San Francisco 49ers: Evaluating the Depth Chart Before the 53-Man Cut

Bryan KnowlesContributor IIIAugust 28, 2014

San Francisco 49ers: Evaluating the Depth Chart Before the 53-Man Cut

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The San Francisco 49ers got down to their 75-man roster on Tuesday.  They waived seven players, including Jewel Hampton; released David Reed, moved four players to the NFI list, including Marcus Lattimore and put three people on the PUP list, including NaVorro Bowman.

    They have one more game Thursday night against the Houston Texans to make the final roster decisions, before reducing to the team down to the final 53 players on Aug. 30.  That means 22 more players must be released, placed on various injury lists or traded away by 1 p.m.

    The 49ers just released their unofficial depth chart for the Houston game, their first with the 75-man roster.  While that’s filled out by the media department and not the coaching staff, it gives us a good picture of which players are hanging out on the fringes of the team and who will need good performances against Houston to ensure their spot on the final roster.

    Let’s compare the current depth chart with the one from before the preseason opener against the Baltimore Ravens to see who is rising, who is falling and who could find themselves without a team come Sunday.

Quarterback

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
    1. Colin Kaepernick
    2. Blaine Gabbert
    3. Josh Johnson

    Changes: McLeod Bethel-Thompson waived

    The question here is the same as it was at the beginning of the year—does Josh Johnson do enough to convince the 49ers to keep three quarterbacks on their final 53-man roster?

    Blaine Gabbert’s performance against San Diego might have put the final nail in Johnson’s coffin.  Gabbert didn’t do anything spectacular, but showed off basic competency skills.  He completed seven of his 11 passes for 66 yards and a touchdown, with a quarterback rating of 110.4.  One of his incompletes was on a batted pass, too, so his numbers are even a bit better than they looked.

    Even more encouraging, Gabbert completed both of his passes aimed over 10 yards down field, which is something he had failed to do in either of his previous two games.  The Gabbert that played against San Diego is a competent backup, which is all the 49ers really need.

    We’ll see if he can put together a repeat performance against Houston.  Colin Kaepernick will play, but probably not more than a drive or two.  It’ll be mostly Gabbert’s show to show that he’s capable of running the offensive smoothly.  If he does so, Johnson’s not going to make the final roster.

Running Backs

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    RB: Frank Gore; Carlos Hyde; LaMichael James; Alfonso Smith; Glenn Winston
    FB: Bruce Miller; Will Tukuafu

    Changes: James passed Smith on the depth chart; Jewel Hampton waived; Kendall Hunter moved to IR; Glenn Winston signed

     

    LaMichael James had several challengers to his role as third running back, but all fell.  Kendall Hunter tore his ACL, Marcus Lattimore never got off of the non-football injury list and Jewel Hampton played very poorly.  James has earned the third role by default, if nothing else.

    With Lattimore on the NFI list, however, there’s probably one more spot open for a running back, and right now it appears that Alfonso Smith and Glenn Winston are battling for it.  Whichever player makes it will probably last only until the next major roster change, be it Lattimore getting healthy, Aldon Smith coming off suspension or NaVorro Bowman getting back to full speed, but they’ll provide depth in the offensive backfield early in the year.

    Smith has seen more work than Winston, and has been around for a week or two longer.  You’d think he has the advantage going in. However, he has only 16 yards on 11 carries, while Winston has 58 yards on only eight attempts, though he did rip off a long touchdown run.

    This is a legitimate battle, and I think I like Winston’s odds to leapfrog Smith and earn a roster spot.  If there’s one thing to watch against Houston, it’s the battle for the final running back slot.

    Will Tukuafu will be gone but should still be available later in the year if Bruce Miller hurts himself again.

Wide Receivers

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
    1. Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin
    2. Brandon Lloyd, Stevie Johnson
    3. Quinton Patton, Bruce Ellington
    4. Kassim Osgood, Lance Lewis
    5. L’Damian Washington

    Changes: Devon Wylie and Jon Baldwin waived; Chuck Jacobs to IR; David Reed released; Lance Lewis and L’Damian Washington signed

    I don’t know about this depth chart.  Putting Lloyd above Patton doesn’t seem right based on their actual performances on the field to this point.  Lloyd only saw the field for about a dozen plays against Denver, and missed the other two games entirely.  He has one catch for seven yards.

    No receiver has seen the field as much as Patton has—only Ellington comes close.  At the same time, however, Patton also only has one reception—a 10-yard grab against San Diego.

    The third competitor for the third receiver slot, Johnson, has doubled their production—two catches!

    Suffice it to say, it hasn’t been the most thrilling competition so far.

