San Francisco 49ers: Previewing the 53-Man Roster

Dan MoriCorrespondent IAugust 19, 2014

San Francisco 49ers: Previewing the 53-Man Roster

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    Colin Kaepernick will attempt to lead the 49ers to their sixth Super Bowl title this season.
    Colin Kaepernick will attempt to lead the 49ers to their sixth Super Bowl title this season.USA TODAY Sports

    The time has come for the San Francisco 49ers to begin paring down their roster. With only two more preseason games left on the calendar, general manager Trent Baalke and the 49ers coaching staff must make some tough decisions on who ultimately makes the 53-man roster.

    The 49ers have a lot of work to do, as their performance in the first two exhibition games has been putrid. Typically it's foolish to put too much stock in preseason results, but the 49ers' play also creates that seed of doubt and uncertainty.

    Two blowout losses in which the offense mustered only three points in eight quarters of football does not inspire confidence. In addition, allowing a total of 57 points, mainly to second-, third- and fourth-string players is also cause for concern.

    As the season quickly approaches, let's take a closer look at who will make the 49ers' 53-man roster to open the season. The situation is quite fluid as injuries, acquisitions and also the looming suspension of Aldon Smith all factor into the composition of the final roster.

     

    All stats are courtesy of pro-football-reference.com.

     

Quarterback (2)

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    Colin Kaepernick's legs make him a dual-threat quarterback.
    Colin Kaepernick's legs make him a dual-threat quarterback.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    The San Francisco 49ers made Colin Kaepernick their franchise-quarterback. Kaepernick signed a big contract prior to training camp, and he will need to produce for the 49ers to win.

    Because several key areas are in a state of flux, especially on the defensive side of the football, the 49ers will count on Kaepernick and the offense to win games. But if anything were to happen to the fourth-year signal-caller, the 49ers will be in serious trouble. This situation is much the same as it was in 2013, when Colt McCoy was the backup.

    However, unlike 2013, the offense will need to put up more points. The defense looks a bit vulnerable, so to rely on it to win games is not a good strategy. The onus will be on Kaepernick to drive the 49ers offense and score more points.

    In 2013, Kaepernick completed 58.4 percent of his passes. He must improve his accuracy to be considered an elite quarterback. Kaepernick threw for 3,197 yards and 21 touchdowns, while giving up eight interceptions.

    Three players, Blaine Gabbert, Josh Johnson and McLeod Bethel-Thompson are battling for the backup quarterback job.

    The 49ers acquired Gabbert from the Jacksonville Jaguars for a sixth-round draft pick. He stands to make slightly over $2 million this year and that will count against the 49ers salary cap, regardless of whether he makes the team.

    Gabbert has not looked good in his first two preseason contests. He completed only 11 of 25 passes for 60 yards and no touchdowns. And he has thrown two ugly interceptions.

    Cam Inman of MercuryNews.com reports that Gabbert was most disappointed with the interception he threw in the third quarter against the Denver Broncos. It turned out to be his last pass of the game, as the 49ers also wanted to take a closer look at Johnson and Bethel-Thompson.

    Those two have looked good in spurts, but they have also turned the ball over. An opportunity to assume the No. 2 quarterback job is staring Johnson and Bethel-Thompson in the face, but thus far, neither player has seized the role.

    There has been very little separation among any of the three reserve quarterbacks. If this continues and it most likely will, the 49ers will retain Gabbert, especially since the team is on the hook for $2 million anyway,

    The low quality of play from Gabbert, Johnson and Bethel-Thompson underscores the importance of Kaepernick staying healthy. If he is out for any extended period of time, the 49ers will flounder.

    There is a possibility that the 49ers will keep three quarterbacks, but with problems in other areas, that appears unlikely.

     

Running Back (6)

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    Frank Gore is still going strong as he prepares for his 10th NFL season.
    Frank Gore is still going strong as he prepares for his 10th NFL season.USA TODAY Sports

    A number of roles at the running back position have not yet been clearly defined. However, the one thing that we do know is that Frank Gore is back for another season as the starter.

