49ers' Position Battles to Watch Ahead of 2021 NFL Season

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistMay 31, 2021

49ers' Position Battles to Watch Ahead of 2021 NFL Season

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The bulk of the 2021 NFL offseason has ended. The first few phases of free agency and the draft are in the rearview, meaning that the San Francisco 49ers roster is largely what it is going to be during the regular season—just a bit bigger.

    Over the next few months, San Francisco, like every other NFL team, will whittle its roster to 53 players. Some players are fighting for roster spots; others are battling for starting jobs or significant roles.

    During organized team activities (OTAs), minicamps, training camp and the preseason, the 49ers will search for answers to their roster questions. Here we will examine three positional battles worth keeping an eye on during the lead-up to the 2021 season.

Running Back

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    Head coach Kyle Shanahan has regularly employed a committee backfield during his time with the 49ers. What that committee looks like in 2021 will largely be determined in the coming months. San Francisco has a bevy of backs with whom to work, including Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson Jr., free-agent addition Wayne Gallman and rookies Elijah Mitchell and Trey Sermon.

    Wilson, unfortunately, won't be part of the offseason competition.

    "Wilson recently underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus, sources say," NFL Network's Mike Garafolo tweeted. "Wilson is expected to miss four to six months, which means he'll be sidelined through the start of the regular season."

    Mostert should enter camp as the favorite to start given his experience in the offense. However, it will be worth watching the rookies to see how quickly they adapt. Sermon, a bruising former Ohio State standout and third-round pick, could be a particular threat to take early-down carries in the regular season.

Interior Offensive Line

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    San Francisco's offensive tackles should be set for 2021, with both Trent Williams and Mike McGlinchey returning. However, there will be some competition to determine the pecking order in the interior.

    This offseason, San Francisco added veteran center Alex Mack and used a second-round pick on former Notre Dame guard Aaron Banks. Meanwhile, former starting center Weston Richburg decided to retire.

    This should leave Mack as the 49ers' new starting center and Banks competing with returning guards Laken Tomlinson and Daniel Brunskill for playing time. Players like Justin Skule and Tom Compton will also be in the mix.

    This battle will be more about fine-tuning roles and developing depth, but it will be important. With a 17-game season on the horizon, O-line depth could be the key to a successful 49ers postseason run.


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    Scott Eklund/Associated Press

    This is the big one. The 49ers used the third overall pick on former North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance, clearly indicating he is the quarterback of the future. However, the quarterback of the present likely remains Jimmy Garoppolo, who continues to have support from the roster.

    "I'm told Garoppolo still has significant support in the 49ers building," ESPN's Jeremy Fowler said on SportsCenter (h/t Bleacher Report's Rob Goldberg). "... They feel like if he's in the lineup, he's healthy, 'We win.'"

    The issue with Garoppolo has been health, as he has missed 23 games over the past three seasons. This means that while he should have the inside track at being the Week 1 starter, developing Lance will be a key component of the offseason.

    Should Lance show enough in camp and in the preseason, he may be able to push for the starting job. However, he's more likely competing to be Garoppolo's primary backup and for a chance to start if Garoppolo is knocked out of the lineup.