Grading the San Francisco 49ers' Final 53-Man Roster
The San Francisco 49ers have cut their roster down to the required 53-player limit. Training camp was highly competitive for the last few spots on the team, and there were several tough decisions that had to be made.
There were several surprises with the 49ers' final cuts. A few players who were expected to make the roster when training camp opened did not, and others who were long shots earned a job.
Several 49ers who were cut are NFL-caliber and could catch on with other teams. In addition, the 49ers could pick up another player or two to bolster their team, so these final roster spots are never etched in stone.
Let's break down each of the position groups and rate the strength of each unit.
Colin Kaepernick is the leader of the San Francisco offense. He is a dynamic presence on the field with his strong arm and athleticism.
However, Kaepernick still must improve his throwing accuracy as well as his ability to find secondary and tertiary receivers.
In 2013, Kaepernick completed only 58.4 percent of his pass attempts, which is too low for a top NFL quarterback. If he can get that rate comfortably above the 60 percent mark, that will bode well for the 49ers.
With an improved stable of wide receivers, Kaepernick will have more targets to throw to. It is now up to him to make the improvement.
We saw very little of Kaepernick in the preseason, and what we saw was not good. The 49ers failed to score a touchdown on any of his possessions.
As the 49ers open the regular season at Dallas, it will be incumbent upon Kaepernick to play much better than he did in the exhibition games.
The backup quarterback competition came down to Blaine Gabbert and Josh Johnson.
Gabbert came into camp with the job, and although Johnson outplayed him, he seems to have kept it. As reported by Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, head coach Jim Harbaugh indicated that Gabbert is the 49ers' No. 2 man (h/t NFL.com's Kevin Patra and Orly Rios Jr. on NinerNoise.com).
One key factor is that the 49ers traded a sixth-round draft pick for Gabbert, and another is the fact that he is guaranteed $2 million even if he does not make the team, per Spotrac.
If the decision was based solely on performance in preseason contests, Johnson would have a decided edge, but that does not appear to be the case.
In a somewhat surprising move, the 49ers opted to keep both Gabbert and Johnson, carrying three quarterbacks.
The 49ers must hope for improvement from Kaepernick and that he stays healthy. If anything were to happen to Kaepernick, there is a huge drop-off.
Quarterback grade: B
Frank Gore is back for his 10th NFL season. At the age of 31, Gore is the heart and soul of the San Francisco offense. Although he may have lost a step, Gore is still the best running back on the team.
In 2013, Gore rushed for 1,128 yards on 276 carries. It was the seventh time he has rushed for over 1,000 yards in his illustrious career. Gore's average of 4.1 yards per carry was the lowest of his career and something to keep an eye on in 2014.
Gore is also a tremendous blocker and extremely good on blitz pickup. The 49ers will undoubtedly try to give him more rest and try to keep him fresh over the course of the long season.
Losing Kendall Hunter to a season-ending ACL injury hurts the versatility of the Niners running game, but there is still plenty of depth to pick up the slack.
A positive surprise in training camp was the play of Carlos Hyde, the 49ers' second-round draft pick out of Ohio State. Hyde showed excellent speed, power and vision in the preseason and looks like he will be able to shoulder a key role, backing up Gore.
Hyde carried the ball 17 times in the preseason, gaining 96 yards. His 5.6 yards-per-carry average was also very good. Hyde looks like he will be able to spell Gore very effectively, and the 49ers won't see any major drop-off.
LaMichael James gives the 49ers a quick, change-of-pace back. It will be up to offensive coordinator Greg Roman to find ways of getting James the ball out in space where he can best utilize his speed and quickness.
It is still a mystery why Roman and the 49ers do not utilize James on swing passes or screens, where he has more room to maneuver.
The 49ers retained only one fullback, Bruce Miller. If there is a need for another, it will likely be a tight end or lineman who lines up in the backfield.
Glenn Winston was one of the big surprises in training camp and performed well in the preseason games. However, he, along with Alfonso Smith, were cut. If Winston clears waivers, look for him to join the practice squad.
