Updating San Francisco 49ers' Position Battles Halfway Through Training Camp
On a fully stocked Super Bowl contender like the San Francisco 49ers, not often are there distinct positional battles in training camp that have great bearing on the outcome of the season.
However, as early as July, precarious elements have already materialized, redirecting the way this year’s run was originally intended to go.
Now, with the roster changeover, which includes several injuries and players lost to free agency, the ‘Niners are avidly seeking results through rigorous up-tempo competition.
From critical backup jobs, to starting positions and featured roles, the 49ers are depending on the contributions of several. If the organization manages to come up empty handed in its quest to replenish key production, it could spell trouble in a season with an ultra-competitive schedule.
Here is Bleacher Report’s up-to-date progress report on headlining position battles from San Francisco.
Statistics provided by Pro Football Reference and NFL.com Game Center, unless specified otherwise. (^) next to a player’s name indicates a stock on the rise, while (*) means his stock is dropping and (+) indicates an injured player.
No. 2 Wide Receiver
Front-Runner: Kyle Williams
Dark Horse: A.J. Jenkins (*), Quinton Patton (+) and Ricardo Lockette (^)
In the Hunt: Marlon Moore (^) and Austin Collie
(WR Mario Manningham is also working his way back to 100 percent and will be a lock for a featured role once healthy.)
Kyle Williams did not have to partake in the first preseason game to stay firmly ahead of the pack. Assessing the rest of the green-horned receivers in camp, it is easy to see the separation between K-Dub and everyone else. No WR on the roster knows the ins and outs of this offense as well as the fourth-year pro from Arizona State.
And judging by everyone’s performance to date, there is not a single identifiable challenger for Williams, who looks to be the most legitimate option going into Week 1. If he can avoid getting dinged up, he is a likely candidate to lead in reps taken at wide receiver behind Anquan Boldin.
Moving on…things are starting to get real for A.J. Jenkins, who was supposed to be the favorite opposite Boldin. He did not fare too well in his first preseason game in Year 2:
4 passes near AJ Jenkins: 1. Never looked for it, 2. Catch/fumble, 3. Overthrown for INT, no attempt at ball, 4. Chad Hall beats him to it— Cam Inman (@CamInman) August 9, 2013
Out of the entire receiving corps, Jenkins is actually the only one that appears to have taken a step back. Each of the receivers, from Austin Collie to Marlon Moore, flashed a little something, but No. 17 is the one player at the position that might have come away with a negative grade after his showing versus Denver.
Furthermore, at no point during the offseason has Jenkins done anything to validate the Round 1 pick the 49ers spent on him. His play is leveling out with late-round picks and UDFAs, as Matt Maiocco has reported that the first-rounder has completely failed to distinguish himself in training camp.
In this post-game video for CSN Bay Area, Maiocco says, “If A.J. Jenkins does not turn this thing around and show that he can produce on the field, he might not fit into the 49ers’ plans this season.”
The coaches have given him a ton of work in camp, and in the Thursday-night game, he led all receivers in snaps taken. Even though he played 59 percent of offensive downs (via Cam Inman), it was not enough for him to make a play. Now, two of his notable career targets include a drop and a catch-and-fumble seen here.
One thing to note about Jenkins, though, is that he did not work with the first team on Thursday night—Marlon Moore started opposite Anquan Boldin.
The 49ers' second-team O-line was atrocious, while quarterbacks Colt McCoy and Scott Tolzien did not fare much better. This really hindered Jenkins’ opportunity to show what he has worked on this offseason. In that respect, the 49ers did not do a good job putting him in a position to make a play to get his confidence up.
Since there were no highlights from the San Fran wide receiving-corps, the position group as a whole continues to rev in neutral.
As far as a depth chart goes, it is inconclusive.
