With training camp just a week away, the anticipation for the Niners grows bigger each day. One of the more intriguing aspects of camp each year is the position battles that take place. Whether it’s who’ll be starting at a certain position, or even more interesting sometimes. The decision of which players earn a roster spot, secure the backup role at their position, or simply make a statement in pre-season that catches the eye of another team. We as fans and media spend much of the year covering the top echelon of the league. However, with almost 1700 players in the NFL, and even more during camp where roster sizes can be up to 90 players initially. There are hundreds of men who will have their careers made in the next few weeks.
Here, we’ll go deep into the 49ers roster and highlight the most interesting and impactful battles of this upcoming pre-season.
Who Comes After Elijah Mitchell?
Kyle Shanahan’s zone run scheme has seemingly been an unstoppable force since taking over the team in 2017. From Carlos Hyde to Matt Breida, then Raheem Mostert, or even last year’s stand-out Mitchell. Shanahan has been able to produce one of the leagues best rushing attacks with a plethora of backs. Although, with all that success the past few years. The team hasn’t had a thousand yard rusher since 2014. Of course some injuries are to blame for that but the real key here is their ability to get production from their 2nd, 3rd, 4th, sometimes even 5th back. Even if Mitchell does get a full-season under his belt, this team will certainly rely on multiple rushers. Niner faithful will recognize veteran Jeff Wilson who knows all to well about being ready at anytime. He returns once again this year along with second year back Trey Sermon who is looking to revitalize his role, after being pushed to the end of the depth chart last season. Then there is Tyrion Davis-Price, the rookie 3rd round pick out of LSU. The true battle begins here.
Sermon and DP will be the ones looked at to take on that secondary role. Wilson is of course going to get his touches, but his role has mainly been solidified as a goal-line and injury replacement guy. Leaving these two young pieces with an opportunity. I’ve spent the last few days watching college film of the two and both have very similar traits. Sermon has a small edge here as he already has one year under his belt but the decision to take DP in the 3rd round. The same round Sermon was taken last year. Tells me they are either sending a message for him to step things up or just wanting to stir up some competition. Both guys I think compliment Mitchell well as they are bigger and provide more power. Davis-Price reminds me of Leonard Fournette with his upright, hard nose running style. While Sermon gives more of a shiftier feel to his runs and looks to pose more of a receiving threat than his counterpart. Much like Seattle’s Chris Carson. This is a big test, I can seem him really being the go to guy after Mitchell but if things go sideways once again in camp. Don’t be surprised if you see Sermon on the cut list come August. With fan favorites JaMychal Hasty and Wilson also in the mix.
Depth at Wide Receiver
This receiving core is more than its star Deebo Samuel or his opposite man Brandon Aiyuk who is a stud in his own right. There’s Juan Jennings, someone that played outstanding in last years playoffs. Where he seemed to rack up every first down right when they needed it. During the off season, the 49ers were sure to make some moves to add depth to their core as well. After deciding to move away from guys like Travis Benjamin, Trent Sherfield, and Mohamed Sanu. The team added youth with draft pick Danny Gray out of SMU, Ray Ray McCloud from the Steelers, and Malik Turner from the Cowboys. Jennings has pretty much locked up the 3rd spot on the depth chart after his production last year. Following him however, seems to be a competition between Gray and McCloud.
Many believed the signing of McCloud was just to add a consistent returner on special teams. Except some close to the team believe he will be utilized much more. Which he certainly did in Pittsburgh, racking up 39 catches on 63 targets with 277 yards last season. If he will have any impact on offense it will most likely come in the slot but in terms of receiving I believe there are better options on the team across the board. Not to mention he may have a fumbling problem as he’s had multiple each year of his career, along with a career high four last year.
Nevertheless, rookie Danny Gray is the most likely option to get the 4th spot to start. An absolute speedster who ran a 4.33 at the combine, Gray can blow the top off of defenses. Just from watching some of his tape at SMU. It’s immediately clear he is much more polished at receiver than McCloud. While there were concerns about his slight frame. Gray reported to the team this summer at 200 pounds, an almost 15 pound jump from his combine weigh in. Add that with his ability to play outside and in the slot. He provides even more versatility to a group that already has so many unique pieces.
I also wanted to give a small shoutout to Malik Turner who I mentioned earlier. He will more than likely be fighting for a roster spot as the 6th receiver, but he is someone I think can bring value to this team. Turner had 12 catches last season on only 15 targets, while three of those being touchdowns. Along with a solid 80 PFF grade, he was able to make the most of his time on limited snaps in Dallas. At 6’2 I think Turner can supply some size as well. If he’s able to make the team, be on the look out for him later this season.
Retooling the Defensive Line
One thing San Francisco has excelled at the last half decade is having one of the strongest and deepest D-lines in the league. DeMeco Ryans did a fantastic job last year in using this talented and deep front seven to cover up their lack of talent on the back end. While they made some moves to improve their secondary this year, it will be vital to once again use their superior talent up front. The starters are pretty much set with star Nick Bosa, alongside breakout candidate Javon Kinlaw and Arik Armstead in the middle. However, the question of who will be coming off the edge opposite of Bosa is one that is still unanswered. While also figuring out the rotation behind them. It will be essential in training camp to do so, and maintain there dominance in the trenches.
After losing players like Arden Key, D.J Jones, and Kentavius Street in free agency. All players who were scooped up by the league after producing well last season. The Niners looked to restock the line with new pieces such as, rookie 2nd round pick Drake Jackson, and Kerry Hyder who they bring back after playing with Seattle last season. In addition to under the radar guys Kemoko Turay and Hassan Ridgeway. We also can’t forget about Samson Ebukam who produced 6 sacks last year for the Niners.
The biggest battle in camp will likely be at the other starting DE spot. With news that the team will finally move away from Dee Ford. Who never seemed to stay on the field and live up to his five year 85 million dollar deal. Both Jackson and Ebukam look to take on a starting role. Ebukam’s advantage here stems from his experience in the league so far and solid performance last year while standing in for Ford. Defensive coordinator Ryans likes the spark he provided and will likely look to him as a veteran he can trust. As he will be seeing many one on ones with Bosa on the other side.
In comes Jackson though, a player the 49ers decided to take with their first selection in the draft. Someone who was a highly touted prospect with great athleticism. At 6’4 273, Jackson was a monster in college when pass rushing off the edge with his speed and first step. A 49ers defensive line coach stating, “he’s the whole package”. There is a real chance for Jackson to earn a starting spot here, but with the teams history of bringing on their young lineman slowly.
I believe he will have to put on a great showing in camp to do so. In saying that, I do think he will surprise many people this season. Many of the holes in his game and why he fell down to the 2nd round were because of the scheme at USC. He was asked to play some linebacker last season and even play coverage. Obviously not where he excels, but I was still impressed by some the tape I saw when he did cover. Where his IQ and raw talent allowed him to make some plays. This 49ers team will not make that mistake though. Bringing him into Ryan’s scheme, I think Jackson will soon be the leading man right there with Bosa.