Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
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.