No. 1 Nose Tackle
Front-Runner: Ian Williams (^)
Dark Horse: Glenn Dorsey
In the Hunt: N/A
This news came on as a bit of a shocker, seeing as how ex-Chiefs DT Glenn Dorsey was the first external unrestricted free agent the 49ers pursued. Also, between him and Ian Williams, the top pick from 2008 is undoubtedly the higher-profile player and the only one with starting experience (65 starts, 66 games).
At first glance, the idea was that, with Isaac Sopoaga in Philadelphia and Ricky Jean-Francois in Indianapolis, the 49ers would be able to plug Dorsey in and not miss a beat on the defensive line. However, it appears that there was a huge oversight by the majority in terms of what Williams brings to the table.
In what is a surprising turn of events, Williams is actually the unanimous pick right now to step in and secure the No. 1 gig between bone crushers Justin Smith and Ray McDonald.
Williams has been one of he most consistent players in camp, receiving high remarks from fellow players, coaches and the local beat since July. And more so, now that the pads are on, he seems to have kicked it up a notch, really exhibiting his combination of quickness and power.
At 6’1” and 305 pounds, Williams is a multifaceted defender that can both clog running lanes and penetrate gaps. He has had a great training camp, partnered with a great exhibition showing.
No. 3 Cornerback
Front-Runner: Nnamdi Asomugha (^)
Dark Horse: Tramaine Brock (^) and Perrish Cox (^)
In the Hunt: Eric Wright
With Tarell Brown returning the to the lineup, and assuming Carlos Rogers is safe, this is what it will boil down to as the third-listed cornerback.
This is an important tidbit, since the new-era NFL demands that any given team have three-plus starting-caliber corners. In 2012, SF came out of a defensive grouping employing three or more corners roughly 60 percent of the time. The third CB is no longer a place where the performance drop off can be.
With that being the case, it may be safe to say that three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha is the top candidate to earn time in the lineup in the wake of Chris Culliver’s ACL injury. The ‘Niners need the help, and frankly, he did not look bad against preseason competition.
Playing exclusively on the right side, Asomugha looked reborn out there, running effortlessly up and down the field, covering chunks of yards at a time with his long, 6’2” stride. He did not give up any plays and viciously stuck a receiver in the flat who was left hanging out to dry.
Asomugha’s unofficial tally read 22 snaps, which only involved 13 plays for which he lined up in press-man coverage, via Jeff Deeney of PFF.
The news gets better for San Francisco’s cornerback-starved ballclub, which saw Perrish Cox finish as one of the standout players of the game. On top of his five solo tackles, which was second highest for the team that day, Cox contributed on special teams, bringing one kickoff back for 33 yards and a punt for 15 yards.
In coverage, Cox also made a nice pass breakup in the red zone.
Tramaine Brock also put together a fine performance, hanging with the starters early in the game, running stride for stride with guys like Eric Decker. Brock is an underrated corner that is similar to starter Tarell Brown in that he is dependable in coverage but not flashy.
Add in newly signed Eric Wright to the mix, and the 49ers may be able to endure this overwhelming loss to their cornerback group. And like the offensive side of the ball, a committee of corners fluctuating around Brown and Rogers may be the approach.
No. 3 Outside Linebacker
Front-Runner: Parys Haralson
Dark Horse: Corey Lemonier (^)
In the Hunt: Cam Johnson and Dan Skuta (^)
This offseason, the 49ers restructured veteran LB Parys Haralson to a one-year, $1.3 million deal, per NFL insider Ian Rapoport. Originally slated to make twice that, this was a substantial pay cut for the eight-year pro, who clearly showed where his heart and motivations lie.
But Haralson is a bright guy.
The former starter fully understood that the rise of 2011 draft pick Aldon Smith prompted the two parties to get something done, one way or the other. If he wanted to roll the dice on a bare market, Haralson was free to do so, but he knew what he was getting in San Francisco.
Moreover, Haralson and the 49ers have a strong relationship, which will keep him locked in at the No. 3 outside-linebacker spot. But that is not to say he won’t have legitimate competition pushing him for time on the field this season. OLBs Corey Lemonier, Cam Johnson and Dan Skuta are all in the mix—each looking relatively sharp in the exhibition.
