Making Call on San Francisco 49ers' Hardest Remaining Cuts
Two weeks of the San Francisco 49ers' preseason has passed and general manager Trent Baalke should have a better idea of which players will still be with the team when the roster is trimmed to 53 members.
There has been largely more bad than good in those two losses, but there are still plenty of players who have impressed and boosted their chances of earning a place on the final roster.
Those who have struggled will hope to catch the eye in the final two preseason clashes against the San Diego Chargers and the Houston Texans, although their chances may diminish in those contests if head coach Jim Harbaugh's words are to be believed.
After marking the first football game to be played at their new Levi's Stadium home in disappointing fashion, Harbaugh indicated that the Niners would not keep experimenting as he called for his team to "tighten this down fast."
Harbaugh's comments will come as bad news to the players that have failed to catch the eye so far in preseason, and here I take on the role of Baalke by making the call on those who are likely to face a nervous wait ahead of the final cut-down date.
The first wave of cuts must occur prior to 4:00 p.m. ET on Aug. 26. The 49ers must reduce their roster to a maximum of 75 players. The cut down to the final 53-man roster is to be done by 4:00 p.m. ET on Aug. 30.
Ryan Seymour has enjoyed a fine preseason, but his place on the roster may be decided by off-the-field factors.
The offensive lineman has displayed his versatility during the opening two games, playing at right tackle against the Ravens before moving inside to guard for the meeting with the Broncos.
In the 89 snaps he has played in preseason the only blemish on Seymour's record is the one quarterback hit he allowed versus Denver, according to Pro Football Focus.
And, with Alex Boone's holdout showing no signs of coming to an end, there is a strong possibility that Seymour's ability to play multiple positions on the line could earn him a place on the active roster.
Joe Looney is the likely man to fill in for Boone at right guard, should his holdout drag into the regular season, but Seymour—who also can play at center—represents a strong backup option for a unit that already has an embarrassment of riches.
Unsurprisingly, there is much competition for backup spots on the line, with veteran Adam Snyder perhaps Seymour's main rival to be the primary backup to Looney.
But Snyder, who shares Seymour's capability to operate anywhere on the line, has already suffered a minor leg injury during training camp—per Eric Branch of The San Francisco Chronicle—and it could well prove to be the case that the Niners opt to go with youth over experience in this instance.
Tackle Carter Bykowski could be considered to be in the conversation for a spot on the squad after demonstrating good pass-protection skills in the loss to Denver, however, the 49ers have less of a need for a tackle than they do for an interior lineman, given the current impasse with Boone.
Should Boone end his absence, then Seymour would in all likelihood be cut or placed on the practice squad.
Yet, as long the starting right guard stays away, there is a great deal of worth in keeping around someone of Seymour's obvious promise and flexibility.
The 49ers do not have much depth at safety, something which was illustrated perfectly by Craig Dahl's performance in the loss to the Broncos.
After starting strong safety Antoine Bethea was knocked out of the game with a concussion, Dahl pretty much immediately allowed a touchdown as Peyton Manning connected with Julius Thomas in the second quarter, although the former St. Louis Ram was not helped by a missed assignment from rookie linebacker Chris Borland.
But even though that particular score was not entirely Dahl's fault, the play served as another reminder as to why he is not considered good enough to be a starting safety.
And due to the competition in the secondary and across the team, Dahl's roster position could be threatened.
The 49ers two other backup safeties C.J. Spillman and Raymond "Bubba" Ventrone both have value as talented special teams contributors, a point that, along with the presence of draft choices Jimmie Ward and Dontae Johnson, could have an impact on Dahl's roster status.
Both Ward and Johnson have been playing predominantly at corner, however, they are each capable of playing safety, having done so in their collegiate careers.
That pair's versatility is likely to be highly valued by the 49ers and could potentially prove to be a decisive factor in whether Dahl's time in San Francisco comes to an end.
However, what is key to note from the Denver game, as Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee pointed out, is that Dahl lined up as a starter on the kick return team, which is usually a good indicator of the players set to earn roster spots.
Overall Dahl has been relatively solid in preseason, with Pro Football Focus giving him a grade of 0.5 (subscription required) from the first two games and, if the composition of the kick return unit counts for anything at this stage, it appears as if he may have done enough to retain his place.
Yet with plenty of young players keen to make an impression in the secondary, Dahl will need to up his game if he is to make absolutely sure of a roster berth.
Beneath Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers' situation at quarterback is looking downright terrible.
The prospective No. 2 Blaine Gabbert struggled for the second straight game, tossing an interception and completing eight of 14 passes for a mere 40 yards. Gabbert never looked settled throughout his time on the field, missing high on a number of passes and displaying poor footwork.
In the defeat to the Ravens Josh Johnson outshone Gabbert and appeared to have played himself into contention for a roster berth.
However, the former Tampa Bay Bucaneer came crashing back down to earth against Denver, losing a fumble in comical fashion as he attempted to salvage a busted play after falling down taking the snap.
