San Francisco 49ers' Roster Decisions: Who Is on the Bubble?

Dan MoriCorrespondent IAugust 19, 2011

San Francisco 49ers' Roster Decisions: Who Is on the Bubble?

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    The San Francisco 49ers are fairly well set with their starting lineup on both sides of the football.  However, there are plenty of reserve spots up for grabs.

    The 49ers' upcoming preseason game on Saturday against the Oakland Raiders will have many men playing for their NFL survival.  The rosters will need to be cut down to 75 players following this weekend's slate of games. 

    The 49ers currently have 88 players on their roster, plus two on the Physically Unable to Perform List, Michael Crabtree and Dominique Zeigler.  Not counting Crabtree and Zeigler, that means 13 players will need to be trimmed off the roster on August 30.

    The real tough decision actually occurs on September 3, when teams must get down to their 53 man roster, in preparation to start the season.  This means an additional 22 players will need to be released.

    A team like the 49ers will be watching the waiver wire closely and may look to pick up a player or two if they feel that an individual is an upgrade over people on their current roster. 

    The Niners definitely need to improve their depth. Finding decent players that were cut from other teams but could fit in well in San Francisco will be a key focus for GM Trent Baalke, as the season approaches.

    Head coach Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers' coaching staff, along with Baalke, will have to make some tough decisions.  Let's take an advance look at the 49er players on the bubble and who to watch for this Sunday.  It will be up to many of these men to stand out and make a positive impact, or they may soon be out of a job.

Quarterback: Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick Are Locks To Be on the Roster

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    The quarterback position is pretty well set and there's not a lot of mystery at this time.  Alex Smith is slated to be the starting quarterback and he will be backed up by second-round draft pick Colin Kaepernick.

    The 49ers also just signed veteran Josh McCown as a third quarterback and unless they make any other deals, he will also make the squad.  McCown will also be helpful in working with Kaepernick, teaching him the nuances of the quarterback position in the NFL.

    The bubble will burst for McLeod Bethel-Thompson and Jeremiah Masoli.  In reality, Masoli has a better chance of making the team as a special teams player, but even that is a long shot.  The practice squad is a possibility for one or both of these two rookies. 

Running Back: Frank Gore Looks Strong in His Return from a Hip Injury

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    The top three halfback spots are pretty well set with Frank Gore, Anthony Dixon and impressive rookie Kendall Hunter.  Veteran Moran Norris holds down the starting fullback spot. 

    Norris' backup, Bruce Miller, is trying to make the transition from playing defense in college to fullback in the NFL.  In this training camp, he has been used at both fullback and linebacker.  His versatility and special teams play could very well earn him a spot on the roster.  Miller will be one to watch in the upcoming game.

    Another intriguing player, who has looked good in camp and also ran well in the first preseason game against New Orleans, is Xavier Oman.  It's questionable if the 49ers would keep four halfbacks, so Oman may get caught in the numbers game.  He does have a good chance to land on the practice squad.

Wide Receiver: Braylon Edwards Is a Welcome Addition

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    The wide receiver position is a very interesting battle.  Injuries to key players will play a factor, here.

    Braylon Edwards was a free-agent bargain for the 49ers, as they signed him to a one-year, $ 3.5 million contract.  He joins Josh Morgan as the two starters heading into the 2011 season.

    Michael Crabtree will join these two, if his foot heals and he can play.  This gives the 49ers three decent receivers, if Crabtree can stay healthy.

    From this point, the picture becomes a lot murkier.  The question is whether the 49ers will keep four, five or six wideouts.  In the mix for those last two or three spots are Ted Ginn Jr., Kevin Jurovich, Ronald Johnson, Kyle Williams and Dominique Zeigler, if he gets healthy,

    I hope Jurovich wins one of the probably two remaining spots.  He is not big or fast, but has excellent hands, runs good routes and is a good special teams player.  If Jurovich has a big game against the Raiders, that will help his cause.

    The veteran Ted Ginn is a below-average receiver, but has the speed to keep defenses honest.  Ginn does not catch the ball well over the middle and does not have good hands.  He is also a good return man, which is where his real value shows.

    Ginn may have trouble beating out Ronald Johnson, from USC, and the speedy Kyle Williams.  If Johnson shows that he can return punts, he may have the inside track.  Williams has had nagging injuries throughout his career and I don't know if Jim Harbaugh will trust him to stay healthy.

    My gut feel on Zeigler is he may not play until mid-season or go on season ending IR, due to a torn ACL suffered last season.  He does not appear ready to play, at this point.

Tight End: Vernon Davis Is an Excellent Blocker and Receiver

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    The 49ers are most likely going to keep three tight ends on their roster.  Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker give them two very good ones.  The new West Coast offense, under Jim Harbaugh, should utilize the talents of these two quite well.  I expect both Davis and Walker to make big contributions in 2011.

    Nate Lawrie, a five year veteran, acquired as a free agent, has the inside track.  Lawrie, originally out of Yale, is a physical specimen at 6' 6", 255-pounds.  He will be a blocking tight end and has caught only four passes in his career.  Nate Byham had the job until an ACL injury ruined his season.

    The 49ers will also be watching the waiver wire in the next couple weeks and if someone else becomes available, they may move in that direction.

