San Francisco 49ers: Way-Too-Early 53-Man Roster and Depth Chart Predictions
The San Francisco 49ers drafted 11 players this year: Two defensive ends, two offensive tackles, three cornerbacks, one guard, one running back, one wide receiver and one quarterback.
One of those players probably will start right away and play most of the snaps on offense. Another player certainly will have a significant part-time role and play about half of the snaps on defense. A third player may not make the final roster.
Which rookie is danger of getting cut? Which veterans could get cut as well? And which quarterback will start against the Los Angeles Rams Week 1—Colin Kaepernick, Blaine Gabbert or the rookie, Jeff Driskel?
Follow along to read my way-too-early predictions.
Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert will compete for the starting quarterback job, and Kaepernick probably will win. He still is more talented than Gabbert, who’s a passive check-down machine. Kaepernick has his flaws, too, but at least he competes.
Sixth-round pick Jeff Driskel probably will spend all 16 games on the inactive list—the Niners don’t need to dress three quarterbacks on Sundays.
But in 2017, it’s not out of the question for Driskel to become the starting quarterback, especially if Kaepernick plays poorly in 2016. The Niners can cut Kaepernick at any time, and Gabbert will be a free agent after next season.
Carlos Hyde is by far the best running back on the team and could lead the NFL in rushing if he ever stays healthy. But, he probably won’t stay healthy. He has gotten injured each of his first two seasons in the NFL.
Veteran DuJuan Harris should be the favorite for the No. 2 running-back job. He's the 49ers’ fastest running back and catches passes out of the backfield, which will make him an effective change of pace from Hyde.
Last year’s fourth-round pick, Mike Davis, and this year’s sixth-round pick, Kelvin Taylor, will compete to be the Niners’ No. 3 running back. Davis probably will win that competition just because he's older.
With Anquan Boldin no longer on the team, Torrey Smith becomes the 49ers’ No. 1 receiver by default. But he most likely will stay at his old spot, split end—that's the only position he has played in the NFL. He’s not a good enough route-runner to play flanker, nor is he physical enough to play in the slot.
The starting flanker to start the season most likely will be Quinton Patton, while the slot receiver probably will be Bruce Ellington. They should get the first chance to play.
But if they don't play well, second-year receiver DeAndre Smelter and Eric Rogers probably will get a chance to replace them during the middle of the season. Rogers was a slot receiver in the Canadian Football League, so he would replace Ellington. And Smelter played outside at Georgia Tech, so he would replace Patton.
Rookie sixth-round pick Aaron Burbridge probably won’t play as a rookie. But, he has the skill set to line up at all three receiver positions in Chip Kelly’s offense down the line. He could become an important backup next season.
Garrett Celek most likely will be the starter after having a "breakout" season in 2015. He caught a career-high 19 passes and scored three touchdowns in 11 games, establishing himself as both best receiving and blocking tight end on the 49ers.
Second-year tight end Blake Bell isn't nearly as good of a blocker as Celek, but Bell can move and catch. The Niners probably will use him as an H-back who lines up in the slot, similar to the way Chip Kelly used Zach Ertz in Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, former second-round pick Vance McDonald is in danger of getting cut. He needs to show he can catch the ball consistently, or else the Niners may give his roster spot to 2015 seventh-round pick Busta Anderson.
I expect the 49ers will play rookie first-round pick Joshua Garnett at left guard so he can line up between veterans Joe Staley and Daniel Kilgore. Those two will help Garnett transition to the NFL.
On the right side of the line, I expect the Niners will play veteran guard Zane Beadles next to second-year right tackle Trent Brown. That would be smarter than playing Garnett and Brown on the same side, because teams would take advantage of their inexperience.
On the bench, the 49ers probably will keep their two third-round picks from 2014—Marcus Martin and Brandon Thomas—as well as their two fifth-round picks from this year—John Theus and Fahn Cooper—while ditching veterans Andrew Tiller, Jordan Devey and Erik Pears.