    At the age of 31, Gore is entering his 10th NFL season. He is a borderline Hall of Fame player and another one or two productive seasons—especially were the Niners to win a Super Bowl—could cement his induction.

    Today, however, Gore will once again lead the 49ers rushing attack. He is the heart and soul of the 49ers offense. Although his workload may decrease slightly, expect Gore to still be in on the majority of the 49ers offensive snaps.

    In the 2013 season, Gore had 276 rushing attempts and gained 1,128 yards, with nine touchdowns. It was Gore's seventh 1,000-yard season. The only concern was that Gore's yards-per-carry average of 4.1 was the lowest of his tremendous career.

    Gore is also a terrific pass-blocker, adept at picking up blitzing defenders. Carlos Hyde's ability to improve upon this skill will be important, as he will be the primary backup to Gore. Hyde, the rookie out of Ohio State, has shown well in the preseason. He has nine carries for 50 yards and has shown good vision, power and a quick burst.

    The ACL injury to Kendall Hunter virtually assures LaMichael James of a spot on the roster. A 2012 second-round draft pick, James has not been the kind of elusive change-of-pace back the 49ers envisioned.

    With Hunter out for the season, James gets another chance in 2014. The elusiveness and breakaway speed we saw in James' college days at Oregon have not translated into success at the NFL level. 

    It will be up to offensive coordinator Greg Roman to find ways to get the ball to James in space, where he can use his speed and quickness to elude defenders. James must also improve his ability to hold onto the ball as he has shown a tendency to fumble.

    He is also not a good blocker, which limits his playing time. His poor blocking means that opposing defensive coordinators have a better idea of the type of plays to expect from the San Francisco offense when he is in the game.

    James will compete with Bruce Ellington and Quinton Patton for punt- and kickoff-return duties.

    Bruce Miller is the 49ers' starting fullback and a good one. He was injured late in the season and missed the playoffs. His absence as a blocking back hurt the 49ers offense. Miller will need to stay healthy in order to give Gore and company more running lanes.

    The remainder of the backfield is a question mark. Look for the 49ers to carry at least one more running back and another versatile player who can play fullback.

    If Marcus Lattimore is healthy he claims the other running back spot. However, he sat out all of the 2013 season after suffering a devastating knee injury in his final year at South Carolina.

    Lattimore has not been able to play, as he is still dealing with leg issues. He is currently on the Active/Non-Football Injury list. His successful return would give the 49ers a boost, but at this time, such a move is very unlikely.

    Jewel Hampton and Alfonso Smith are in the running for the final running back spot if Lattimore cannot make it back. This figures to be a very close competition and the nod goes to Hampton as he has a slightly better grasp of the system, this being his second camp with the 49ers.

    Look for the 49ers to retain Will Tukuafu as the backup fullback. He can also play as a third tight end or blocking H-back in the 49ers' jumbo package. Tukuafu also has experience on the defensive line, which can be valuable if the 49ers suffer injuries at that spot. 

Wide Receiver (6)

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    Anquan Boldin led the 49ers in 2013 with 85 receptions and 1,179 yards.
    Anquan Boldin led the 49ers in 2013 with 85 receptions and 1,179 yards.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The 49ers have upgraded the quality and depth of the wide receiver position. Starters Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin give Colin Kaepernick two very reliable targets.

    Crabtree missed the majority of the 2013 season with an Achilles injury. His ability to stay healthy in 2014 will have a major impact on the success of the 49ers passing game.

    Crabtree had emerged as a solid No. 1 receiver in 2012, with 85 receptions for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns. He teams with Boldin, who last year took up the slack for the 49ers, with the absence of Crabtree. In 2013, Boldin had 85 catches for 1,179 yards and seven touchdowns.

    One of the most exciting acquisitions made by general manager Trent Baalke was wide receiver Stevie Johnson, who comes to the 49ers after six seasons with the Buffalo Bills. Johnson grew up in San Francisco, so this is a homecoming for him. 

    Johnson will be the 49ers' third wide receiver and look for him to see a lot of action. The 49ers' defense does not look as strong heading into the season, which will require the offense to put up more points. This means more passing, so we can expect to see more three- and four-wide receiver sets.