Offensive Line: Mike Iupati Emerged as a Top Flight Guard

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    The top eight spots among the offensive linemen are pretty well set.  From left to right, the starters will likely be Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Jonathan Goodwin, Adam Snyder and Anthony Davis. 

    Chilo Rachal, who started at right guard last year could start again, although I believe Snyder is the better player. Tony Wragge and Alex Boone round out the top eight.

    It's very likely the 49ers will go with nine offensive linemen, so that leaves one remaining spot for Chase Beeler, Nick Howell, Daniel Kilgore and Mike Person.  My guess is that Person will make the squad and Beeler, a former Stanford player who is very familiar with Harbaugh's system, is a practice squad player. 

    Kilgore is also a very good candidate for the practice squad.

Defensive Line: Justin Smith Leads the D-Line

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    Justin Smith anchors a defensive line that has two major question marks in the three positions.  Smith is a top notch effort kind of player and his work ethic is outstanding.

    Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin departed in free agency to join the Saints.  He will be replaced by former end Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois.  Both are unproven as full-time starters at the nose.

    The left end position, which Sopoaga played last year, will be manned by Ray McDonald.  McDonald will be in his fifth season and has only started nine games in the prior four years in San Francisco.  Injuries have plagued McDonald throughout his career. 

    Demarcus Dobbs looks like he has a spot secured, but there really are no other reserves on the line that have distinguished themselves.  Will Tukuafu rounds out a rather pedestrian group.  This is an area where we could see the 49ers dip into the waiver wire to find another quality player.

Linebackers: Patrick Willis Leads an Accomplished Group

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    The 49er linebacking corps is the top group on the defensive side of the football.  Pro Bowler Patrick Willis leads this unit.  He will be used a lot more on blitz packages by new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.

    NaVorro Bowman will play ILB, next to Willis.  He replaces Takeo Spikes who signed with the Chargers as a free agent.  Bowman is young and more athletic than Spikes.  He just does not have the same level of experience.

    Ahmad Brooks will start at one OLB spot and Parys Haralson the other.  First-round draft pick Aldon Smith is pushing for the starting job and challenging Haralson for the spot.  The 49ers are counting on Smith to bring pressure as a pass rusher.

    The 49ers are likely to keep three more linebackers,  but the drop off after the top five is significant.  Antwan Applewhite, Blake Costanzo, Larry Grant, Keaton Kristick, Scott McKillop and Kenny Rowe are fighting for those final three spots.

    Special teams play will likely play a big role in who makes the team from this group. McKillop will likely win a spot, as should Grant.  The last spot is totally up for grabs, so anyone who distinguishes themselves in the upcoming game against Oakland, will have the best shot at securing the final job.

Defensive Secondary: Dashon Goldson Returns for His Fifth Season in San Francisc

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    The San Francisco 49ers had a very porous defensive secondary last year.  They have made several moves in an attempt to bolster this group.  Nate Clements is gone and will be replaced by Carlos Rogers at one corner position.  Shawntae Spencer starts at the other corner.  Tarell Brown is a capable backup and a good nickelback.

    The starting safeties look to be Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson.  Reggie Smith can back up at either safety position and also play in nickel or dime packages.

    The 49ers are likely to keep as many as three more defensive backs.  Several players are vying for these jobs, including Phillip Adams, Tramaine Brock, Curtis Taylor, Chris Culliver, Colin Jones, Taylor Mays and Madieu Williams.

    Look for Williams, Adams and Brock to make the team, with Culliver and Jones having a decent chance, as well. 

    Last year's round two draft pick Taylor Mays looks like he will be run out of town as Trent Baalke sent an E-Mail to all NFL teams letting them know Mays was on the trading block.  This approach made no sense and actually decreased the trade value of Mays.

Special Teams: David Akers Joins the 49ers from Philadelphia

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    David Akers was signed as a free agent.  He will replace long time 49er kicker Joe Nedney.  Andy Lee holds down the punter's job and long snapper Brian Jennings also has a roster spot.

    The NFL moved the kickoff up to the 35-yard line, instead of the 30.  The result will be fewer kickoff returns.  The 49ers are considering Ted Ginn, Ronald Johnson and Kyle Williams for punt return duties. 

    The winner of that battle secures a spot, while the other two will be on thin ice.  My choice is Johnson and he should also give the 49ers some production as a wide receiver.

Improving Their Depth Is a Huge Goal for the 49ers

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    49er owner Jed York hopes his two main decisions in the offseason pan out well for the 49ers.  GM Trent Baalke looks to build the roster and head coach Jim Harbaugh leads the team into action.

    The key for the 49ers will be how quickly the offense adapts to the West Coast offense being implemented by Harbaugh.  Quarterback Alex Smith must improve and the offensive line needs to play much better than they did in 2010 and in the first preseason game against the Saints.

    Defensively, the 49ers' first-string looks solid, as new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will play a much more aggressive style.

    The 49ers are not a deep team so injuries to their front line players will be a killer. 

    The upcoming preseason game against the Raiders will do a great deal to clear the picture of those last few roster spots.  Some players are in make or break situations, fighting for jobs.  This should make this game interesting to watch from beginning to end.