Rookie first-round pick DeForest Buckner will start at right defensive end if both Ian Williams and Glenn Dorsey are injured when the season begins.
But if one of them is healthy, that player will start at nose tackle, and Quinton Dial will start at right defensive end. In that case, Buckner would come off the bench, just like Arik Armstead did last season. That seems to be the most likely scenario. Buckner probably will be a sub-package interior rusher his rookie season.
Armstead should be a full-time starter at left defensive end after playing only during passing downs last season. He looks much stronger to me in person than he did his rookie season.
When Dorsey returns from his torn ACL, he will be the main backup defensive lineman, because he can play all three defensive line positions. While he’s rehabbing, Mike Purcell will be the primary backup nose tackle, and rookie Ronald Blair will be the primary backup defensive end.
For the second season in a row, the 49ers’ starting outside linebackers probably will be Ahmad Brooks and Aaron Lynch. The Niners didn’t add anyone in the draft who can beat out either of those two next season.
In fact, the Niners didn’t draft a single edge-rusher this year. The Niners must believe in their 2015 third-round pick, Eli Harold, and their 2013 second-round pick, Tank Carradine. Those two should get plenty of playing time next season.
Carradine didn't play much the first three seasons of his career. He was a 290-pound defensive tackle, and not a good one. This offseason he lost weight, and next season he'll transition to the edge, where he played at Florida State. He probably will be a pass-rushing specialist for the 49ers.
NaVorro Bowman was an All-Pro last season, and he’s one of the best run defenders in the NFL. Next to him, the Niners have a couple of players who are just guys—Michael Wilhoite and Gerald Hodges. Nothing special.
Those two will compete to play next to Bowman in the base defense. I expect Wilhoite will win that competition, because he is a more disciplined player. Hodges is more athletic than Wilhoite, but Hodges rarely is where he’s supposed to be. That’s a problem for an inside linebacker.
In the sub-packages, I expect the 49ers will replace Wilhoite or Hodges with second-year safety Jaquiski Tartt. Tartt played linebacker on passing downs last season and is much better in coverage than any of the 49ers’ inside linebackers.
Many fans expected the 49ers to trade veteran strong safety Antoine Bethea this offseason and anoint second-year safety Jaquiski Tartt as Bethea’s replacement. Hasn't happened.
The Niners are smart to keep Bethea. A young team like San Francisco needs as many veteran leaders as possible, and Bethea is one of the only veteran leaders the 49ers have. He’s valuable.
At free safety, Eric Reid still is the starter, but for how long? Jimmie Ward seemed much more aggressive and effective the last eight games of 2015. Don’t be surprised if Ward takes his spot at free safety either in 2016 or 2017.
The last safety on the depth chart is L.J. McCray, who isn’t really a safety. He’s a special teams specialist, and a very good one.
The 49ers spent their third- and fourth-round picks on cornerbacks this year, which makes you think new head coach Chip Kelly isn’t thrilled with the corners who already were on the roster.
Last year’s starters were Tramaine Brock and Kenneth Acker, and neither played particularly well. Acker couldn’t cover most NFL receivers man to man, and Brock gave up big plays. He seems to be on the downside of his career.
Still, Brock and Acker most likely will start at corner in 2016 because they have the most experience. But in 2017, I wouldn’t be surprised if the starters become the two corners the Niners drafted this year—Mississippi State’s Will Redmond and LSU’s Rashard Robinson. The other corners on the depth chart—Dontae Johnson and Keith Reaser—seem like long-term backups.
|Kick Returner||Bruce Ellington|
|Punt Returner||Bruce Ellington|
No change here since last season.
Phil Dawson still is the kicker. Bradley Pinion still is the punter. Kyle Nelson still is the long snapper. And Bruce Ellington still is the punt- and kick-returner.
Next season could be Ellington’s breakout year. It will be his third season in the league, and receivers often come into their own during Year 3. Maybe if the 49ers increase Ellington's role on offense and get the ball in his hands more often, he’ll feel more comfortable and confident returning punts and kicks. He still is by far the best returner on the team.
53-Man Roster Prediction