San Francisco 49ers Training Camp Preview: Depth Chart, Sleepers and Predictions
Finally at the end of a long offseason, the 2014 San Francisco 49ers are officially in business.
July 24 marks the first training camp practice for this year's team, and expectations are as high as can be heading into the season. Two weeks of practices and a month more of preseason play separate these 49ers from Week 1 in Dallas, but Opening Day on Sept. 7 is finally within sight.
Players will go through a number of drills and meetings during this year's training camp, but the end goal is perfectly clear from the onset. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick summed it up well as veterans reported on Wednesday, as reported by Taylor Price of 49ers.com:
"I think this team has the talent, we have the coaching staff to win a Super Bowl...Now it's just time to go out and do it."
To that championship end, however, the 49ers coaching staff will have their hands full with a number of critical decisions. While some players fight for starting jobs and rehab from injuries, others will be looking to simply scratch and claw their way onto the 53-man roster at all.
As the stakes go up and practices get underway, let's catch up on the key storylines that will come to define this 2014 training camp.
Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) List
According to Taylor Price of 49ers.com, linebacker NaVorro Bowman was officially placed on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) List as the 49ers reported for camp. Still recovering from a gruesome knee injury suffered in the NFC Championship game, Bowman could return after the Week 8 bye (per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee).
As Price explains, players on the PUP List are not eligible to return until after the sixth regular-season game if they are not activated before the regular season begins. They do not occupy a spot on the 53-man roster until they are activated.
Price also indicates that nose tackle Ian Williams will join Bowman on the PUP List to open camp. Still hoping to compete for playing time with fellow lineman Glenn Dorsey, Williams is working his way back from a broken ankle suffered in Week 2.
In addition, rookie linebacker Aaron Lynch and defensive lineman Kaleb Ramsey were announced on the PUP List in Price's report.
While these injuries were not specified, David Fucillo of Niners Nation summarizes the designations well for the rookies: "The PUP List injuries mean those two [Lynch and Ramsey] suffered their injuries during the offseason workout program. The NFI players would be related to college injuries."
According to Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News, reserve tight end Garrett Celek rounds out the PUP List designations so far in 2014. Celek's specific injury was not disclosed, but Inman notes that he had participated fully in all July minicamp activities.
Non-Football Injury (NFI) List
In a separate report (via 49ers.com), Price offers six players who will begin the season on the Non-Football Injury (NFI) List, including five rookies.
Notable is running back Marcus Lattimore, the lone designation who was not selected in the 2014 draft. ESPN.com's Field Yates has reported that Lattimore's place on the list is simply procedural, offering him time to continue his rehab from a knee injury suffered during the 2012 college season.
Fucillo speculates that Lattimore will be activated sometime in the early going of camp, similar to Kendall Hunter's August activation a year ago.
Wide receiver Bruce Ellington and center Marcus Martin will also open camp on the NFI List, but Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee reports that neither injury is considered serious. Martin injured his knee during his final season in college, while Ellington's injury is unknown.
Rounding out the list are cornerback Keith Reaser, who tore his ACL at the NFL combine, and offensive tackle Brandon Thomas, who tore his ACL during a predraft workout. Fullback Trey Millard is also likely done for the year after tearing his ACL in his final collegiate season.
These final three players all will likely spend 2014 as a redshirt year.
Vernon Davis, Tight End
There were doubts that Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis would report to training camp after a highly public holdout, but Davis has indeed reported for the first practices. As seen in a video from safety C.J. Spillman's Instagram account, No. 85 is in the building.
Although Davis has reported to camp, the battle for a new contract is still in his mind. According to Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com, Davis reported to camp to avoid further fines for missed practices:
Per a league source, his decision to show up for training camp was influenced by multiple factors, including but not limited to $30,000 per day in fines and, after five days, partial signing bonus forfeiture.
The source says Davis still wants a new contract, and he’s “definitely” not OK with proceeding absent a raise. The team reportedly won’t negotiate with players who are holding out.
While the team is undoubtedly thrilled to have their dynamic weapon on hand for the opening days of camp, this doesn't seem to be over quite yet.
Alex Boone, Guard
According to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, Boone is the lone absence from this year's training camp. The 49ers were obviously hoping to have the guard join Davis in ending his holdout, but that does not look like it will be the case.
