Key Position Battles to Watch in San Francisco 49ers Training Camp

Ron Clements@Ron_ClementsCorrespondent IJuly 25, 2012

Key Position Battles to Watch in San Francisco 49ers Training Camp

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    The San Francisco 49ers do not have a lot of holes. They have their quarterback in Alex Smith, got a great running back in Frank Gore, a good receiving corps led by Michael Crabtree, an excellent tight end in Vernon Davis, a solid offensive line and a defense riddled with Pro Bowlers.

    That doesn’t mean the 49ers are without needs. There are still some starting jobs and roster spots up for grabs. The wide receiver competition will be interesting with Randy Moss and Mario Manningham joining Crabtree, first-round pick A.J. Jenkins and eight other receivers. Smith needs a backup, Gore has a stable of players vying to be his backup, Ted Ginn has questions about his health and the Niners have to find a starting right guard.

Backup Quarterback

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    While Alex Smith has solidified himself as the 49ers' starter, there are three other quarterbacks competing for two roster spots.

    Colin Kaepernick was a second-round draft pick from Nevada last year and was expected to compete for the starting job as a rookie. Kaepernick threw just five passes last year in three appearances. He completed three of those passes for 35 yards. Kaepernick was the solid No. 2 last year, but his spot will be challenged by newcomer Josh Johnson.

    A fifth-round pick in the 2008 NFL draft, Johnson goes from one bay to the other – leaving Tampa for San Fran. Current Niners coach Jim Harbaugh coached Johnson at the University of San Diego, where Johnson was the Pioneer Football League Offensive Player of the Year as a junior and finished his collegiate career as the most efficient passer in NCAA history. Johnson has just five touchdowns to 10 interceptions and just over 1,000 passing yards as a pro. But those four years of experience are three more than Kaepernick has.

    Scott Tolzien joined the Niners last year as an undrafted rookie following his release by San Diego. The former Wisconsin signal caller completed nearly 70 percent of his passes in college and led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl as a senior. But Tolzien not as athletic as Kaepernick or Johnson and could be the odd man out in this quartet.

Backup Running Back

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    While Frank Gore is the starter, it has become a crowded field behind him.

    The Niners made this interesting when they signed former Giants bruiser Brandon Jacobs. On an interesting side note, they also signed undrafted rookie Jewel Hampton to give the 49ers two tailbacks from Southern Illinois University.

    The 6’4”, 264-pound Jacobs was released by the Giants after seven roller-coaster seasons. The Niners also brought in former Washington Redskins and Oakland Raiders back Rock Cartwright, who will be entering his 11th NFL season. Even after signing those two veterans, San Francisco then selected Oregon speedster LaMichael James in the second round of the draft.

    Those three join a group that already included Kendall Hunter, a fourth-rounder from last year who ran for 473 yards and two scores as a rookie, and third-year back Anthony Dixon, who was a sixth-round pick in 2010.

    It will be an unenviable task of coach Jim Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Greg Roman and running backs coach Tom Rathman to sort this out. At least they know who their No. 1 guy is.

Kick and Punt Returner

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    Ted Ginn Jr. has been a dynamic kick and punt returner since the Miami Dolphins took the former Ohio State star in the first round of the 2007 NFL draft. Ginn has six total touchdown returns, including two last year for the Niners. Ginn also has some injury concerns, which is why the 49ers have other options in Kyle Williams, Kendall Hunter and rookie LaMichael James.

    Williams famously botched a pair of punts in last season’s NFC Championship game. Those fumbles led to 10 points for the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants. Williams received death threats in the days following the game, but he is still a serviceable returner.

    Hunter returned six kicks last year as a rookie for an average of 26 yards. He is sure-handed with just one fumble in 134 touches. James was a dynamic player on offense and special teams at Oregon. He only returned 15 punts for the Ducks, but took one all the way back for a score. As a running back, James ran for a school record 1,805 yards last year and his 5,082 career rushing yards rank second all-time in Pac-12 Conference history.

    Ginn should be the primary return man on opening day, but the Niners have options and that is a good thing.

Right Guard

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    Mike Iupati is entrenched at left guard, but right guard Adam Snyder left for Arizona and Chilo Rachal is now in Chicago. That leaves the team with its only real starter void.

    The Niners have been using 6’8” tackle Alex Boone at guard during the minicamps and organized team activities, but Boone may be too big to play in tight space. The true guards on the roster who will also compete for the job are Daniel Kilgore, Mike Person, undrafted rookie Jason Slowey and fourth-round draft pick Joe Looney.

    Kilgore and Person were both undrafted rookies last year, but made the team. Slowey is big, tough and strong, but played college ball at Western Oregon so he’s also very green. Looney is the most polished of the group, but that doesn’t mean he’s ready to start.

    Coach Jim Harbaugh likes versatility in linemen, so he could stick with Boone. Because of that and the fact that it’s a starting job up for grabs, this is probably the most intriguing of all the position competitions in 49ers training camp.