Running back grade: A-
The biggest improvement on the 49ers is at the wide receiver position.
Michael Crabtree is back after an injury-plagued 2013 season. He teams with Anquan Boldin, who led the 49ers with 85 receptions for 1,179 yards and seven touchdowns. This tandem gives Colin Kaepernick two receivers he is very comfortable with and has had success with in the past.
Stevie Johnson comes to San Francisco after six seasons with the Buffalo Bills. Johnson will be the 49ers' third wide receiver, but he still must develop chemistry with Kaepernick.
Barrows (h/t Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk) reports that Kaepernick and Johnson have had trouble getting on the same page. It will be important for the two to get in sync in order for the San Francisco offense to be running on all cylinders.
The 49ers selected receiver Bruce Ellington in the fourth round, with the 106th overall pick. Ellington possesses excellent speed and quickness and will also get a chance to contribute on special teams. Look for Ellington to get more chances at the wise receiver position as the season progresses.
2013 draftee Quinton Patton made the squad and returns for his second season. After showing promise in the preseason, Patton had an injury-plagued season and only had three catches during the 2013 regular season.
In a somewhat questionable move, the 49ers kept Brandon Lloyd, who will be a fourth wide receiver, at best. Lloyd was retained over special teams star Kassim Osgood.
Osgood was an outstanding special teams player and made a positive impact in several games last year. His contributions would likely outweigh a fourth of fifth wide receiver or a third quarterback, so it was a surprise to see him go.
Wide receiver grade: A-
Vernon Davis is entrenched as the starting tight end for the 49ers. He is entering his ninth NFL season and is still a major threat. In 2013, Davis caught 52 passes for 850 yards. His 13 touchdowns led the 49ers.
The second tight end is Vance McDonald, who looks like a completely different player than what he showed in 2013.
McDonald was drafted by the 49ers in the second round last year and was a disappointment. He dropped several passes, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick seemed to lose confidence in him.
After the numerous drops, Kaepernick rarely even looked McDonald's way last year. He ended the season with only eight catches for 119 yards.
Now, in 2014, McDonald looks to be in much better shape and is playing with confidence. He has played very well in the preseason and should be a solid contributor this year.
As reported by Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group, McDonald is much more comfortable this time around, and it has definitely shown in his play.
The 49ers also retained Derek Carrier and Kyle Nelson. Primarily a long snapper, Nelson can also play tight end, and that gives the 49ers some added depth at that position.
In addition, defensive lineman Demarcus Dobbs also has played some tight end and could be used in certain jumbo-type formations.
Tight end grade: A-
The biggest area of uncertainty surrounding the 49ers offense is the offensive line. Left tackle Joe Staley has made the Pro Bowl in each of the last three seasons. He is the anchor of the line, but there are question marks at every other position.
Left guard Mike Iupati returns after suffering a broken ankle in the NFC title game last season. His play has been very inconsistent, and the 49ers need him to return to form. Iupati made the Pro Bowl in each of the last two seasons and was a first-team All-Pro in 2012.
Daniel Kilgore enters his fourth NFL campaign and has won the starting center job. Kilgore has never started a regular-season game so time will tell if he can handle the job over a full season.
The right side of the line is even more of a question mark. Joe Looney will start at right guard in place of Alex Boone, who is holding out for a new contract. Boone started every game for the 49ers over the past two seasons, so Looney has some huge shoes to fill.
Andrew Pentis of 49ers.com reports on the status of the 49ers' offensive line and the thoughts of head coach Jim Harbaugh.
"We believe in Joe Looney; we believe we can win with Joe Looney," Jim Harbaugh said on Tuesday. "He is working everyday to improve his game, and that's what the unit is doing."
The right tackle situation is also a concern. Starter Anthony Davis did not play a single preseason snap, as he nurses a shoulder injury.
Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee reports that Davis is expecting to be ready to start the 49ers' regular-season opener against Dallas. However, even if Davis is ready, there is no telling how effective he will be after missing the entire preseason.