With Boone failing to report, it is unclear how long his holdout could stretch. He has missed all offseason workouts and has been vocal about his demands for a new contract.
Boone currently has two years left on his deal, and it remains unlikely that the 49ers will budge from their position. Depth on the offensive line is strong, with reserve options including guard/center Daniel Kilgore, guard Joe Looney and possibly even tackle Jonathan Martin.
With no end in sight, this is a storyline worth keeping an eye on as the preseason games begin.
Linebacker Aldon Smith will not miss time in the regular season after reaching a plea deal in his legal proceedings for DUI and weapons charges. However, the All-Pro still has to face the wrath of commissioner Roger Goodell, with a suspension remaining very much a possibility.
According to Bill Williamson of ESPN.com, Smith will be flying to New York as soon as next week to meet with Goodell at league offices.
Williamson does not offer a projected suspension in his report, but does make note of past comments from Goodell regarding Smith. In reference to Smith's voluntary five-game absence last year after entering a substance-abuse treatment center, Goodell has mentioned that the linebacker's approach will be considered in any punishment.
The closest projections can be seen from Tracey Kaplan and Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury New, who looked at previous punishments to find an example. If Smith is considered a first-time offender, a suspension between one and three games seems to fit the profile.
Given the prospect of jail time just a few short weeks ago, the 49ers would likely be relieved with such a ruling.
Darryl Morris, Cornerback
An undrafted free agent in 2013, former Texas State cornerback Darryl Morris managed to stick on the roster despite a relative lack of size. According to Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee, however, Morris is likely the fastest player on the roster and also excels on special teams.
Last year’s primary nickel cornerback Carlos Rogers has since moved on to Oakland. Rookie Jimmie Ward has been the presumed favorite since he was selected in the first round, but Morris should be considered an early dark horse to fill the vacant nickel spot on the 49ers defense.
ESPN.com's Bill Williamson also gives Morris a chance to crack to rotation, given his smarts and experience with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
Morris managed to defy expectations last year. Don't be shocked to see him turn some heads once again.
Shayne Skov, Linebacker
Former Stanford inside linebacker Shayne Skov was projected to go as high as the third round in the 2014 NFL draft.
Fortunately for the 49ers, Skov slipped out of the draft entirely and signed with his former college coach as an undrafted free agent. All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman is expected to miss at least half the season, leaving Skov with at least an outside shot at early playing time.
In another piece for The Sacramento Bee, Barrows cites special teams as Skov's best chance at making the roster. His competition will most likely come in the form of linebackers Nick Moody and Blake Costanzo, who both make a tremendous impact in this area.
Skov's experience at Stanford with Fangio and head coach Jim Harbaugh may also give him an outside chance at making the final roster.
Marcus Martin, Center
Although currently on the non-football injury (NFI) List (via Taylor Price of 49ers.com), Martin should not be counted out for the starting center job.
Not long after he was selected in the third round, the rookie center was already voicing his desire for the starting role. According to Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com, Martin is determined to compete for the starting center role despite working both at guard and center in minicamps.
Williamson (via ESPN.com) even went as far as to call Martin the "leader in the clubhouse" for the starting center job.
All these reports come despite a new contract for center Daniel Kilgore in February. Martin's talent is undeniable, but this will be one of the harder battles to project in camp.
No. 2 Running Back
I wrote extensively on veteran running back Kendall Hunter's case for the top backup job earlier this week, but the competition behind starter Frank Gore is wide open.
Last year's fourth-round pick Marcus Lattimore is still recovering from injury. Rookie runner Carlos Hyde has yet to take an NFL snap. Disgruntled third-year back LaMichael James is uncertain to even make the roster, according to James Brady of Niners Nation.
Hunter has a clear advantage in experience and is the most balanced back among the reserves. James is elusive and a return specialist, while Hyde brings high upside and enticing power running.
It's likely that the 49ers will use each back in specific situations, but one should emerge as the primary change-of-pace back. The smart money is on Hunter.
Behind starting receivers Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin, the competition is on behind them. As Taylor Price of 49ers.com notes, the receiving depth of Stevie Johnson, Bruce Ellington, Quinton Patton and Brandon Lloyd is the best the 49ers have had in years.
According to David Fucillo of Niners Nation, Johnson is cleared to practice after a hamstring strain suffered in minicamp. After coming over during a trade with the Buffalo Bills, Johnson is the heavy favorite in the slot after having recorded three 1,000-plus-yard seasons during his career.
