5 San Francisco 49ers with the Most to Prove in Preseason Week 1
The preseason is upon us, and fans everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that football has arrived.
But there remains work to do before the 2014 NFL season kicks off.
For the San Francisco 49ers, plenty of questions remain as the team looks forward to the upcoming season. The quest for a sixth Super Bowl will be as hot as ever as this team expects nothing less than being the last franchise standing when all is said and done.
Still, the pressure is on for a number of players on San Francisco's roster.
We can accurately guess the vast majority of starters the 49ers will employ on their 53-man roster during the upcoming season. That part is easy. Some of the backups can also fall into this category.
But as the 49ers start the process of whittling down the roster from 90, the discussion becomes much more difficult. Who makes the cut? Who is on the bubble?
Most importantly, who has the most to prove?
Week 1 of the preseason should give us a solid gauge in regards to which players San Francisco's coaching staff is keeping a close eye on.
The 49ers take on the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday, August 7 at 7:30 p.m. ET.
So which 49ers stand to gain the most during the first week of the preseason? Who has the most to lose?
Let's try to answer those questions in detail.
Players Worthy of Note
The five players with a lot to gain—or a lot to lose—stand in a pretty specific category.
Either they have lofty expectations to live up to, or perhaps they sit on the roster bubble, which could mean a lackluster performance during the preseason mandates the player being released.
Such is the nature of the NFL.
But there are some players who do require some attention in regards to this topic. Perhaps their respective jobs are safe or maybe the 49ers do not necessarily view them as integral components to the team's success.
Still, these honorable mentions deserve at least a little focus.
Joe Looney, G
Guard Alex Boone's holdout remains a situation in Santa Clara, California. Both sides are sticking to their guns—Boone won't report until he receives a new contract and the 49ers won't issue one until he reports.
It is a stalemate in every sense of the word.
Thus, the pressure has fallen on third-year pro Joe Looney who has taken over for Boone at right guard.
According to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, Looney has been the primary beneficiary in Boone's absence—taking over in first-team reps for much of the offseason programs.
Looney has never started an NFL game in his career. He has only played in four.
San Francisco is hoping that Looney performs as well as he has been doing so far in camp, especially if Boone's holdout continues. The first week of the preseason should give us a pretty good indication whether or not he can handle the pressure.
Derek Carrier, TE
A year ago, Garrett Celek assumed most of the third-string tight end roles and Derek Carrier spent most of the time in a reserve or practice squad role.
Now, it appears as if Carrier has emerged as the favorite to secure the No. 3 tight end slot, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
Carrier's chances to make the squad have been improved thanks to an injury suffered by Celek, described in detail by Eric Branch of SF Gate.
The tight end battle is certainly not as heralded as is the competition at wide receiver and cornerback, but there are a number of bodies vying for perhaps only one spot.
Young TEs Derek Carrier, Kevin Greene, and Asante Cleveland will challenge Vance McDonald/Garrett Celek for their roster spots. Great battle— Larry Krueger (@sportslarryknbr) August 5, 2014
If Carrier wants to cement his role as the No. 3 tight end, a strong showing during San Francisco's first preseason game would be an ideal way to do it.
Blaine Gabbert, QB
Week 1 of the preseason will be the firs time that 49ers fans get to see the former first-round pick of the 2011 NFL draft don a San Francisco uniform on the field.
Barring any sort of setback, Gabbert has all but secured the backup quarterback role behind Colin Kaepernick. As the No. 2 guy, Gabbert will likely see plenty of time against Baltimore. The 49ers may play Kaepernick for a drive, or two, but then give the reins to Gabbert.
Gabbert has had a strong showing during training camp per Barrows, especially when considering the five total quarterbacks the 49ers had on roster at its inception.
Reps are precious and Gabbert made the most of his.
Gabbert should see plenty of playing time this Thursday. This alone will put pressure on him. It puts pressure on the 49ers' coaching staff too. If he struggles, the option to keep a third-string quarterback may be necessary.
But Gabbert will almost certainly be on the roster in Week 1. Unless we see a disaster or injury, Gabbert does not have too much to lose.
Chris Cook, CB
The 49ers spent a lot of effort revamping their secondary during the offseason. Free-agent acquisition Chris Cook was one such example.
The four-year pro has yet to record an interception at the NFL level, a stat that draws questions regarding his ball-tracking skills and perhaps justified the decision of the Minnesota Vikings not to re-sign him after he was drafted No. 34 overall back in 2010.
Cook is hoping to change all of that in 2014 with a new team and under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and secondary coach Ed Donatell, per Barrows.
With returning veterans Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver likely securing the Nos. 1 and 2 cornerback jobs, Cook's likely destination will be as a backup along the outside. It is feasible to see him earning a nickel job on defense, but a hunch would give that role to San Francisco's first-round pick Jimmie Ward.
Cook doesn't have a lot to gain outside of simply making it onto the 53-man roster—a likelihood given his 6'2", 200-pound frame and good speed.