    Johnson has three 1,000-yard seasons and will benefit from playing on the West Coast, as opposed to the frigid north of Buffalo.

    The 49ers are unlikely to carry more than six receivers so that leaves four players competing for three spots. Quinton Patton, Brandon Lloyd, Bruce Ellington and Kassim Osgood.

    Patton is a second-year player who has shown promise. Ellington looks like a lock to make the team as he can contribute on special teams. He is likely to win the punt returner job over Patton and LaMichael James.

    The early reports on Ellington are very positive. Through the first two preseason games, Ellington has seven receptions for 59 yards. He has impressed even himself, as Tyler Emerick reports on 49ers.com.

    That leaves one spot remaining for either Lloyd or Osgood. Lloyd is the better receiver and has looked good in training camp. If this was for the third receiver job, Lloyd would win, but it's not. 

    Osgood wins this last spot because of his excellence on special teams. He is outstanding on coverage units and made plays last year that were difference-makers. Bet on special teams coordinator Brad Seely making sure there's a spot on the team for Osgood.  

     

Tight End (2)

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    Vernon Davis returns after a brief holdout.
    Vernon Davis returns after a brief holdout.Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Typically the San Francisco 49ers would keep three tight ends on the roster. However, with the use of more three- and four-wide receiver sets, that is not necessary. In addition, the foot injury to Garrett Celek, who is on the Active/Physically Unable to Perform list, is a factor.

    Vernon Davis returns for his ninth NFL season. He sat out OTAs and minicamp as he wants a new contract, but he reported to training camp and is doing everything as expected.

    The 30-year-old Davis has one year remaining on his contract. The 49ers might be more inclined to renegotiate a deal prior to the 2015 season, but salary-cap implications could be a factor.

    Davis currently makes $4.7 million in base salary, plus roster bonuses. His cap figure is over $7 million. Contract date courtesy of spotrac.com.

    In 2013, Davis caught 52 passes for 850 yards and a team-high 13 touchdowns. His blocking is indispensable to the success of the running game.

    Behind Davis is Vance McDonald, a second-round draft pick last year. The 49ers would like to see more from McDonald, who struggled in 2013. He seemed to lose the confidence of Colin Kaepernick after a couple of significant drops, and the quarterback rarely looked his way afterwards.

    Head coach Jim Harbaugh likes to utilize two-tight end formations, and McDonald's improvement will be critical to the success of that approach.

    If Celek returns in time, he could be the third tight end, but that is not a certainty.

    The other candidates Kevin Greene, Asante Cleveland or Derek Carrier have not seized the opportunity, although Greene did have a 48-yard catch and run against Denver last weekend. 

    If the 49ers do carry only two tight ends, either Demarcus Dobbs, a defensive lineman, or Will Tukuafu can act as the third tight end on specific, short-yardage plays.

     

Offensive Line (8)

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    Joe Staley is the anchor of the 49ers offensive line.
    Joe Staley is the anchor of the 49ers offensive line.USA TODAY Sports

    Once a strength of the 49ers offense, the line now has several question marks.

    Joe Staley and Mike Iupati are solid as the left tackle and guard, respectively. However, the other three positions are in flux.

    At center, Daniel Kilgore and 2014 third-round draft pick Marcus Martin are competing for the right to replace veteran Jonathan Goodwin.

    Goodwin has departed in the free-agent market after playing three years in San Francisco and starting in every game. Kilgore appears to have a slight edge over Martin after the first two preseason games.

    The 49ers starting right guard from a year ago, Alex Boone, is holding out, however. Boone has two remaining on his contract and is slated to make $2 million in base salary this year. Granted, Boone is underpaid, but the 49ers have a policy of not renegotiating with players who are not in camp.

    David Fucillo of NinersNation.com reports on tweets from Gil Brandt of NFL Network. Brandt states that Boone has turned down a recent offer which would have made him a top-12 paid guard. If this is indeed the case, we could see Boone traded to a team desperate for offensive line help.