If Davis is unable to play or shows too much rust, Jonathan Martin will take over. The 49ers acquired Martin from the Miami Dolphins in March, after the well-publicized harassment issues with Richie Incognito.
Marcus Martin will back up Kilgore at center and can also play guard. Martin has a knee injury and will likely miss the first half of the season, as reported by Barrows.
In a somewhat surprising development, Dillon Farrell made the team, and veteran Adam Snyder did not.
The 53-man roster only has three reserve offensive linemen, and with the injury to Marcus Martin, they will start the season with just two able to play.
If Davis also cannot play, that leaves only Farrell as the 49ers' lone able-bodied reserve. If this looks to be the case, look for the 49ers to add another lineman before the start of the season.
Offensive line grade: C-
Although the 49ers typically play a three-man front on defense, they opted to keep nine defensive linemen.
One starting defensive end will be Justin Smith, who will be 35 years of age in September. Smith has earned Pro Bowl honors for five consecutive seasons.
Opposite Smith is Ray McDonald, but his status is uncertain following an arrest early Sunday morning on felony domestic abuse charges. Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee reports that McDonald was allegedly involved in an altercation with his fiancee, who is 10 weeks pregnant.
Details are still emerging from this incident, but suffice it to say, McDonald's future with the 49ers is in doubt. The new NFL policy on domestic violence just announced by Roger Goodell a few days earlier could result in a six-game suspension for McDonald.
In addition, San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh has also made it very clear what his thoughts are on domestic violence.
David Fucillo of Niners Nation highlights a statement made by former 49ers safety Donte Whitner to the San Francisco Press Democrat (h/t Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith) regarding Harbaugh's stance on this subject.
"According to Whitner, Jim Harbaugh will forgive players for most anything, but, '[i]f you put your hand on a woman then you're done in his book.'"
If McDonald is either suspended or released, Tank Carradine will likely move into his starting defensive end position. Carradine sat out all last season rehabilitating a knee injury that he sustained in his last year of college football.
Carradine appears fully recovered. He is strong, fast and should be able to step into McDonald's position, if necessary.
A key reserve lineman is Tony Jerod-Eddie. He has the ability to play both nose tackle and defensive end. Jerod-Eddie has steadily improved over the past couple of years and provides excellent depth.
Ian Williams will get the start at nose tackle, as last year's starter Glenn Dorsey was injured and will miss somewhere close to half the season.
Rounding out the defensive line are Quinton Dial and Demarcus Dobbs. Dial was a fifth-round draft selection in 2013, but he hardly played last year. In addition to being a rookie, he looked slow and out of shape.
Dial looks a lot better now and made some nice plays in the exhibition game. Look for Dial to make a contribution in 2014.
Dobbs provides added depth and can also play fullback, if needed.
Promising young linemen Mike Purcell and Lawrence Okoye were cut. It is possible that Purcell could be brought back if McDonald is suspended or released.
Defensive line grade: B+
The 49ers will be without two of their best defensive players when the season starts. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman is expected to miss the first half of the season as he rehabs a knee injury, outside linebacker Aldon Smith has been suspended and will miss the first nine games of the season.
The loss of these two depletes a very strong linebacker corps. The replacements are solid, but it's tough to replace two Pro Bowl-caliber players without some drop-off.
Patrick Willis leads this unit, and he will have to be very good. Willis has been a Pro Bowl selection in all seven of his NFL seasons and also is a five-time first-team All-Pro, although not in 2013.
Michael Wilhoite will likely start in place of Bowman. He is a solid linebacker, but he does not have Bowman's athleticism. Wilhoite has more experience than Chris Borland, a third-round pick of the 49ers in the 2014 draft.
Borland was very impressive in training camp and the preseason games, but at times, he still makes rookie mistakes. The Associated Press reports (via Fox News) that Borland had a critique on his own play in the 49ers' final exhibition game against Houston.
"I think I had one of my better games, but I still made some mistakes I need to fix," Borland said. "That's kind of been the story this preseason, so I have some things to improve on, but it could help."