Patton and Ellington should be safe behind Johnson, with their youth and potential keeping them on the roster. Ellington, the dynamic rookie, should be a reason for excitement with his potential to break big plays.
Unfortunately for Lloyd, that leaves him as a likely odd man out. After a year out of football, the 33-year-old will have a tough time making the final roster.
After three years with the stable presence of center Jonathan Goodwin in the trenches, the 49ers need a new leader in the middle of the offensive line.
As mentioned in the "Sleepers" slide, rookie center Marcus Martin has is eyes set on the starting job. Veteran lineman Daniel Kilgore just received a new contract in February, but the talent evident in the third-round pick from USC is hard to ignore.
This battle is huge given the 49ers' propensity for running the ball, leaving this as the most important battle on the offensive side.
With All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman out for at least half the season, the 49ers will need someone to step up in his place. Price (via 49ers.com) reports that linebacker Patrick Willis will move into Bowman's role, but who will take over for Willis on the other side?
Veteran backup Michael Wilhoite is the favorite to land the job, starting for an injured Willis in two games in 2013. His 37 tackles were a career high in his three seasons as well, giving him an obvious edge in experience.
Third-round pick Chris Borland is in the running after earning the 2013 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Fellow rookie Shayne Skov and second-year linebacker Nick Moody are also in the mix but will most likely compete for special teams roles.
As Price notes, Wilhoite is likely to get the first crack unless one of these younger players truly shines.
The most wide-open position on the 49ers' roster is cornerback, where only Tramaine Brock can be truly penciled in as a starter. Fucillo (via Niners Nation) has veteran Chris Culliver rebounding from a knee injury to earn the other starting job, but who will step up behind him?
First-round pick Jimmie Ward is suited best for a nickel cornerback role, but Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee also came away impressed with other players after minicamp.
In particular, newcomer Chris Cook shined in a starting role in minicamps, while cornerback Darryl Morris' speed gives him a shot at the nickel cornerback rotation. Rookie cornerback Dontae Johnson is also in the mix, given the overall inexperience at the position.
The depth chart could play out in many different ways with these combinations, so the preseason will play a great deal into how this position ultimately shakes out.
Depth Chart and 53-Man Roster Prediction
1. Colin Kaepernick
2. Blaine Gabbert
1. Frank Gore
2. Kendall Hunter
3. Carlos Hyde
4. LaMichael James
5. Marcus Lattimore
1. Bruce Miller
1. Michael Crabtree
2. Anquan Boldin
3. Stevie Johnson
4. Bruce Ellington
5. Quinton Patton
1. Vernon Davis
2. Vance McDonald
3. Garrett Celek
1. Joe Staley (LT)
2. Mike Iupati (LG)
3. Daniel Kilgore (C)
4. Alex Boone (RG)
5. Anthony Davis (RT)
6. Jonathan Martin (OT)
7. Joe Looney (OG)
8. Marcus Martin (C)
1. Justin Smith (RE)
2. Glenn Dorsey (NT)
3. Ray McDonald (LE)
4. Tank Carradine (DL)
5. Tony Jerod-Eddie (DL)
6. Quinton Dial (DT)
7. Ian Williams (NT)
1. Ahmad Brooks (OLB)
2. Patrick Willis (ILB)
3. Michael Wilhoite (ILB)
4. Corey Lemonier (OLB)
5. Chris Borland (ILB)
6. Dan Skuta (OLB)
7. Aaron Lynch (OLB)
8. Shayne Skov (ILB)
1. Tramaine Brock
2. Chris Culliver
3. Jimmie Ward (NCB)
4. Chris Cook
5. Darryl Morris
6. Dontae Johnson
1. Eric Reid (FS)
2. Antoine Bethea (SS)
3. Craig Dahl
4. C.J. Spillman
5. Bubba Ventrone
Phil Dawson (K)
Andy Lee (P)
Kevin McDermott (LS)
NaVorro Bowman (LB)
Aldon Smith (LB)
Keith Reaser (CB)
Trey Millard (FB)
Brandon Thomas (OL)
All statistics and accolades according to Pro Football Reference, unless otherwise attributed. Tom Smeaton is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and can be found on Twitter by following @ByTomSmeaton.