    The return of Boone looks tenuous at best. In his absence, Joe Looney has been starting at right guard, with veteran Adam Snyder pushing him. Looney has been inconsistent, so Boone's absence means a large drop-off in play at the right guard position.

    Snyder is entering his 10th NFL campaign, and his versatility is valuable for the 49ers. He can play any position on the line, although his play declined a bit last year. He was sometimes overpowered, and if he's the starting right guard, that does not bode well for the 49ers offensive line.

    Right tackle is also a concern. Anthony Davis played very well last season, but a shoulder injury has kept him out of the 49ers' first two exhibition games. Jonathan Martin, best known for the hazing incidents in Miami, has been playing in Davis' absence.

    Similar to right guard, there is a large drop-off if the incumbent starter is not in there. Time will tell if Davis is able to come back by the opener against the Dallas Cowboys. But even if he does return in time, he will not be in top condition and is likely to be rusty.

    If Boone returns, the 49ers will certainly keep nine linemen. With him out, they may start the season with eight. If they decide to keep nine without Boone, look for Carter Bykowski, a seventh-round pick in 2013 to make it.

    With three major question marks along the offensive line, look for a lack of continuity early in the season. This will detract from the running game and also make Colin Kaepernick susceptible to more hits.

    The lack of continuity along the 49ers offensive line is a major concern heading into the season.

    Head coach Jim Harbaugh is trying to put a positive spin on the current state of the 49ers O-line. As reported by Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee, Looney and Jonathan Martin were praised by Harbaugh after the second exhibition game.

    The head coach's praise aside, the fact remains that the San Francisco offense has not scored a touchdown in eight quarters and the patchwork offensive line has been mediocre, at best.

Defensive Line (7)

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    Justin Smith returns for his 14th NFL season.
    Justin Smith returns for his 14th NFL season.USA TODAY Sports

    Although the 49ers lost 2013 starting nose tackle Glenn Dorsey to a torn bicep, the defensive line has quality and depth. Dorsey could return later in the season, but that is not a guarantee, at present.

    The 49ers run a three-four defense, with Justin Smith and Ray McDonald starting at the end positions. Smith is entering his 14th year in the league and is still going strong. His overall play is made more effective when given periodic rest, so the depth on the line is a positive.

    Smith started all 16 regular season games for the 49ers in 2013. He earned his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl selection.

    Backing up Smith and McDonald are Tony Jerod-Eddie, Tank Carradine and either Lawrence Okoye or Demarcus Dobbs.

    Jerod-Eddie is also a potential starter at the nose tackle position. He is competing with Ian Williams and Quinton Dial for that job. Jerod-Eddie has shown he can play at the NFL level and will see plenty of action this year.

    Carradine missed all of the 2013 season, as he was rehabbing a knee injury. He has the size and speed to be a very good defensive end but must improve his technique and consistency.

    Williams earned the starting job to begin the 2013 season, but suffered a broken ankle on a vicious chop block against the Seahawks in the second game of the season. Williams is just returning and we shall see if he can return to top form.

    The lineman that has shown the biggest improvement is Quinton Dial. Dial was a fifth-round selection in the 2013 draft. He rarely played and when he did, he looked slow and out of shape last season. Dial is in much better condition this year and it shows. His speed and quickness have improved, and he will be in the rotation in 2014, even if he does not win the starting nose tackle job.

    Okoye is an intriguing prospect. He is a tremendous athlete but has minimal football experience. He sat out all of last year with an injury. His athleticism could also make him a potential fit for special teams. 

    Steve Crokran of MercuryNews.com reports that Okoye has been making progress in training camp and has earned the praise of Jim Harbaugh. The 49ers have the luxury of allowing Okoye to develop for another year and if he shows enough in camp, they can keep a spot for him. 

    The odd man out could be Dobbs. He not only must beat out Okoye, but if the 49ers opt to keep nine offensive linemen or if Garrett Celek returns, Dobbs could also be released. He can play the third tight end spot, although Will Tukuafu can also handle that role.