While Haralson had four tackles, one assist and a sack versus Denver, Lemonier, the 2013 third-round selection, was a huge presence, firing off the edge and harassing the quarterback. Even though his skills against the run are rudimentary, there is a lot of upside as a pass-rusher, which holds more value in today’s NFL.
Behind starters Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks, the top of the lineup should read Haralson and Lemonier as 1-A and 1-B.
No. 1 Free Safety
Front-Runner: Eric Reid (^)
Dark Horse: Craig Dahl and C.J. Spillman
In the Hunt: Darcel McBath, Trenton Robinson (*) and Michael Thomas (^)
As weighty a duty as any team had this offseason, the 49ers had to replace an All-Pro in FS Dashon Goldson, who accepted Tampa Bay’s lucrative offer to be the third-highest-earning safety in the National Football League, via Spotrac.
While the team inserted serviceable competition via the free-agent wire, general manager Trent Baalke and his crew went all in on Day 1 of the draft, trading up to No. 18 overall for esteemed LSU safety Eric Reid.
The two-time All-American was the captain and knockout king of the fiercest defense in college football, which led the 49ers to believe that he was not only qualified but had the confidence and bravado to be a functioning role player who contributes to the personality of this unit.
Fortunately, his preseason debut was a hit—literally.
Reid led the 49ers safeties in snaps played, participating in two-thirds of the defensive downs against the Broncos at Candlestick Park (44 plays, via Cam Inman). During his time on the field, the rookie laid two devastating hits on receivers which could not have been timed any better.
Not once, but twice, the crack of the pads was the rubber stamp validating Reid and San Francisco’s decision to trade up for him in a deep class. He looks pro ready and thirsty for contact, which is exactly the kind of energy the 49ers need to replenish the spirit left by Goldson.
However, Reid has not yet been challenged in coverage, so that part of his game is still a mystery. Hopefully he will reveal more positives like he did in Week 1, but so far, he is in on track to start versus Green Bay on September 8.
Meanwhile, Dahl and Spillman will continue to compete, but it is a clear exercise in futility. Assuming they are both part of the final 53-man roster, the pair of safeties will function as aces for Brad Seely’s special-teams unit.
Moving down the depth chart, McBath, Robinson and Thomas are in a three-way fight for the roster.
Robinson, the only one drafted, has not done anything to stand out, whereas Thomas has looked good on special teams and McBath has the inside track by being Ed Donatell’s pupil brought in from Denver. It is a deep competition, but the separation between Reid and the rest of the pack is becoming more apparent as the regular season nears.
Harbaugh on Eric Reid: "I thought he's somebody to highlight...Eric showed his athleticism, tackling ability."— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) August 9, 2013
No. 2 Quarterback
Front-Runner: Colt McCoy (+)
Dark Horse: Scott Tolzien (*)
In the Hunt: B.J. Daniels
Finalizing the changeover from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers now have a brand-new battle ongoing at backup quarterback. The move to send Smith to Kansas City preceded by the bump up for Kap has left San Francisco thin on the bench.
As it turns out, we’re discovering that the 49ers' trade for Colt McCoy in April was not the end-all, be-all solution to the No. 2 QB spot.
None of the quarterbacks behind Kaepernick have done anything worthwhile to make coach Jim Harbaugh commit to one. When their first chance came to separate from the competition, McCoy went 3-of-7 for 41 yards and an interception while Tolzien went 15-of-26 for 158 yards and an interception.
Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area also reported that in the match up versus Denver, McCoy got dinged and underwent an MRI on his neck and shoulder. This could thrust more reps upon the shoulders of Tolzien and rookie B.J. Daniels, who did not take a snap as a passer in his preseason debut.
This three-way battle is still yet to shake out, but McCoy and Tolzien are neck and neck until Daniels can prove he brings more value to a roster spot.