San Francisco 49ers: Questions That Still Must Be Answered This Preseason
The San Francisco 49ers possess one of the best teams in the NFL, but despite their clear wealth of talent, head coach Jim Harbaugh has his fair share of issues to resolve before the end of preseason.
Injuries to NaVorro Bowman, Kendall Hunter and Glenn Dorsey have left the Niners with gaps to fill on what is an exceptionally deep roster.
Furthermore Aldon Smith's imminent suspension and Alex Boone's continued holdout mean that the situations at right guard and at right outside linebacker are still very much in flux.
In addition to those quandaries there are a number of Niner players who have points to prove in the battle for roster spots and playing time, with the remaining three preseason games set to play a pivotal role in determining the makeup of San Francisco's final 53-man roster.
Here I analyze the questions that still need to be answered prior to the 49ers' regular-season opener against the Dallas Cowboys in three weeks.
Is Blaine Gabbert Good Enough to Be the Backup Quarterback?
San Francisco brought in Gabbert in the hope that he could be an adequate backup to Colin Kaepernick, an aim that has always looked ambitious following Gabbert's disastrous three-season spell in Jacksonville, which came to an end with the former Missouri star being displaced by Chad Henne.
Gabbert ranked last in the NFL among all quarterbacks in 2011 and at No. 28 in 2012, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and failed to live up to expectations after being taken No. 10 overall by the Jaguars in the 2011 draft.
The 49ers have gambled that a change of scenery will be able to help Gabbert turn his career around, however, the evidence from the Niners' preseason opener with the Baltimore Ravens suggests it is a bet that will fail.
It was a flat-out terrible performance from Gabbert, who completed just three of 11 passes and tossed an interception as the Niners fell, 23-3.
Despite that dreadful showing, the general consensus is that Gabbert is still likely to be the No. 2 quarterback, with ESPN.com's Bill Williamson intimating that the $2 million he is set to receive in guaranteed money in 2014 will ensure that he is on the 53-man roster.
But the fact remains that the vast majority of NFL teams require a backup in whom they have confidence, something that the Niners clearly did not possess in 2013 with Colt McCoy.
And Gabbert's performance against the Ravens will have only served to increase fears that San Francisco will be in deep trouble this year if Kaepernick were to get injured.
The pressure on Gabbert may also have been heightened by the play of QB Josh Johnson, who completed six of eight pass attempts for 63 yards against Baltimore.
Following the loss to the Ravens, Harbaugh indicated that Gabbert's position is not as secure as first thought, hinting that Johnson or McLeod Bethel-Thompson could challenge him for the backup spot.
San Francisco put a great deal of faith in Gabbert by engineering a trade to bring him to the Bay, but with three preseason games remaining, there are still plenty of question marks over whether he is good enough to repay that belief and make the No. 2 role his own.
What Will Be the Solution at Nose Tackle?
The 49ers' situation at nose tackle was plunged into doubt when Glenn Dorsey suffered a torn left biceps, which—as NFL.com's Ian Rapoport reported (h/t Chris Wesseling)—could see him miss the rest of the 2014 campaign.
Positive news arrived, though, when CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco revealed that surgery had shown the tear to be a clean one.
San Francisco has yet to decide whether to place Dorsey on injured reserve, a decision they must make by Sept. 2, but perhaps the more pressing issue surrounds who will fill the void left by Dorsey's absence.
Ian Williams is the obvious candidate to take the job, having won a position battle with Dorsey last season before sustaining a season-ending ankle injury in Week 2.
Although Williams is likely to be the favorite to win the nose tackle role, his position as the starter is far from secure after Quinton Dial made a considerable impression against Baltimore.
Dial, a fifth-round pick out of Alabama in 2013, was arguably San Francisco's best player in the loss to the Ravens, delivering an eye-catching display of size and strength that saw him record 10 tackles and force two fumbles.
The 49ers will certainly need to see more from Dial to seriously consider him as the starting nose when Week 1 rolls around. However, there can be no doubt that the ability he has shown so far will have put him in contention for significant playing time.
Sunday's game with the Denver Broncos could make a little clearer what kind of shape Williams is in and who is the best fit to start at nose tackle.
For now what is evident is that with Dial impressing and Mike Purcell, Tony Jerod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs also in the conversation, Williams cannot afford to feel that his position in the starting lineup is safe.
Who Will Be the Starting Right Guard?
The ongoing storyline of the preseason for the 49ers is the holdout of right guard Alex Boone.
Boone has not shown up at any of the team's offseason activities, as he seeks to improve the five-year $7.45 million contract he signed in 2011 after becoming a mainstay on the interior of the offensive line.
However, the 49ers have refused to meet Boone's demands, creating an impasse that shows no signs of ending and has led to suggestions that the 27-year-old could be traded, with Rapoport (h/t Wesseling) mooting Tampa Bay as a prospective destination.
Whether Boone comes back may well depend on the performance of his potential replacements as his holdout continues.
And Boone's leverage was perhaps increased by Joe Looney's subpar display versus Baltimore.
