49ers' Projected Winners of Key Position Battles

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistAugust 16, 2021

49ers' Projected Winners of Key Position Battles

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    The San Francisco 49ers opened their preseason against the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday. While San Francisco fell 19-16, the final score meant less than the early look the 49ers got at some key players and positional battles.

    The biggest battle, at least for fans, is the one between incumbent quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and rookie third overall pick Trey Lance. While the 49ers aren't going to rush the rookie on to the field, they are also not opposed to giving him a shot.

    "I definitely see it as Jimmy is the starter, but if Trey is ready to compete, I have no problem with it," head coach Kyle Shanahan told The Athletic's Tim Kawakami.

    Here we'll examine that battle and some of the other key competitions from camp and predict the winners before Week 1.

Running Back

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    To be fair, the competition at running back isn't likely to dictate a full-time starter. Shanahan regularly employs a committee backfield, and this has been the case early in training camp.

    "Raheem Mostert remains the leader in the 49ers' running back clubhouse," Cam Inman of the Mercury News wrote. " The incumbent—and insistent—starter has 31 carries in full-team work through seven practices. He hasn't always been the first-string running back, however."

    JaMycal Hasty and rookie third-round pick Trey Sermon got opportunities against the Chiefs. While Sermon had a solid if underwhelming performance—10 carries for 26 yards, two catches for 14 yards—Hasty shone. He had 10 carries for 63 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown scamper.

    The 49ers also have Wayne Gallman and rookie sixth-round pick Elijah Mitchell at the position—though the latter is expected to miss time with an abductor strain, per Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area.

    Ultimately, San Francisco is likely to continue using multiple backs in the rotation. However, Mostert, who had 677 scrimmage yards in eight games last season, should remain the primary starter.

    Prediction: Mostert starts Week 1.

Right Guard

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    The battle at right guard is unsettled. San Francisco returns Daniel Brunskill, who started at both guard and center in 2020 but wasn't particularly impressive.

    Brunskill was responsible for four penalties and four sacks, according to Pro Football Focus.

    The 49ers also have rookie second-round pick Aaron Banks, though he suffered a shoulder injury against Kansas City and may not be ready for Week 1.

    "Aaron Banks is expected to miss a few weeks due to a shoulder injury suffered in the preseason opener against the Kansas City Chiefs at Levi's Stadium," Jennifer Lee Chan of NBC Sports Bay Area wrote. "The rookie offensive lineman landed hard on his right shoulder with the additional weight of a defender on his body."

    The 49ers would probably love for Banks to start right away—they took the Notre Dame product high for a reason—and he should take over at some point in 2021. However, availability is kind of important, and if Banks cannot prep for Week 1, he may not get the chance to play.

    Prediction: Brunskill starts Week 1.


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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Lance may have closed the gap on Garoppolo some Saturday. While he wasn't as steady as the 49ers may have liked, he flashed his upside multiple times against the Chiefs. The biggest moment came when Lance uncorked a beautiful 80-yard touchdown pass to Trent Sherfield late in the first quarter.

    In all, Lance went 5-of-14 for 128 yards, taking four sacks along the way. Garoppolo, meanwhile, was a solid if unspectacular 3-of-3 for 26 yards in limited action.

    The issue for Lance is that the 49ers aren't likely to bank on upside right away. They were in the Super Bowl just two years ago and likely believe they can return this season. Therefore, Lance's potential may not outweigh the risks of up-and-down rookie quarterback play.

    Garoppolo, on the other hand, has already proved that he can take San Francisco to the big game. His ceiling may not be as high as Lance's, but his floor is solid and well-defined. Health could be a factor, as Garoppolo has missed 23 games over the past three seasons. The 49ers may also use Lance in a change-of-pace role.

    However, Garoppolo isn't likely to cede the starting job until later in the season—unless, of course, he suffers another significant injury.

    Prediction: Garoppolo starts Week 1.