tackle for the 49ers last season, earning a Pro Football Focus grade of 4.6 (subscription required), which places him eighth among returning defensive players.
This battle took place last season as well, with Williams getting the nod over Dorsey, but that was before the team saw what Dorsey could do. Williams also has yet to play a full season, leaving his actual talent level as something of a question mark.
Last season, the team sided with Ian Williams, and I think the 49ers will do so again, assuming he is fully recovered from the ankle injury. Dorsey was fantastic as a fill-in player last season, but Williams is more your prototypical, run-stuffing tackle in the middle. With NaVorro Bowman missing the first half of the season, Williams being in the middle of the defense would be a plus.
NaVorro Bowman’s Replacement
The torn ACL Bowman suffered in the NFC Championship looks to sideline him for about half the season. With any luck, he’ll return after San Francisco’s bye in Week 8, but it’s still too early to get a clear read on when he’ll be back and when he’ll be back to full speed.
His actual replacement will be Patrick Willis, who will slide over to Bowman’s specific position, but that still leaves a middle linebacker spot open. The replacement last year when either Willis or Bowman was hurt was Michael Wilhoite, an undrafted free agent from 2011 who worked his way up from the practice squad to the main roster.
The other alternative is Chris Borland, the third-round pick out of Wisconsin. While he fell on some draft boards, thanks to his relatively short stature and small arms, Borland was a major playmaker in college, and he might well be the future at the position.
While I’m a big fan of Borland’s potential, I think the 49ers will side with Michael Wilhoite’s veteran presence, at least at the beginning. Asking a rookie to step in and replace Bowman is a huge task, and it's one that Borland may not be ready to handle from day one.
Wilhoite isn’t as good as Bowman either, but he at least has experience in the system and a familiarity with working with Willis and the rest of San Francisco’s linebackers. That experience should give him the edge at the beginning of the year. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Borland take over the primary backup role toward the end of the year, but by then Bowman should be back.
Aldon Smith’s Replacement
Although it’s not official yet, it has been frequently reported that Aldon Smith will likely face some sort of suspension for his various offseason activities, ranging from illegal possession of weapons to an alleged bomb threat at Los Angeles International Airport.
While none of the cases by themselves seem to be as serious as initially feared, it’s still a pattern of behavior that will likely see him hit with some sort of punishment from the league.
When Smith missed time last year while in rehab, he was replaced by a combination of Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier. Skuta ended up seeing the field slightly more than Lemonier did toward the end of the season, but Lemonier saw more than 60 percent of the snaps in four of the five games Smith missed, according to PFF (subscription required).
Joining them is fifth-round pick Aaron Lynch out of South Florida. Lynch is immensely talented, but there are questions about his work ethic and motivation. His former strength coach slammed his integrity and character in a postdraft tweet.
Forget about Lynch for this role; he’s got to get his own personal motivation in line to even make the team. It’s hard to imagine the 49ers trusting him with the starting linebacker role, unless he absolutely blows past everyone during camp.
Instead, Corey Lemonier, entering his second season in the league, is my pick. He showed a lot of promise in his rookie season. According to PFF, Lemonier only ended up with one sack but registered 20 quarterback hurries (subscription required), and he has the potential to become a pass-rush expert.
I think he’ll end up replacing Ahmad Brooks when Brooks’ contract becomes too expensive in a few seasons, and he has all the potential in the world. He’s my pick to start, while Smith is out.
With three-wide receiver sets taking up more than half of teams’ offensive formations in 2013, according to Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders, the nickel cornerback is a starter in all but name. Last year, that job was split between Carlos Rogers, Perrish Cox and Eric Wright.
Rogers and Wright are both gone, however. That leaves Cox as the logical incumbent, but he was actually released for two games in 2013 and brought back only when injury concerns hit San Francisco in the playoffs. He’s the sort of player used as a safety net.
With that in mind, the 49ers used their first-round pick on Jimmie Ward out of Northern Illinois. While Ward is nominally a safety, he did play plenty of cornerback in college. While he eventually projects to start across from Eric Reid as a safety, he’ll be in the running for nickel corner as a rookie.
Eric Reid was a Week 1 starter last season, and there’s no reason Jimmie Ward can’t do the same thing this year. Cox is a fine player when you don’t have a better option, but there’s a reason he was cut after Week 10 last season; he’s your standard-level replacement player.
Ward has the potential to be much more than that. If he doesn’t end up in the starting lineup sooner rather than later, it would be an upset and a waste of the first-round pick.
The 49ers started last season with Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown as their starting cornerbacks. Both are gone now. That moves Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver up to the starting roles, but neither has started for a full season in the NFL.
That means the next cornerback up could play a major role in 2014 or at least serve as a much-needed safety net. The 49ers have a solid veteran option and an interesting rookie to fill the role.
The veteran is Chris Cook, who signed as a free agent from the Minnesota Vikings this offseason. I dismissed it as a veteran's-minimum signing who would just push people for depth, but Cook’s been working hard in minicamp. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has said Cook’s “made progress,” and he probably has the best raw physical attributes of any of the corners on San Francisco’s roster.
The other interesting option is Dontae Johnson, the fourth-round pick out of North Carolina State. He played both cornerback and safety in college and has an intriguing mix of height, balance and raw athleticism.
He’s not the fastest player out there and needs to polish some of his man-to-man cover skills, but he’s already a pretty solid zone cornerback. With some development, he might turn into a diamond in the rough.
Considering the inexperience in the starting lineup, going with a rookie might not make a lot of sense here. Four of the top five players in the secondary have a year or less of starting experience: Jimmy Ward is a rookie, Eric Reid was a rookie last year, Tramaine Brock started his first seven games last season and Chris Culliver started six games in 2012 before missing all of last season.
Combine that with his solid minicamp performance, and I think the 49ers will turn to Chris Cook’s veteran presence to be their primary safety net should Brock, Culliver or Ward miss time, as well as to come into dime packages. Cook started 29 games in Minnesota, and while he was underwhelming as a starter, he should be fine as a reserve.
Bryan Knowles is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.
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