In addition to that bizarre turnover, Johnson completed just two passes for nine yards, before McLeod Bethel-Thompson was brought into the game.
On the face of things, Johnson is a good scheme fit for the 49ers, given his experience of working with Harbaugh at the University of San Diego. And he demonstrates a playing style similar to Kaepernick.
But, following the dismal loss to Denver, Harbaugh indicated that the backup quarterback would be the player who doesn't turn the ball over, according to Cam Inman of The San Jose Mercury News.
At the present moment, none of three backups look capable of protecting the football.
If that trend continues then Johnson's hopes of making the roster are slim, and the end result could be that the 49ers' eventual No. 2 quarterback is a player not currently on the team.
Before Kendall Hunter's season-ending ACL injury, Jewel Hampton's hopes of securing a place on the 49ers' roster looked extremely marginal.
But the loss of Hunter, combined with LaMichael James' dislocated elbow, thrust Hampton into the spotlight. So far, however, the former Southern Illinois tailback has yet to really make a case for himself despite getting extensive playing time in preseason.
Hampton, per ESPN.com's Bill Williamson, had in the early stages of training camp received compliments from Baalke and Harbaugh. However, the 24-year-old has to date been unable to carry his form from camp into preseason action, as he has put forth two noticeably poor outings.
Against the Ravens Hampton was a liability in pass protection and proved ineffective as a ball-carrier, registering just 18 yards on seven rushing attempts.
There was some improvement in Hampton's pass-blocking versus the Broncos, a fact that was noted by PFF, yet Hampton remained unable to get anything with the ball in his hands.
Hampton's deficiencies as a runner were illustrated perfectly in the final seconds of the fourth quarter of the Denver matchup as he failed to force his way into the endzone on back-to-back attempts after the Niners had finally worked the ball down to the goal line.
It remains to be seen how many running backs the Niners will carry this season but, with James set to return before the start of the campaign and long-time absentee Marcus Lattimore hopefully in line to be activated this term, there appears to be little point in using a roster spot on a player that has been unable to live up to the early-camp buzz.
Verdict: Practice squad
Darryl Morris is looking to prove his worth in a crowded cornerback picture this preseason, but is in danger of becoming the odd man out.
Regarded as the fastest player on the San Francisco roster, Morris has blazing speed and was a useful player on special teams last season.
In preseason Morris has been attempting to prove he can make the jump from special teams to the 49ers' defensive rotation. But, although he has seen extensive action in the first two games, it is difficult to envisage the former Texas State player contributing on defense in 2014.
With his raw pace and 5'10" and 188-pound frame, Morris projects best as a player who would play over the slot.
However, both first-round pick Ward and the experienced Perrish Cox, who has been featured as part of the starting defense in the absence of Tramaine Brock, are ahead of him in the competition for playing time as the nickel man.
Ward—who appears the most likely candidate to win the nickel role—has been solid and led the team with seven tackles against the Broncos.
The presence of fourth-round pick Johnson and free-agent acquisition Chris Cook, both of whom fit the increasingly desired mold of big, physical corners who can play press coverage, further complicates matters for Morris, as does the emergence of sixth-round draft choice Kenneth Acker, who stood out against Denver.
Morris' physical tools and special teams presence are valuable assets, however, the 49ers have plenty of other players who can contribute in the third facet of the game, and it may simply be the case that there is too much competition for Morris to keep his spot on the team.
There is no guarantee that a sixth-round rookie is going to make the final roster of an NFL team, especially not on one as deep as the 49ers.
And on the face of it, with San Francisco having acquired four other defensive backs in the offseason, Kenneth Acker's hopes looked particularly slim heading into the game with the Broncos.
But the former SMU Mustang made a big case for his inclusion on the final roster with a great performance against Denver.
Acker was one of the few bright spots for San Francisco as he broke up a pass that would have resulted in a touchdown, drew an offensive pass-interference penalty and recorded an interception, only to have the turnover wiped off by an offsides call.
One performance will certainly not be enough to ensure Acker's place on the roster, but what counts in his favour that he has been making similar plays in practice, snagging two interceptions in a session seven days ago, according to Branch.
With Brock, Chris Culliver, Ward, Johnson, Cook and Cox all potentially ahead of him on the cornerback depth chart, one could be forgiven for remaining pessimistic over Acker's prospects of making the roster.
However, Acker has the benefit of having substantial special teams experience from his college career, as manned the kick and punt returner roles in his time with the Mustangs.
He is unlikely to displace Bruce Ellington or James as the starting kick return man, but is more than capable of playing as a special teams gunner.
Acker displayed pro-level intelligence versus the Broncos, and the promise he has shown, combined with his special teams abilities, should be enough for him to secure a place on the active roster.
All statistics courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise stated.
Nicholas McGee is a San Francisco 49ers Featured Columnist based in Leeds, England. Follow him on Twitter @nicholasmcgee24.