     

     

Inside Linebacker (4)

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    Patrick Willis earned his seventh Pro Bowl selection in 2013.
    Patrick Willis earned his seventh Pro Bowl selection in 2013.Stephen Lam/Getty Images

    The 49ers have the luxury of opening the season with four inside linebackers. Patrick Willis will anchor this group and his health is a top priority. Willis begins his eighth NFL campaign and has made the Pro Bowl in each of his prior years. He will need to be play very well to help offset the absence of NaVorro Bowman.

    Michael Wilhoite and rookie Chris Borland are competing for the starting job in Bowman's absence. Wilhoite will likely win that job, as his experience and consistency make him less of a risk than Borland.

    The 49ers have been very excited about Borland's play. He flies around the field and makes plays, but his sometimes overaggressive nature makes him susceptible to mistakes. It is this penchant for trying to make a play at the expense of being in proper position that Borland must correct. 

    Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has indicated that Borland could still win the starting job. However, that could be a ploy to keep both Borland and Wilhoite performing at highly competitive levels.

    Bill Williamson of ESPN.com reports on the battle between Borland and Wilhoite.

    Reserve Nick Moody will stay with the team for his second NFL season. His speed and athleticism will win out over fan favorite Shayne Skov. Moody also played well on special teams in 2013 and his experience there also gives him an edge.

    Skov has excellent football instincts and is a smart player. He is very familiar to Jim Harbaugh, who recruited him to Stanford. However, Skov's lack of speed and athleticism limits his upside and will ultimately keep him off the roster.

    Skov is an ideal practice-squad candidate, if he can pass through waivers.

     

     

Outside Linebacker (4)

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    Aldon Smith will likely miss several games due to suspension.
    Aldon Smith will likely miss several games due to suspension.USA TODAY Sports

    The outside linebacker corps will likely be without Aldon Smith for the first several games, as he serves a suspension that is due to be handed down by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

    Look for Smith to miss six to eight games, as he is a multiple offender. Goodell will also not want to look too soft on a player's behavior, especially after all the flak he took for the Ray Rice's two-game suspension.

    The absence of Smith means that Ahmad Brooks and Dan Skuta will start in the 49ers' base 3-4 defense. Brooks is an excellent strong-side linebacker and earned his first Pro Bowl selection last year. Brooks had 8.5 sacks and 52 tackles with eight assists.

    Skuta impressed last year, when he filled in for Aldon Smith, when the latter was in a rehab clinic. He is a solid player and does not make mistakes.

    Corey Lemonier will play on passing downs in place of Skuta. Lemonier has excellent outside speed and has improved his strength. The combination of Skuta and Lemonier will help to offset the loss of Smith.

    Aaron Lynch and Chase Thomas are competing for the final outside linebacker job. Lynch, whom the 49ers selected in the fifth round in this past May's draft, has a world of talent and athleticism. He has had some off-field problems, which is the reason he fell to the later round.

    The 49ers will have to stay on top of Lynch and make sure he stays out of trouble. Hopefully, with the likes of Willis, Justin Smith and Antoine Bethea around him, he matures.

    Lynch has the ability to be a very good player and, although his leash will be short, he is worth the risk. He should contribute on special teams right away.

    Another top special teams contributor, Blake Costanzo, has been placed on injured reserve. He will be lost for the season.

Cornerback (6)

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    Tramaine Brock is the 49ers' most reliable cornerback.
    Tramaine Brock is the 49ers' most reliable cornerback.USA TODAY Sports

    The cornerback position is a major concern for the 49ers. The 49ers have several question marks in the defensive secondary and they start at corner.

    Tramaine Brock is the only returning cornerback who can be considered a top-notch player at his position. He was rewarded in November of last year with a four-year contract extension.

    Opposite Brock is likely to be Chris Culliver, who missed all of the 2013 season with a torn ACL. Culliver must prove that his knee can stand up to the rigors of an NFL season, as he has recently missed some practice time, as his knee was bothering him.

    In addition to the knee, Culliver must also show that he can play at a championship-caliber level. His penchant for being overly aggressive has hurt the 49ers in the past.

    Culliver must also grow up. He needs to stay out of the news for all the wrong reasons, such as making inappropriate and insensitive comments and getting embroiled in an alleged hit-and-run incident this past offseason. Continued off-field issues will threaten his tenure with the 49ers.