    The fact that Lloyd didn’t even get one play against San Diego makes me wonder if his roster spot is in jeopardy.  The battle is between Lloyd, who is just a receiver, and Osgood, who is a special teams ace.  Osgood had 12 offensive snaps and 11 special teams snaps against San Diego.

    Ian Rappaport says Lloyd has a “real good chance” to make the team, but the 49ers can’t keep seven receivers—can they?  Check to see if Lloyd gets any work at all against Houston, and see how often Osgood is used on special teams.  If one of them doesn’t make much of an appearance, that probably tells you which one gets cut.

Tight Ends

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
    1. Vernon Davis
    2. Vance McDonald
    3. Derek Carrier
    4. Asante Cleveland

    Changes: Kevin Greene waived

    No real drama here.  Garrett Celek’s back issues have forced him onto the PUP list, essentially handing the third tight end spot to Derek Carrier.

    Both Carrier and Vance McDonald have actually looked quite good as backup tight ends, so this isn’t a bad thing.  Carrier only has one catch, but he’s been doing some very solid work blocking in the run game—that’s good, considering that both Vernon Davis and McDonald are, in theory, more receiving weapons.

    McDonald has had a great preseason, after a pretty bad rookie year.  He’s caught six of the seven passes thrown to him, scored the first 49ers touchdown in Levi’s Stadium history, and has generally looked nothing like the rookie he was last season.  He’d be my choice for preseason MVP for the team.

    It should be noted, however, that McDonald caught seven out of 11 passes last preseason as well, before stumbling to a 9-for-19 regular season.  It remains to be seen if McDonald can bring this momentum into the regular season, but it is at least a positive sign.

Offensive Line

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    LT: Joe Staley, Carter Bykowski
    LG: Mike Iupati, Al Netter
    C: Daniel Kilgore, Marcus Martin, Dillon Farrell
    RG: Joe Looney, Adam Snyder, Michael Philipp
    RT: Anthony Davis, Jonathan Martin, Ryan Seymour

    Changes: None

     

    The offensive line looks the same as it did before the first preseason game, which means that Adam Snyder is likely sticking around.  Considering that cutting Snyder would save San Francisco $1 million against the cap, according to Spotrac, he was a popular choice for a cap casualty coming into training camp.  However, Marcus Martin’s injury means the team needs someone as backup center, and Snyder is the most experienced player there.

    You’re probably looking at the two Martins and Snyder as your backup linemen; keeping only eight, with seven healthy, is a gamble, but the 49ers have too many needs at other positions.  Snyder can play anywhere on the line, so his versatility earns him a spot.

    Of course, things would change if the Niners were to reach an agreement with guard Alex Boone.  He would resume his starting role at right guard, freeing Joe Looney to be the backup center and guard.  The team could then either keep Snyder as a ninth reserve until Marcus Martin comes back or cut him and save the cap room. 

Defensive Line

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    LDT: Ray McDonald, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Tank Carradine
    NT: Ian Williams, Quinton Dial, Mike Purcell, [Glenn Dorsey]
    RDT: Justin Smith, Demarcus Dobbs, Lawrence Okoye

    Changes: Glenn Dorsey hurt, Ian Williams activated

     

    Here’s another possibility for keeping an offensive lineman—do the 49ers go without Demarcus Dobbs, keeping only six defensive linemen for the beginning of the season?

    Remember that Glenn Dorsey has to be on the roster after the official 53-man cut date, so they can move him onto short-term injured reserve; that gives him a chance to come back later in the year.  That means someone has to be cut and then re-signed to make the “actual” 53-man roster.

    Could that someone be Dobbs?  The worst-case scenario, with Dobbs being taken by another team while not signed, actually could be a blessing in disguise.  Dobbs costs the 49ers more than $1.4 million, according to Spotrac, and that’s money that could be used to help extend Michael Crabtree.  It also frees up a roster spot to carry an additional offensive lineman until Marcus Martin is healthy again.  In a perfect world, that would coincide with Glenn Dorsey being healthy enough to come back to active play.

    That’s a risky option on the defensive line, however, and the team will probably play it safe.  Dobbs was passed by Jerod-Eddie last year, though, and Carradine could make his role redundant this season. 

    That’s something to keep an eye on as the final cuts happen.

Linebackers

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    OLB: Aldon Smith, Dan Skuta, Aaron Lynch
    ILB: Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, Shayne Skov
    ILB: Michael Wilhoite, Nick Moody
    OLB: Ahmad Brooks, Corey Lemonier, Chase Thomas

    Changes: Blake Costanzo released

     

    Anytime you want to get around to suspending Aldon Smith, Commissioner Roger Goodell, would be fine.  Smith and the commissioner met on Aug. 7 to discuss his offseason incidents, and still no news of a suspension has come down.

