Updating the San Francisco 49ers' Key Position Battles Early in Training Camp

Dan MoriCorrespondent IJuly 28, 2014

Updating the San Francisco 49ers' Key Position Battles Early in Training Camp

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    Jimmie Ward is battling for playing time in the 49ers' defense.
    Jimmie Ward is battling for playing time in the 49ers' defense.Uncredited/Associated Press

    The San Francisco 49ers opened training camp with the typical optimism and enthusiasm about the upcoming season.

    Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News reported on head coach Jim Harbaugh's first press conference at the 49ers' home, Levi's Stadium. Harbaugh was uncharacteristically jovial, even stating: "Our team is the least unhappy team I've ever been around."

    The three most important things about training camp is for the team to bond, for the players to get their work in and for them to stay healthy. Good health is a must for any team hoping to make the playoffs and make a run at the Super Bowl.

    With this in mind, the ultra-positive feelings at camp quickly faded. Two major injuries have already hit the 49ers hard and will impact the team. 

    Running back Kendall Hunter is lost for the season with a torn ACL. His loss actually opened up a spot for LaMichael James, who proceeded to dislocate his elbow and will be out for the next month, per CSNBayArea.com.

    Prior to the opening of training camp, I wrote an article about the training camp battles that would take place. 

    We can now reassess these battles as well as a new one that is coming to the forefront at right guard. The first week of training camp has begun to shed some light on these positional battles. Let's take a closer look.

4th Wide Receiver

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    Quinton Patton showed flashes of promise in 2013.
    Quinton Patton showed flashes of promise in 2013.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The fourth wide receiver job looked to be a battle between Brandon Lloyd, Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington.

    However, Ellington was on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list for the past week. He missed the first week of practice due to an ankle injury. This will undoubtedly hurt his chances, which were a bit of a long shot anyway. 

    With Ellington falling behind, the fourth wide receiver job will likely come down to Lloyd and Patton. Ellington was just removed from the PUP list and is now cleared to practice. He should be back at practice shortly, but he has a lot of catching up to do.

    A separate question is how many wide receivers will the 49ers carry. Special teams star Kassim Osgood is the seventh receiver on a team that might only carry six.

    Osgood is extremely valuable, which could spell trouble for Lloyd, if he does not win the fourth receiver competition. Teams do not generally keep receivers who are 33 years of age and not making an impact.

    To further complicate matters is the fact that Lloyd sat out all last year, so he will need to prove he is totally dedicated and will have the durability to handle playing in the NFL.

    Based on his youth and upside potential, Patton should have the inside track on securing this job.

Return Man

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    The injury to LaMichael James will give Bruce Ellington a chance to be the 49ers' kickoff and punt returner.
    The injury to LaMichael James will give Bruce Ellington a chance to be the 49ers' kickoff and punt returner.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Ellington missed the first week of camp, as he was on the PUP list with an injured ankle. James is out for a month after dislocating his elbow.

    However, Ellington is now off the list and expected back on the field very soon. If he stays healthy, Ellington will get ample opportunity to showcase his abilities for the 49ers coaches. 

    James was adequate last year as the 49ers return man, but he was not spectacular. His injury opens the door for Ellington to seize the opportunity. Look for Ellington to win this job.

    If Ellington's injury issues persist, the 49ers may try Patton as a fallback option.

Starting Right Cornerback

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    Chris Culliver missed all of 2013 with an ACL injury.
    Chris Culliver missed all of 2013 with an ACL injury.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The right cornerback spot is one of the biggest question marks on the team. Right now, it looks like Chris Culliver and Chris Cook will battle it out for the starting job.

    Culliver showed some flashes of outstanding play in 2012, but inconsistency and his own overzealous play got him in trouble. He looked poised to make a major impact in 2013, although an ACL injury knocked him out for the season.

    Now pronounced healthy, Culliver is competing against former Viking Chris Cook for the starting job. 

    Eric Branch of SFGate.com reports that Culliver has looked very good in camp.

