San Francisco 49ers: Players to Watch at Each Position During Training Camp
The long wait is finally over—the veterans for the San Francisco 49ers have finally reported to training camp!
The actual first full-squad practice is on July 24, with the first practice in pads coming up on Saturday. Soon, we’ll have actual hard information and data to back up our opinions and rumors about training camp battles.
Obviously, we’ll want to see how the passing game ticks with its new weapons, how well the revamped secondary gels and how the various replacements at linebacker mesh with the established superstars. Those only scratch the surface of training camp storylines, however.
With 89 of the 90 players in camp (darn you, Alex Boone!), here’s the most intriguing player at each and every position.
Unless otherwise noted, all proprietary stats come from ProFootballFocus.com, and all salary cap information comes from Spotrac.com.
Quarterback: Blaine Gabbert
It’s not a stretch to say that Gabbert has so far crashed and burned in the NFL. In his time in Jacksonville, Gabbert finished with a 5-22 record as a starter, throwing 24 interceptions to only 22 touchdowns.
In 2011, Gabbert finished dead last in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings, and he was ranked 32nd out of 39 qualifying QBs in 2012. Because he threw only 98 passes last season, he just missed the 100 pass mark to be ranked in 2013, but even in that small sample size, he still racked up a minus-429 DYAR, which would have had him second worst to only Brandon Weeden.
He’s been bad, is what I’m trying to say here.
He’s also going to be on the 2014 roster no matter what. Not only is he the most experienced quarterback on the roster, including Colin Kaepernick, but his $2 million contract will count against the salary cap whether he’s on the roster or not. He’s the lockiest of locks.
With that in mind, it’s important to see what a change of scenery will do for him. Sometimes, a new start can revitalize a floundering career—remember, Steve Young started his NFL career on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and put up horrible numbers before coming to San Francisco.
No, Gabbert will not become the next incarnation of Steve Young, but Jim Harbaugh found ways to maximize Alex Smith’s value, as well as start both Kaepernick and Andrew Luck on their way to NFL stardom. If anyone can recover some of the potential that made Gabbert the 11th overall pick in 2011, it’s Harbaugh and his crew.
Running Back: Carlos Hyde
It was a bit of a shock when the 49ers drafted Hyde in the second round of this year’s draft, but Marcus Lattimore’s placement on the PUP list somewhat explains it—the 49ers aren’t yet positive he’ll be ready for the regular season.
Hyde was picked with the 57th selection in the draft, making him the highest-picked back the 49ers have taken since Amp Lee in 1992. Couple that with the fact that Frank Gore is 31, and the selection of Hyde brings with it a lot more weight than the selections of Glen Coffee in the second round in 2009 or LaMichael James in the second round in 2012.
Hyde’s positioned to be the running back of the future for this team, so the question is how much of that future will happen in 2014, and how much will be deferred a season. You can rest assured that Hyde is the front-runner for the starting job in 2015, but how will the 49ers bring him along this season, while also leaning on the man who’s carried their rushing attack since 2006?
Wide Receiver: Brandon Lloyd
When the 49ers signed Lloyd in April, I thought it wouldn’t amount to much of anything. I thought it was a chance to kick the tires on a player who had been out of the league for a season. The trade for Stevie Johnson on draft day made Lloyd, in my mind, even more of an afterthought.
Then OTAs and minicamp began, and Lloyd began to blow people away. The year off hadn’t dulled his skills; rather, the rest seems to have rejuvenated him to some extent.
Two things are working against Lloyd. First of all, at his age, he won’t be playing special teams, so he’d need to get on the field regularly to be worth a roster spot over a special teams ace like Kassim Osgood.
Secondly, the 49ers already have their two starting receivers in Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin. They have their offseason addition and projected slot guy in Stevie Johnson. They have their two projects for the future in Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington. Lloyd might be forced out just by the numbers game.
Lloyd’s probably on the outside of the roster bubble looking in at this point. He’ll probably need to catch Johnson for the third role to stick on the roster. After surprising people during minicamp, however, you can’t count out Lloyd.
Tight End: Vance McDonald
While he’ll no longer get the starting reps thanks to Vernon Davis reporting to camp, McDonald is looking to bounce back from something of a nightmarish rookie season. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), McDonald caught only nine of the 19 passes thrown his way last season, dropping three of them.
That’s not what the 49ers expected when taking McDonald out of Rice; he’s so far been outshined by college teammate and fifth-round pick Luke Willson, who went up to Seattle.
McDonald finished the 2013 season, including the playoffs, with a minus-2.9 grade, which is less than ideal. It did start trending upwards as the season ended, however. From Week 14 on, with McDonald playing about half the snaps per game, McDonald racked up a plus-3.1 grade, and showed promise as a run blocker.