    If Smith is suspended before the cutdown date, the 49ers get a roster exemption for him, meaning he doesn’t count against the 53-man roster.  If he’s suspended after the cutdown date, the 49ers would have to cut someone else, wait until he actually is suspended and then fill that hole on the roster.

    Could some sort of negotiation be going on behind the scenes?  Perhaps an agreement on the length of the suspension to avoid a lengthy appeal?  Considering the heat the NFL took for the Ray Rice suspension, maybe they’re trying to get this one in and under the radar to avoid a repeat.  With Friday being the last workday before a three-day weekend, maybe we’ll get the Smith suspension then, so it gets buried in the news.

    Smith’s status shouldn’t affect any of the other linebackers: Aaron Lynch has been very impressive, and some combination of Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta will replace Smith while he’s out.  Both Nick Moody and Chris Borland will back up Willis and Wilhoite in the middle until NaVorro Bowman returns; Moody might be in trouble then, but not at the 53-man cut point.

Cornerbacks

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    LCB: Tramaine Brock, Chris Cook, Darryl Morris
    RCB: Chris Culliver, Perrish Cox, Dontae Johnson, Kenneth Acker

    Changes: None

     

    This official depth chart leaves off one important thing—the nickel corner spot won’t be held down by any of these players but instead by safety Jimmie Ward.  Perrish Cox is the best option here for nickel corner, but he’ll be, at best, the reserve.

    You’re really talking about six slots for seven players, then.  Brock and Culliver are the starters, and Johnson, a fourth-round draft pick out of North Carolina State, is too valuable a prospect to expose to waivers.  Cox is the primary backup corner and can play either in the slot or on the boundaries as the need requires.

    That leaves Chris Cook and Kenneth Acker for really one slot.  Acker is eligible for the practice squad while Cook isn’t.  That pretty much ensures Cook gets the slot and Acker gets moved down.

    When I did my original 53-man prediction back in May, I listed 37 “locks” for the final roster.  Thirty-five of those players look like they will make the roster without any problems, but I might have missed two in the secondary.  One was Eric Wright, who surprisingly chose to retire back in June.  Had he stuck around, we’d have an exciting battle for the last slot, but that obviously didn’t happen.

Safeties

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    FS: Eric Reid, Jimmie Ward, C.J. Spillman, James McCray
    SS: Antoine Bethea, Craig Dahl, Bubba Ventrone

    Changes: D.J. Campbell waived

     

    The other lock I may have missed in my May projections was the fourth safety.  I figured C.J. Spillman was a lock for the role, thanks to his skills on special teams.

    However, as a safety, he’s been pretty clearly knocked down the totem pole.  Vic Fangio talked about the backup safeties, in case Reid or Bethea goes down during a game:

    Probably, if we lost a safety during a game, we would finish it with Dahl and then we would make a decision depending on how long that safety would be out whether we would put Jimmie in there or leave Craig in there.

    That means Spillman would only stay on as a special teamer, and five safeties is a lot to carry.  If Kassim Osgood does get the nod over Brandon Lloyd (see slide 3), that further reduces Spillman’s odds of making the final roster.

    Spillman led the team in defensive snaps against San Diego (41) as well as 10 special teams snaps.  I’m not sure who else gets cut if he stays, however—do the 49ers keep five wide receivers?  Two tight ends?  A numbers game might knock him off the list.

Special Teams

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    K: Phil Dawson
    P: Andy Lee
    LS: Kevin McDermott, Kyle Nelson
    KR: LaMichael James, Perrish Cox
    PR: Bruce Ellington, Perrish Cox

    Changes: Ellington passed Cox on the depth chart, James returns to return kicks while Carlos Hyde is removed; Colton Schmidt waived.

     

    Interestingly, the 49ers still list Colton Schmidt on their depth chart, though he was waived with the 75-man cuts.

    That’s about the only interesting thing here; with LaMichael James definitely locked into a roster spot, he’ll regain his kick return duties.  Ellington hasn’t actually returned a punt yet, but he’s been dynamic on kick return duties.  He’ll probably take that role over at some point but not in 2014.

    There might be a long-snapping battle between McDermott and Nelson.  Both players had five special teams snaps against San Diego, and Nelson actually got some work in with the offense, playing tight end thanks to Derek Carrier’s injury.  Could that be a sign that Nelson is more in favor that McDermott?  Or was it just a warm body to rest Vance McDonald?

    Thrilling long-snapper battle action.  That’s why you tune into the fourth preseason game.

     

    Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers.  Follow him @BryKno on twitter.