49ers head to training camp looking for answers

After the roster purge of 2015 and a lackluster free agency period, new head coach Chip Kelly enters his first training camp with the San Francisco 49ers with more questions than answers.

With the current state of 49ers personnel, expectations should be tempered for the upcoming season. But next week’s start of training camp still holds significance in assessing the state of the 49ers as they attempt to turn the corner on a rough patch in franchise history.

A new head coach taking the reins, and hungry young players vying for their first chance to start in the NFL, makes camp an early indication of whether the franchise is truly reloading under general manager Trent Baalke — or whether they’ll continue to suffer behind front office leadership.

The elephant in the locker room is whether Blaine Gabbert retains signal-calling duties for San Francisco, or if a resurgent Colin Kaepernick can return to once-dominant form under the guidance of Kelly.

The showdown between the two quarterbacks will fill headlines in the upcoming weeks, but there are a slew of other important battles to watch for as well.

With the 49ers continuing to lose more players than they add, and new schemes from Kelly and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil opening up fresh roles, a number of positions could be projected to take a new look in 2016.

Wide receiver

The most glaring 49ers roster hole may be at wide receiver. Following the loss of trusty veteran Anquan Boldin — who led the team in receptions every season since joining in 2013 — the 49ers are without a proven option opposite starting WR Torrey Smith.

Being thin at receiver comes at a bad time for the 49ers, as Kelly loves to utilize his wide receivers in his high-powered offense. Smith has struggled heavily to create openings, with opposing defensive backs honing in on him last season, a trend which looks to continue without Boldin.

But the 49ers are not without options. Former fourth-round pick Quinton Patton remains the most logical choice to take over, despite just 36 catches in three seasons. Patton has the speed and shiftiness to run amok in Kelly’s offense,but is far from a lock.

Another possibility is WR Bruce Ellington, who has been used sparingly since being drafted out of South Carolina in 2014. Ellington has the barn-burning speed Kelly longs for, running a 4.45 40-yard dash in the NFL combine.

Most importantly, Ellington brings versatility to the position that can add another level of deception to Kelly’s offense. He has experience running sweeps while also being able to come out of the backfield as well.

With a lack of height at 5-foot-9 and just 19 career receptions, Ellington’s versatility may be key to his push for a starting role.

Other notables to watch for include rookie Aaron Burbridge out of Michigan State, DeAndre Smelter — a big-bodied receiver with gigantic hands ready to debut after an ACL tear sidelined him for his rookie season — and veteran Jerome Simpson.

Cornerback

Like at wide receiver, the 49ers find themselves with one capable starter at cornerback but no sure lock to line up opposite. Tramaine Brock figures to be the incumbent starter on the left of the field, but San Francisco is still searching on the right side.

The most likely scenario involves sending 2014 first-rounder Jimmie Ward to the outside, after a strong rookie campaign earned him a jump in playing time. However, moving the former 30th-overall pick opens up a hole for the 49ers in the nickel back role, where Ward had spent his previous two years.

The 49ers could slide Kenneth Acker into that role, after the former sixth-rounder started 13 games last season on the outside. Or they could give Dontae Johnson an extended look, who has flashed signs of promise but has failed to show consistency.

Another alternative is to give rookies Rashard Robinson and Will Redmond a look. After snagging Redmond in the third round, Baalke had said he expects the rookie out of Mississippi State to compete for a role inside.

And though Redmond is another Baalke signature pick — in the midst of rehabbing from an ACL tear — both parties have said they expect Redmond to be able to compete in camp for a role.

Since he would have likely gone much higher were he not recovering from an injury, this gives an interesting upside to Redmond. He could make an immediate contribution if he is truly healthy.

Other options — healthier ones — include Chris Davis and Robinson, whose off-the-field antics overshadowed his length and athletic ability to led to an early dismissal from the LSU program. If Robinson can turn his act around and commit to the rigors and discipline of the NFL, the 49ers may have two very capable young cornerbacks on their hands.

The 49ers camp will see plenty of battles at other positions, though receiver and corner are perhaps the most crucial in determining whether Kelly’s squad can improve on last year’s dismal 5-11 record.

Kelly’s up-tempo game plan revolves around his offense, making the need for a capable second wide receiver crucial. But that same concept is a double-edged sword that will see the defense being trotted out more than usual following quick drives, making the need for a capable nickel cornerback even more crucial than in recent years.


Shawn Whelchel is SFBay’s San Francisco 49ers beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @ShawnWhelchel on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of 49ers football.