Expect to see Borland on the field at times in the 49ers defense. He has a big upside and the ability to make plays. Borland, showing his playmaking ability, returned an interception for a touchdown against the Houston Texans.
At the strong-side linebacker spot is Ahmad Brooks, who earned his first Pro Bowl selection last year. However, as reported by Eric Branch of the San Franciso Chronicle, Brooks is overweight and has incurred the ire of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
Replacing Aldon Smith will be a two-man job. Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier did this last year when Smith was undergoing rehab and missed five games. The pair will once again handle this responsibility.
Look to see Skuta in the base defense and Lemonier in the game when the 49ers expect a pass. Lemonier had a very good preseason and showed a lot of improvement. He still has good speed as an outside rusher and has improved his strength and overall technique.
Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee reports that 2014 could be a "breakout" season for Lemonier. He added about 10 pounds of muscle to go along with his excellent speed.
Nick Moody and Aaron Lynch have made the team and will primarily play on special teams.
Former Stanford linebackers Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas were cut, but they could end up on the practice squad.
Linebackers grade: B
Tramaine Brock will start at one corner, along with Chris Culliver, who missed all of the 2013 season with a torn ACL. Culliver's successful return is critical to the 49ers secondary.
Eric Reid will start at the free safety position, after a very strong rookie season. Reid was a Pro Bowl honoree in his first season in the league.
At strong safety, Antoine Bethea, the former Indianapolis Colt, replaces Whitner. Bethea suffered a concussion in the 49ers' second preseason game against the Denver Broncos. He should be ready for the regular-season opener.
Although Bethea is not the best in pass coverage, his experience and leadership should benefit the younger players such as Reid and 2014 first-round draft pick Jimmie Ward. Ward has won the nickel or slot cornerback job and will see plenty of action this year.
Chris Cook, Perrish Cox and Dontae Johnson are reserve corners and will play mostly on special teams.
Rookie Kenneth Acker, a fifth-round draft pick, will start the season on injured reserve.
Veteran Craig Dahl made the team as a backup safety and special teams player. Rookie L.J. McCray made the squad as a reserve safety. McCray, who played well and improved throughout camp, beat out special teams stars C.J. Spillman and Bubba Ventrone.
With so many new faces in the defensive backfield, there will undoubtedly be some growing pains. It will greatly benefit this unit if the 49ers are able to muster a consistently strong pass rush.
Defensive backs grade: C
The San Francisco 49ers are blessed with two of the best kicking specialists in the league.
Place-kicker Phil Dawson had an outstanding year in 2013 and has put in a lot of time learning the wind and nuances of Levi's Stadium. Steve Corkran of the Bay Area News Group reports on Dawson's learning curve at the new stadium.
Last year, Dawson converted 32 of his 36 field-goal attempts and all 44 of his extra-point attempts. Expect Dawson to continue his consistent performance level. The 15-year veteran has converted 84.5 percent of his attempts, over his illustrious career.
Punter Andy Lee enters his 11th season with the 49ers. Last year, Lee averaged 48.2 yards per punt, the second-best of his career. Lee is also extremely adept at pinning opponents deep inside their own territory.
One surprise cut was that of 2013 long snapper Kevin McDermott. He performed flawlessly last year but will be replaced by Kyle Nelson.
Nelson also has experience playing tight end, and his added athleticism makes him more valuable on the coverage units.
The 49ers' return duties will likely be handled by LaMichael James and Bruce Ellington. In the long run, look for Ellington to take over, as his elusiveness is tremendous. James has yet to score on a return, but if given the opportunity, Ellington could make it happen.
The biggest question mark on the San Francisco special teams will be on the coverage units. The 49ers cut three key special teams players, Osgood, Spillman and Ventrone. These players made a major impact on special teams and younger, less experienced players will need to fill the void.
Special teams coordinator Brad Seely is one of the best in the game. He will need to make sure the 49ers' coverage units are a strength and not a liability.
Special teams grade: B
All NFL stats are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.