But he could still be cut from the roster if the 49ers feel they have better options—like Perrish Cox or Darryl Morris—on their depth chart. Rookie Dontae Johnson could also push the issue.
Tank Carradine, Defensive End
Tank Carradine, DE
To be honest, I was a little shocked when I read that defensive end Tank Carradine has been making a lot of mental mistakes during training camp.
The words are directly from defensive coordinator Vic Fangio—stated in an article from Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
#49ers Vic Fangio said Tank Carradine is making too many mental mistakes. He has to get that cleaned up in order to earn time on the field.— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) August 3, 2014
Fangio's full comments are as follows:
He’s getting better. He looks kind of like I thought he would. He’s healthy, which is a good thing. He was never healthy last year and now he’s getting a chance to learn and show what he can do mentally. Sitting in those meetings doesn’t mean you’ve learned it and he’s living proof of that. So he’s got to do better from an assignment standpoint for us to feel comfortable to play him. Right now, he’s missing too many things mentally.
It would be a safe bet that most 49ers fans were ecstatic to see Carradine finally taking the field after missing all of his rookie season a year ago. The pass-rushing phenom will unquestionably add bulk to the 49ers' core of veteran defensive linemen.
But this news was a bit of an upset.
It also bears weight that Fangio has the reputation of being to the point with his comments. Simply put, if the defensive coordinator says it, it's almost certainly true. There are no "smoke and mirrors" here.
On one hand, Carradine is all but guaranteed a role—an important one at that—in 2014. His physical talents are far too great to overlook. This alone is the primary reason he is not higher on this list.
But Carradine will be matched up against NFL competition for the first time Thursday, the results of which will be closely monitored by Fangio and the rest of San Francisco's coaching staff.
Those results could carry some significant implications for Carradine's immediate future.
Daniel Kilgore, Offensive Line
Daniel Kilgore, OL
After the 49ers parted ways with Jonathan Goodwin during the offseason, all signs were pointing to three-year veteran Daniel Kilgore getting the nod for San Francisco's starting center.
The team signed him to a contract extension and Kilgore was physically ready to take the job.
But then San Francisco drafted USC center Marcus Martin—considered one of the best collegiate centers available in the draft—which added further fuel to the competition.
Martin started off camp on the team's non-football injury (NFI) list, which gave Kilgore an edge in this positional battle. But it is hard to ignore the fact that the 49ers are likely viewing Martin as their starting center at some point down the road.
For now, Kilgore looks to be the front-runner to win the starting job, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
But Kilgore still has a lot to prove in securing this position.
Maiocco goes into further detail:
Daniel Kilgore has been used as an additional blocker in short-yardage situations for a couple of seasons. He appears to have a sizable lead in the competition over rookie Marcus Martin, who missed time at the beginning of camp due to an ankle sprain. Kilgore is definitely ready from a physical standpoint. However, so much of a center’s job is mental. That’s where Goodwin could be missed. After all, Goodwin had 12 years of NFL experience of identifying defensive fronts and making critical adjustments.
Kilgore's job may seem secure for now. But he has to prove that he can make the adjustments indicated above by Maiocco to retain the job for the long run. The 49ers like what they see in Martin so far and obviously have big plans for him.
Marcus Martin looks powerful/explosive. He may not win the starting center job from Daniel Kilgore this Summer, but his NFL future is bright— Larry Krueger (@sportslarryknbr) August 5, 2014
A poor start to the preseason could have large implications to Kilgore. While he should still remain a favorite to win the job at the start of the season, any setback may convince the 49ers to look elsewhere.
Kilgore hopes to thwart any such possibility.
Quinton Dial, Defensive Tackle
Quinton Dial, DT
San Francisco's fifth-round draft pick in the 2013 NFL draft may have received his best chance to earn a starting job at nose tackle in 2014.
First came the news that Ian Williams—who missed almost all of last season with an injury—began camp on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. Then, fellow nose tackle Glenn Dorsey suffered a torn bicep, which could very well sideline him for the duration of the season.
Dorsey's injury is far more serious obviously, but the return of Williams could be pending.
This is the case made by David Fucillo of Niners Nation, who describes that Williams' recovery could be coming to an end very soon.
At any rate, the door could be opening for Dial to make his impact this season.
Dial played in only three games last season, spending much of the year recovering from a collegiate injury. With Dorsey out for a while, Dial's chances to earn a starting job become that much greater.
Fucillo also points out that Dial, who can play both defensive tackle and end, has much more versatility than Williams.
This aspect gives Dial an almost guaranteed spot on the final 53-man roster this season, but the ceiling may be much higher.
Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee goes into further detail regarding what to watch during the first week of the preseason:
Mike Purcell may start the game at nose tackle, the position he's been playing since last offseason. But the 49ers coaches are eying Dial for the spot when the regular season begins. He's being eased back into nose tackle after playing defensive end throughout the spring. Watch for Dial when the second-team defense is on the field.
Dial will have to contend with Purcell, as well as Williams, when the competition hits full force. But a strong showing from the second-year pro could turn some heads in 49ers camp.