    On the field, Culliver likes to try to jump routes and go for the interception which leaves him vulnerable to out-and-up patterns and pump fakes. Culliver also draws too many penalties for his overly aggressive tackling and constant trash-talking. He is too good a player to let this happen time and time again. If the 49ers are to do anything this year, the secondary must play well and the health of Culliver's knee and his maturity level are huge question marks.

    The nickel back will be rookie Jimmie Ward, and he will be discussed more in the next slide pertaining to safeties. 

    Chris Cook, Perrish Cox, Dontae Johnson and Darryl Morris are also in the mix. Cook is likely to win the dime cornerback position. 

    Expect Johnson and Morris to make the team, as they are both younger, with more upside than Cox. Cox is right on on the bubble. He makes the squad in this preliminary draft, but that can change quickly.

    If Garrett Celek makes it back in time, or if the 49ers keep Kevin Greene as a third tight end, Cox could lose his spot. In addition, if the 49ers are able to sign Alex Boone, that could also mean the end of the line for Cox should the team keep fewer than six DBs.

    Rookie Kenneth Acker, a sixth-round pick will not make the team. His only hope is for a spot on the practice squad.

     

Safeties (5)

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    Eric Reid had an excellent rookie season in 2013.
    Eric Reid had an excellent rookie season in 2013.USA TODAY Sports

    Eric Reid established himself as an up-and-coming free safety safety with his play last year. He was honored with a Pro Bowl selection, an impressive feat as a rookie.

    Following the departure of strong safety Donte Whitner via free agency, general manager Trent Baalke signed Antoine Bethea, formerly of the Indianapolis Colts. Bethea will start next to Reid and give the secondary a lot of experience, much like Whitner over the past three years. Bethea is good against the run and does not make a lot of dumb mistakes, but he is not stellar in pass coverage.

    The one thing we will not see from Bethea is the bone-jarring hits for which Whitner became known. However, with that, we're unlikely to see the personal-foul penalties that the former 49er safety also incurred.

    Jimmie Ward, the 49ers first-round draft pick will be the nickel back. He was the 30th overall player selected in the draft, and his development will be essential to the improvement of the defensive secondary. Ward is a very smart player and a good athlete, but it's never easy being a rookie defensive back in the NFL. Andrew Pentis of 49ers.com reported on Ward's play against the Broncos this past Sunday.

    The 49ers have three players competing for the last two safety jobs. Craig Dahl, C.J., Spillman and Bubba Ventrone are all in the mix.

    Expect Dahl to make the team, as he is able to contribute to the San Francisco secondary. Spillman and Ventrone are both outstanding special teams players, but Spillman has more experience with the San Francisco defense.

    This leaves Ventrone out, unless he can beat out the other special teams ace, Kassim Osgood.

    Special teams coordinator Brad Seely is also a big fan of Ventone. He could convince Harbaugh that they need to keep Ventrone over someone like Tukuafu, Okoye or Cox.

    Like Osgood, an outstanding special teams player like Ventrone helps you win games. Other marginal players like Tukuafu, Okoye and Cox will likely play only in the event of injury.

Specialists (3)

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    The 49ers are blessed with Phil Dawson and Andy Lee, who are both outstanding.
    The 49ers are blessed with Phil Dawson and Andy Lee, who are both outstanding.Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Phil Dawson and Andy Lee give the 49ers two outstanding kickers. Dawson, who handles the placekicking duties converted 32 of his 36 attempts in 2013. He was also good on all 44 of his extra-point attempts.

    Dawson is extremely accurate, and a reliable kicker is critical for a Super Bowl contender in today's NFL. The only area of concern is that Dawson sometimes does not get the ball deep enough on kickoffs. This means that the coverage unit must be disciplined and ready to make tackles.

    The 49ers punter, Andy Lee, also is Dawson's holder. The pair work very well together. 

    Lee is an excellent punter, averaging 48.2 per kick in 2013. He is also adept at placing the ball inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Long snapper Kevin McDermott is accurate and fast with his snaps, which helps to minimize the chance for blocked kicks.