49ers begin training camp in search of fresh identity

It’s been 207 days since the San Francisco 49ers got a real taste of football.

And on that New Year’s Day, a 25-23 home loss to the Seattle Seahawks capped San Francisco’s worst season in more than a decade and sparked a wave of change within the organization. A new head coach, a new general manager, and the reconstruction of a sub-par roster symbolize what fans hope is the beginning of a brighter future for one of the NFL’s most iconic franchises.

With Kyle Shanahan at the helm and John Lynch beside him, the 49ers hope to redeem the integrity and dignity of the team. But before anyone can attempt a single pass or make a touchdown-saving tackle, the Shanahan-led edition of the red and gold must complete the rigorous test of training camp while whittling down the roster to 53 players.

Camp begins today and these are the five biggest questions to will be answered during the three-week slugfest.

Who will emerge as a legitimate front-runner to start at quarterback?

Through the offseason, much has been made of the 49ers search for their next starting quarterback. But neither OTAs or any of the minicamps held in Santa Clara have offered clarity as to who that person might be.

San Francisco is expected to bring four quarterbacks to camp: veterans Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley, and rookies C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens in search of their first spots on an NFL roster.

None stuck out during the offseason and each were inaccurate at times in OTAs and minicamps. If experience means anything in this race, the needle points to Hoyer for the starting job. In 2014, Hoyer had a career year under Shanahan while in Cleveland, throwing for 3,326 yards and 12 touchdowns over 14 games.

This year’s quarterback could very well be a place holder until after this season, when San Francisco is expected target Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins when he becomes a free agent.

Will the offensive line finally come together?

As many fans painfully remember, the 49ers gave up the third-most sacks in the league (47) in 2016. Improving an exceptionally poor offensive line has been a point of offseason emphasis, and camp should offer the opportunity to see what new offensive line coach John Benton has to work with.

As it currently stands, the only starter set in stone is 10-year veteran Joe Staley, who will line up at left tackle come Week 1. Beyond that, nearly every other offensive line position is up for grabs, which means three things: competition, competition and competition.

So far at guard, Zane Beadles and Joshua Garnett look to be front-runners, but will be under fire as Brandon Fusco will attempt to make a case for his value as a starter.

At center and right tackle, Daniel Kilgore and Trent Brown have been penciled in as starters, but that could change by the day.

Benton is expected to mix up the groups and try different arrangements, but by the end of camp we should see a consistent group taking first team reps. This will be crucial in the construction of continuity and trust along the line. After all, Shanahan surely doesn’t want his QB — whomever that may be — to get hit 47 times this season.

How will Carlos Hyde perform now that he’s potentially on the chopping block?

Last week, reports surfaced that Carlos Hyde could be a ’surprising cut’ by the end of training camp. This speculation has raised eyebrows and generated a fair amount of conversation regarding Hyde’s future.

The bulk of the concerns stem from Hyde’s lack of ability to stay healthy and complete a full NFL season. In his first 3 years in the league, Hyde missed a total of 14 games. That includes nine games in 2015 that Hyde missed due to a knee injury sustained in Week 7.

For all anyone knows, the reports of Hyde’s potential exit could be a ploy from the front office to get Hyde to train harder. But it isn’t out of the realm of possibility to see his name missing from the team’s final roster come September.

What will Reuben Foster look like now that he is fully cleared for contact?

After being unable to participate in OTAs, rookie linebacker Reuben Foster is officially cleared for full contact heading into training camp. This should come as music to the ears of 49ers coaches and fans alike, as Foster’s status was very much up in the air for the majority of the offseason.

Shoulder injuries suffered at Alabama sidelined him for the past few months, but now Foster is primed to show why San Francisco traded up to the first round to get him. Natural instincts, fast reaction time, and sideline-to-sideline speed will be on full display this week as everyone gets their first look at No. 56.

Considering that Foster likened himself to former San Francisco great and future Hall of Famer Patrick Willis, it should be interesting to see how Foster’s abilities translate to an NFL field.

What will ultimately become the 49ers new identity?

Since Jim Harbaugh left in 2014, the 49ers haven’t been able to find out who they are.

We know who they used to be, a hard-nosed group that prided themselves in physicality and defense. But recently they haven’t quite been able to figure things out.

In 2015, they tried to be a “run first” team that coincidentally couldn’t pass under first year coach Jim Tomsula. Then, after Tomsula’s exit, the 49ers evolved into a high-speed, college-style offense under Chip Kelly.

Now that Shanahan is running the show, the 49ers have a real shot at finding a true identity and sticking with it. If Shanahan can successfully implement his high-flying offense as he did in Washington and Atlanta, San Francisco could become an offensive juggernaut in the next few seasons.

For that to happen though, the transition must begin at camp and continue through the season. But the first step starts today.