Looney is widely considered to be the main candidate to take over from Boone, but he was largely disappointing in the first preseason game, receiving a negative grade of -0.7 from PFF (subscription required).
Adam Snyder, with his experience and ability to play any position on the line, could perhaps be viewed as the safest option to fill in at right guard, althoughthe 32-year-old did recently suffer a minor leg injury.
Competition on the offensive line looks to heat up with the introduction of Marcus Martin into the fray after the third-round pickfinally participated in a full practice last Saturday following his recuperation from an ankle injury.
Regarded by most draft analysts as the best center in the 2014 class, Martin appears capable of starting at guard. At the very least his presence gives the 49ers another option to work with as the Boone saga continues.
Martin possesses excellent athleticism for a 6'3" and 320-pound lineman, allowing him to dominate opposing linemen and get to the second level.
It seems clear, as Maiocco has pointed out, that Martin is not going to win the center job from competitor Daniel Kilgore, meaning that his best bet of starting in his rookie year comes at guard. Yet neither he nor any other of the possible fill-ins for Boone have shown signs of promise so far in the offseason.
The 49ers need that to change or come to terms with Boone in order to put an end to the concerns surrounding their offensive line.
How Will the 49ers Fill the Void Left by Aldon Smith?
There has still yet to be an announcement on Aldon Smith's suspension, but what seems clear to all concerned is that the 49ers are going to be without their star pass-rusher for a few games this season.
Per Maiocco, the 49ers are bracing for a six- to eight-game suspension for Smith from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after the outside linebacker was sentenced to 12 days in a county jail with a one-day credit, a sentence that can be served with a work crew, for three felony counts of illegal possession of an assault weapon and two misdemeanor counts of DUI.
A suspension of that length would come as a particular blow to the 49ers considering how well Smith has been performing in training camp.
According to Branch, Smith has been drawing plaudits from all corners during camp, with Harbaugh hailing the ex-Missouri star for taking his game to "the highest level." Ravens coach John Harbaugh and left tackle Eugene Monroe were also glowing in their praise of Smith during the joint practices between the two teams.
San Francisco can afford to be excited at the prospect of Smith being back to the kind of level that saw him lead the NFL with 19.5 sacks in 2012. However, the downside is they may have to wait some time for the 24-year-old to get onto the field in 2014.
During Smith's five-game absence last season the 49ers went undefeated, with Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier helping San Francisco succeed even without the services of their top pass-rusher.
But with Smith in seemingly dominant form heading into the new campaign, it remains to be seen whether that duo can make the same impact in 2014.
Lemonier, ranked as the most efficient rookie edge-rusher in the league in 2013 by PFF, appears to have the best shot of compensating for Smith's likely spell on the sidelines. The former Auburn man had a sack to his name in the preseason opener and, according to The San Jose Mercury News' Cam Inman, looks in better shape physically as he heads into his sophomore year.
Skuta, meanwhile, was disappointing and failed to produce anything of real note in Baltimore, registering one tackle in 30 defensive snaps, per PFF.
With the 49ers having virtually overhauled their secondary in the offseason, the pass rush figures to be even more important for a defense that has ranked in the league's top five in each of the last three seasons.
Smith is an all likelihood going to be reduced to the role of spectator for a large portion of the season and, if San Francisco is to have a successful defense again in 2014, at least one player among Lemonier, Skuta or rookie fifth-round pick Aaron Lynch needs to step up and make sure the Niners have a solution for when he is on the sidelines.
Who Will Replace NaVorro Bowman at Inside Linebacker?
The gaping hole in the 49ers defense left by inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman's injury remains unfilled.
Michael Wilhoite looked to have taken control of the position battle to replace Bowman with a solid performance against Baltimore, as he recorded seven tackles and a sack.
Wilhoite's performance was magnified by the failures of his primary challenger Chris Borland, who made only one tackle and appeared to struggle in coverage.
However, despite those contrasting showings, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio rated the competition between the two as "very even."
That comment can be interpreted in one of two ways, either the 49ers have been very impressed by the form of both players in camp, or each has failed to impress at this point in the preseason.
Arguments for both cases can be made, with Grant Cohn of The Press Democrat pointing out that both players failed to get off blocks on a regular basis during the defeat to the Ravens, while Patrick Willis—who will be playing alongside the winner of the position fight in the Niners' 3-4 defense—likened Borland to "a pitbull" and compared him to the injured Bowman.
At this early point in preseason, there is little need for 49ers to worry that neither player has established himself as the clear front-runner to assume Bowman's responsibilities; the result may even be that the duo end up splitting time come the start of the regular season.
Still, although it would be wrong to expect Wilhoite or Borland to match the level of the All-Pro Bowman, it would certainly help ease the concerns of the San Francisco supporters and perhaps the coaching staff if one of the pair was to show himself capable of at least plugging the gap until Bowman's return.
Nicholas McGee is a San Francisco 49ers Featured Columnist based in Leeds, England. Follow him on Twitter @nicholasmcgee24.