That’s not why the 49ers drafted McDonald, however. They were looking for a replacement for Delanie Walker, the jack-of-all-trades tight end who went on to Tennessee before last season. In that respect, McDonald has failed to live up to those expectations so far.
McDonald will need to improve his work in the passing game in his sophomore season. If he doesn’t, he might not get a third year in San Francisco.
Offensive Line: Daniel Kilgore
The only new starter on San Francisco’s offense, Kilgore comes out of relative obscurity deep on the depth chart to replace Jonathan Goodwin, who has gone back to New Orleans.
The 49ers have been more than satisfied with Kilgore’s work in practice so far, giving him a three-year contract extension this offseason rather than attempting to sign Goodwin. Still, work in the system and in practice is one thing, and game experience is something else altogether. Kilgore has yet to start a single game in his NFL career and has appeared on 10 or more snaps in only four contests in the past three years.
Basically, he doesn’t have significantly more NFL experience than third-round Marcus Martin out of USC, and Martin has the more potential in the long run. Can Kilgore’s experience with the system and Martin’s youth give Kilgore the edge he needs to hold on to the starting center position?
Defensive Line: Glenn Dorsey
While most of the attention might be on the first year for highly touted prospect Tank Carradine or on Ian Williams’ recovery from his broken ankle, I instead look at last year’s biggest surprise in Glenn Dorsey.
Dorsey came in when Williams went down in Week 2 and put in a fine season. The former fifth overall pick of the 2008 draft was considered a bust in Kansas City, but he looked pretty darn good when pressed into action last season.
The 49ers defense didn’t skip a beat with Dorsey in the middle.
Can he retain his starting job over Williams? Remember, Williams won the job outright last season before breaking his ankle, but this was before the 49ers saw what Dorsey did in the regular season.
Either way, the 49ers look to have a ferocious backup defensive line with Dorsey/Williams, Carradine and Tony Jerod-Eddie. I’d be alright with that being my starting defensive line. It's not an elite unit, but it wouldn’t be the worst in the league.
Linebackers: Michael Wilhoite
NaVorro Bowman’s injury and subsequent PUP status essentially bumps Wilhoite up from a strong bubble candidate to a lock to make the roster; the 49ers need someone to start across from Patrick Willis in the middle of the defense and a backup in case someone else gets hurt there.
Which one will Wilhoite be? He was the first man off the bench when Patrick Willis went down last season, and stepped in for Bowman when he went down in the NFC Championship. He’s the logical choice to be slotted into a lineup otherwise consisting of Pro Bowlers and All-Pros.
He won’t go unchallenged, however, as third-round pick Chris Borland out of Wisconsin is a strong, thundering player who, despite non-prototypical NFL size, has quite a bit of potential.
Can Wilhoite hold on to the starting job for the first half of the season, and how will he do? Bowman’s not replaceable, but can Wilhoite at least tread water? He played solid football in both of his starts in 2013, but the St. Louis Rams and Houston Texans are not the toughest challenges ever for a defense.
How will he do against the Denver Broncos of the world?
Cornerbacks: Darryl Morris
Darryl Morris is so underrated I forgot about him when doing my initial guess at a 53-man roster in May. The undrafted free agent out of Texas State only saw seven defensive snaps in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), but he was a force on kick and punt coverage.
The 49ers have a need for special teams aces. With the talent brought in in the draft and free agency, the 49ers will have to use some roster spots reserved last year exclusively for special teams players on players who can contribute on offense and defense. A player who can contribute on special teams while also fighting for a role on defense could be very valuable.
During OTAs and minicamp, Morris got a lot of looks as the third cornerback, according to Bill Williamson of ESPN. Part of that is due to rookie Jimmie Ward’s foot injury keeping him sidelined during those sessions, but Morris isn’t simply a competitor by default; he has an outside shot at holding onto the job if Ward isn’t ready when Week 1 rolls around.
Safeties: Jimmie Ward
Speaking of Jimmie Ward, the 49ers’ first-round rookie selection is going to be under a microscope this training camp. He has a tough act to follow in last year’s top pick, Eric Reid, who started from day one and became a star.
Ward is a step behind the rest of the rookies, as he missed most of this offseason recovering from foot surgery in March. He is cleared to practice now, however, and can start making up that ground immediately.
Can Ward catch up for the loss of practice time? The nickel cornerback slot is wide open, with Ward, Morris and Perrish Cox battling for that third cornerback role. It will just be a stepping stone for Ward, who will eventually replace Antonie Bethea and work opposite Reid as a safety. Until then, however, we’ll see how he develops as the fifth member of San Francisco’s secondary.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.