At worst, Dial retains a backup role behind whichever player San Francisco's coaches see fit to start.
Yet a strong start to the preseason could spell many a great thing for Dial in 2014. He has the opportunity. He now just needs to seize it.
Jewel Hampton, Running Back
Jewel Hampton, RB
Entering training camp, running back Jewel Hampton had perhaps the longest odds out of any back to make the 49ers' 53-man roster given how crowded the position was.
Ahead of Hampton, San Francisco employed Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, Carlos Hyde and Marcus Lattimore. All signs pointed to Hampton being designated to the practice squad once again in 2014.
Things have obviously changed for San Francisco's backfield since then. Hunter is out for the season and James could miss a sizable chunk of time early on with a dislocated elbow. Yes, the 49ers did sign running back Alfonso Smith, but Hampton's chances of making the roster are much better than before.
Hampton has a number of things in his favor.
First, we can expect the 49ers not to use Gore much—if at all—during the preseason. The team wants to keep him rested and fresh for as long as possible. Hyde may very well get some featured carries, but it is feasible that they want to keep him rested too and protect him from any possible injury.
Then there is the curious case of Lattimore—the second-year pro who missed all of 2013 while recovering from the multiple knee injuries suffered in college at South Carolina.
Lattimore has yet to be activated, and the timetable for his return remains in doubt per Eric Branch of SF Gate. While head coach Jim Harbaugh has insisted that Lattimore is guaranteed a future with the 49ers, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area (h/t Marc Sessler of NFL.com), his absence certainly opens up a door for a player like Hampton.
Orly Rios Jr. of Fansided.com suggests that Hampton may be a player to watch this preseason, especially with a relatively thin crop of backs. He writes:
[The] preseason is Jewel Hampton’s time to shine. Last year, Hampton finished with 113 yards rushing on 37 carries and a touchdown. In the third game, Hampton carried the ball 19 times, which is unheard of in preseason. This year may be no different as Hampton should get a bulk of the carries. Although preseason stats might not seem like a big deal, it is often a time for unknown players to make a huge impact.
Hampton still faces an uphill battle of epic proportions, and it is hard to envision any scenario in which the 49ers place him on the 53-man roster in Week 1.
Still, Hampton is essentially fighting for his football life in 2014. There is a lot to lose and more than a lot to gain if Hampton can showcase some skill during the preseason.
San Francisco's first preseason matchup should give us a good indication on which direction he is headed.
Quinton Patton, Wide Receiver
Quinton Patton, WR
It is hard to envision any sort of scenario that might leave second-year wideout Quinton Patton off the 49ers' roster in 2014, but with all the offseason additions at the position, anything is possible.
At the conclusion of last season, Patton was the team's No. 3 receiver behind Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree. Patton missed most of the year due to a foot injury and was limited to only six regular-season games, but it should be pointed out that he developed a nice rapport with Colin Kaepernick during the preseason and made some nice grabs down the stretch.
Now, Patton has to contend with the likes of Brandon Lloyd, Stevie Johnson and Bruce Ellington—all of whom could essentially fill the need of a slot receiver for San Francisco.
Patton has his work cut out for him if he wants to retain that job. Ron Kroichik of The San Francisco Chronicle goes into further detail:
Patton will need to set up his moves if he wants to emerge from the logjam at receiver. Crabtree and Boldin are established as the starters, with Johnson probably next in line. Lloyd, Patton and rookie Bruce Ellington, a fourth-round pick, also are in the mix.
Here is what Patton has going for him as the 49ers prepare for their first matchup of the preseason: Both Crabtree and Lloyd—who is also vying for a roster spot—are likely going to be absent for Thursday's game against the Ravens, per Eric Branch of SF Gate.
Like many other veterans, we should also expect limited action from Boldin.
That gives an edge in Patton's favor over Ellington since Patton has one full year at the NFL level. Johnson has more experience albeit in another offense (Buffalo Bills).
Patton can also bank on the rapport he established with Kaepernick last year. Kaepernick is excited about Patton's development as stated to the media on August 5 (h/t David Fucillo of Niners Nation):
I think just how comfortable [Patton] is in the offense. He's always been a great route runner. He knows how to get separation and how to win. Last year it was just a matter of him being comfortable and going out and using his skillset to get open. This year he really is comfortable with everything that's going on. So, he can set things up better. He knows how to run routes to win.
Those words are nice, but the fact remains that Patton will have to separate himself from the remaining cast of receivers in order to justify any high placement on San Francisco's depth chart.
As pointed out by David Fucillo of Niners Nation, Patton's chances of making the roster are pretty good. It would be hard for the team to find a reason to cut him.
But we do have to accept that possibility when considering the plethora of talent that surrounds him and the fact that the 49ers will only carry so many receivers.
It will be interesting to see how Patton responds to the preseason pressure placed upon him by fellow wideouts like Johnson and Ellington and just how their respective roles play out in 2014.
A strong start to the preseason may be the best thing in Patton's case, but a setback could drop him significantly as well.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Be sure to check out his entire archive on 49ers news, insight and analysis.
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