    Cook was selected by the Vikings in the second round of the 2010 draft. He never lived up to expectations in Minnesota and was signed as a free agent by San Francisco general manager Trent Baalke.

    The 49ers are hoping that they can resurrect Cook's career and he will benefit from the coaching of defensive backs coach Ed Donatell. However, Cook has a long way to go before he can be considered a starting-caliber NFL cornerback.

    Look for Culliver to win this competition, as long as his knee holds up and he can stay healthy.

Nickel or Slot Cornerback

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    Jimmie Ward grabbed an interception in his first day of practice.
    Jimmie Ward grabbed an interception in his first day of practice.Uncredited/Associated Press

    In the 2014 draft, the San Francisco 49ers made Jimmie Ward their first-round pick, the 30th overall player selected. They envisioned Ward competing for the nickel or slot cornerback spot and backing up at safety.

    With the unexpected retirement of Eric Wright, the nickel corner spot has become Ward's main focus.

    He will compete with Perrish Cox and Darryl Morris for the job, and all indications are that Ward is off to a good start. Taylor Price of 49ers.com reported on Ward's impressive showing.

    With Wright no longer in the picture, the 49ers need Ward to step up and solidify this position. Typically, the nickel corner is on the field about 65 percent of the defensive snaps, so Ward will be tested early and often. If he passes the test, it will go a long way toward strengthening the 49ers defense.

    Bill Williamson of ESPN.com also had positive comments about Morris: "Second-year cornerback Darryl Morris looked strong. He is trying to make an impact on defense after playing well on special teams as a rookie."

    Morris may be moving ahead of Cox at this point. If that trend continues, Cox may find himself looking for another job. The 49ers have 2014 draftees Dontae Johnson and Kenneth Acker, both cornerbacks, vying for roster spots.

Starting Center

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    Daniel Kilgore is entering his fourth year with the 49ers.
    Daniel Kilgore is entering his fourth year with the 49ers.Uncredited/Associated Press

    When the San Francisco 49ers selected USC offensive lineman Marcus Martin in the third round, they envisioned a stiff competition between him and Daniel Kilgore for the starting center job.

    The competition has yet to materialize, as Martin was placed on the active/non-football injury list and missed the first week of practice. He had an ankle injury that should not pose a long-term problem, but Martin has lost valuable practice time.

    Martin was just activated, as reported by Price of 49ers.com.

    Kilgore is vulnerable, as he has never really seized his opportunity to play. His primary role in 2013 was as a blocking back on the 49ers' short-yardage plays. In three seasons, Kilgore has yet to start a game, but that could change this year.

    If Martin comes back strong and can learn the offensive line calls quickly, he has a definite chance to win the starting job.

Right Guard

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    Alex Boone's holdout open's the door for Joe Looney and Adam Snyder.
    Alex Boone's holdout open's the door for Joe Looney and Adam Snyder.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Starting right guard Alex Boone has not reported to camp and is holding out, trying to force the 49ers to renegotiate his contract. This is very unlikely, as Boone has two years remaining on his contract.

    The 49ers recently extended Joe Staley's contract, but Staley has been a model citizen. The 49ers are unlikely to cave in to contract demands by players under contract, like Boone. If he continues to extend his holdout, Boone will ultimately be hurting just himself.

    Boone's absence in camp has opened up the competition at his right guard spot. Currently, Joe Looney and Adam Snyder are vying for the starting job.

    Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News reported on Boone's holdout and Looney.

    The 49ers like what they have seen from Looney. Trent Baalke had this to say about Looney:

    I think he proved last year when he went in there in I believe it was the Ram game–Joe went down and Boone kicked over to left tackle and Joe stepped in, he played against one of the better defensive linemen in the league and did a really nice job…

    He showed he was more than capable. And now he’s a year better. So we’re very confident in his ability to step in there and play football at a winning level.

    Snyder is entering his 10th NFL campaign. His versatility is what keeps him in the league. He can play any position on the line without too much drop-off from the starter.

    If Boone returns in the near future, he will reclaim his job, but if not, look for Looney to take over, with Snyder being a versatile reserve.