After a nightmarish offseason wreaked havoc on San Francisco’s depth chart, this year’s training camp is more important for the 49ers than any in recent history.
The team is still littered with talented young athletes capable of providing both offensive and defensive threats, but the mass exodus of trusted veterans and key contributors has left glaring holes in this year’s roster.
Few positions across the board are considered to be sure locks. QB Colin Kaepernick, LB NaVorro Bowman, T Joe Staley, S Eric Reid, S Antoine Bethea and WRs Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith are about the only candidates assured a starting spot.
While the departures have left the team veiled in uncertainty, San Francisco has a compiled a slew of hungry players itching to earn playing time from their new coaching staff.
Saturday’s return to the practice field will begin to determine which athletes will step up and help right the 49ers sinking ship. But before head coach Jim Tomsula and his staff make any decisions, let’s take a look at areas of focus for the 49ers heading into training camp.
The departures of Pro Bowler Mike Iupati and and Anthony Davis left gaping holes along the offensive line at left guard and right tackle. This unit is still a giant question mark to fans and coaches alike, as many players, besides Staley, have the opportunity to be shuffled around depending on how training camp shapes up.
The most likely players to step in for Iupati will be Alex Boone, Brandon Thomas and either Marcus Martin or Daniel Kilgore, depending how the competition for center shapes up. However, the 49ers also have Joe Looney and newcomer Trent Brown who may make a push for playing time.
At left tackle, the 49ers signed free agent Erik Pears to take over the position, as the 10-year veteran looks to have the edge in experience that Tomsula is looking for. Despite glowing endorsements from Tomsula, though, Pears’ Pro Football Focus’ ranking was the third-worst in the NFL last season among linemen, leaving uncertainty around the type of protection he can provide for Kaepernick.
The 49ers can use training camp to treat the offensive line like a puzzle in progress, as a lot of players can be maneuvered around depending on their play. Martin has seen play at both center and guard, as has Looney, though the latter was used only in desperate positions at center. Likewise, Kilgore, who is currently on the PUP as he rehabs a leg injury, can also switch between center and guard.
If the 49ers find themselves with two serviceable guards, Boone can make the switch to right tackle, which many have suggested may be the case. This would free up Pears for either a backup role or a shot at guard.
There are many “what-ifs” and “maybes” regarding who may end up where for the 49ers, making their time at training camp even more valuable as the coaching staff attempts to develop some continuity and chemistry with a group before the first snap of the season.
San Francisco suffered a blow by losing two of last year’s starting cornerbacks in Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox during the offseason. Cox and Culliver combined for nine interceptions while boosting the 49ers to the fifth-best pass defense in the league.
Tremaine Brock, slated to be a starter last year before injuries saw him play in just three games in 2014, is still under contract, but has left many concerned over his ability to stay on the field. If Brock can stay healthy, he projects to be a starter for this revamped 49ers cornerback unit.
Opposite Brock, however, is still a mystery. The only real acquisition the 49ers made over the offseason in order to address this question is the addition of Shareece Wright, who has started 27 games for San Diego over the last two seasons.
The 49ers also re-signed Chris Cook, who saw little action last season after a torn hamstring kept him sidelined. Both Cook and Wright need to prove they can provide the kind of consistent coverage that Culliver and Cox showed last year.
Wright projects to be the favorite to win the second spot, though another likely option is Dontae Johnson, who showed flashes of brilliance during his rookie campaign in 2014. Johnson will be joined in competition by a duo of young cornerbacks looking to make an impact, in Kenneth Acker and Keith Reaser.
Acker saw playing time during 2014’s preseason game, but had his season derailed after a stress fracture in his foot saw him hit the injury reserve. Reaser was a fifth-round pick in 2014 despite having an ACL tear, showing that the 49ers think he can develop into a decent player to invest such a pick in him. Both Reaser, Acker and DB Jimmie Ward have all been medically cleared for the start of camp, and will look to fight for playing time.
Short of another incident off the field, talented linebacker Aldon Smith will be the starting OLB for the 49ers in 2015. Who starts along with him is more mysterious. After losing his starting job due to attitude and conditioning last season, Ahmad Brooks projects to start opposite Smith at the start of 2015.
Aaron Lynch was simply too good last season to keep sidelined for long. Lynch tied Brooks for the team high in sacks with six while registering 23 total tackles. The 49ers could play all three linebackers in a fearsome rotation, thoubh Brooks’ $7 million cap hit and alleged sexual assault may open a door for Corey Lemonier or third-round draft pick Eli Harold.
If you can’t beat them, have them join you. That’s apparently the philosophy of general manager Trent Baalke, whose free-agent splash was signing Torrey Smith to a five-year, $40 million contract over the offseason.
The signing reunites the speedy Smith with Anquan Boldin, who started for the Baltimore Ravens when they defeated the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. Smith and Boldin compliment each other nicely, as Smith’s speed opens up the field for the bruising Boldin to work the mid and short routes.
One question is who is next on the depth chart when the 49ers decide to roll out a three-receiver set. Though the 49ers signed Jerome Simpson in the offseason, Bruce Ellington and Quinton Patton both will have a chance to make their mark in the NFL.
Patton, who was drafted in the fourth round in 2013, played just six games in his rookie season before being derailed by a foot injury. In 2014, he continued to slip down the depth chart after the 49ers acquired several veteran receivers. However, 2015 will be Patton’s opportunity to finally burst out with a strong showing in camp and preseason.
Ellington won’t make it easy on him though, and neither will Simpson. Ellington has demonstrated his value to the team as a return man and receiver who can occasionally come out of the backfield. The young receiver is also not strapped for speed or ability to make plays. Simpson has had some trouble off the field, but looked good during minicamp as one of the standouts of the early offseason program.
When the 49ers selected Carlos Hyde in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft, he was expected to be the heir apparent of longtime running back Frank Gore. That scenario played out after just one season, and the job is now Hyde’s to run away with.
It’s likely that Hyde won’t be relied upon as heavily as Gore was during his first season atop the depth chart. Splitting time with Hyde will be newly-signed veteran Reggie Bush, and Kendall Hunter, whose return from an ACL injury could also dig into Hyde’s snap count.
Dark horses in the running back race will be fourth-round pick Mike Davis, and former National Rugby League All-Star Jarryd Hayne. Davis flashed potential with his running and pass protection before injuries dropped him to the fourth round of the 2014 draft. Hayne has shown explosiveness in the open field as a return man, and could earn himself a roster spot as a specialist.
The question isn’t necessarily who will be top dog, as Hyde almost assuredly will be, but who will compliment Hyde, and how. Bush’s versatile hands will most likely make him a passing-down back or a safety valve receiver. However, if the 49ers want to continue their typical “smash mouth” style of running the ball, it could be Hunter who relieves Hyde, as Gore’s trusty backup averaged an impressive 4.6 yards per game across his three years of service in the NFL.