The San Francisco 49ers are a couple of weeks into training camp and we’ve seen some great talent begin to emerge. Unfortunately, an unwanted side effect of the long days and 80-90 degree heat are the injuries that are piling up. LB Malcolm Smith is officially out for the season with a torn pectoral. WR Bruce Ellington had a nagging injury that had him released by the 49ers and the Jets. G Joshua Garnett sustained a knee injury that could keep him out for 4 to 6 weeks.
All that being said, the Niners are in a major stage of their rebuild. They have turned over 60 percent of their roster from the previous year, with more cuts to follow. Many will be obvious but a lot of the seasoned vets will need to be cut in order to allow the new youth of the team to flourish. Let’s take a look at five surprise cuts we could see prior to the Niners' first game against Carolina.
5. TE Vance McDonald
I know the headline says “surprise” and while GM John Lynch has been transparent about trying to trade TE Vance McDonald, no team has attempted to make a deal -- that we know of.
McDonald has done his best though to try and secure a spot on the roster. He has been injury free and flashed some plays at practice, but that’s been par for the course for the 49ers' TE. Whenever there have been rumors or feelings that the team may be souring on McDonald, he comes and looks like an amazing talent in training camp. It just never shows up on the field during the season. We’re at a point now that even if McDonald looked like the greatest tight end in the world on the practice field -- he hasn’t --, it wouldn’t matter because of how little he’s shown the past few seasons. Drops aside, his reception numbers are bottom of the barrel. It would be good and not surpassing for the Niners to overhaul the TE position.
Replacement Player - TE George Kittle
TE George Kittle isn’t a high draft pick like McDonald was, but has already flashed more talent on the field than McDonald has. He has also gotten work with the first-string offense up until a minor injury temporarily sidelined him. If Kittle can stay healthy he can be a very productive TE1 in Kyle Shanahan's offense.
4. LB Ahmad Brooks
Every year comes and passes and everyone always expects LB Ahmad Brooks to be cut. A soaring cap hit. Declining production. We are at a point, however, where when he is cut it will honestly be a surprise. Brooks has been fine at training camp thus far, but we will likely see decent playing time this upcoming season.
But, Brooks has a history of bad behavior. Not only are there the numerous assault charges against Brooks, Brooks verbally assaulted ex-DL coach Jim Tomsula. GM John Lynch and Head Coach Kyle Shanahan have established themselves as men who will not put up with that kind of attitude. Not only does that go against the passion and high character of their draft picks, but that could set a bad precedent for the younger players who could see that and think that its a behavior the organization endorses.
Replacement Player - LB Eli Harold
LB Eli Harold has had his fair share of ups and downs during his time in the NFL, including playing with an injury last season. He is a player who can take the starting SAM LB position and thrive in it. And if he can’t? The Niners have five draft picks in the first three rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft.
3. FS Jimmie Ward
FS Jimmie Ward is supposed to be the starting Free Safety in Robert Saleh's Seattle-inspired 4-3 defense. Ward is supposed to be perfectly fit playing the position. It happens to be the position he played at Northern Illinois. As you can tell, these are a lot of “supposed to's," but Ward cannot do these things if he cannot stay on the field.
Ward has dealt with injuries nearly every season of his NFL career, some season ending and some not. History isn’t on Ward's side, sadly. And with the center-field safety being the most important position on this defense, the coaches and Lynch may not want to bother with Ward anymore.
Replacement Player - FS Lorenzo Jerome
This is very much rooted in training camp hype and while stranger things have happened than an undrafted free agent replacing a first-round pick, FS Lorenzo Jerome could fit in nicely if he learns the defense. He has the instincts to be able to react faster, negating his questionable combine run times and ability to make plays on the ball.
2. C Jeremy Zuttah
C Jeremy Zuttah came to the 49ers in a trade with Baltimore in exchange for a 6th-round pick. The trade felt like a steal at the time. A Pro-Bowl caliber player for next to nothing.
Its been a rocky offseason for Zuttah thus far. He had an injury that limited what he did during OTAs, and hasn’t been able to steal the starting center job away from Kilgore. Not to mention he hasn’t been able to snag a starting look at Guard now that Garnett will be out with injury. To go from a pro bowl caliber Center to not being able to unseat Zane Beadles as starting Guard? That probably won’t look good to the coaches and they may decide it easier to part ways. The cheap trade cost will make it that much easier.
Replacement Player - C Daniel Kilgore
Not a sexy pick by any means, but C Daniel Kilgore has been able to stay healthy this offseason and has won -- so far -- the starting Center job. Kilgore can and should be able to start, but again has a injury history that does not leave one confident in his ability to stay on the field throughout the season.
1. LB NaVorro Bowman
Here is your surprise that the headline indicated.
The face of the defense. The heart of the team. The leader in the locker room. LB NaVorro Bowman is a player that will likely live on in 49ers' history forever. He also will likely win the Comeback Player of the Year award and it will be incredibly deserved.
Sadly, he needs to be able to stay on the field to do that. "Bow" tore his Achilles four games into the season in 2016. Prior to that injury, he tore three ligaments in his knee. Either of those would be devastating for a player to come back from, and coming back from both of them shows just how tough Bow is. Its still up in the air whether or not he Is back to where he was before, or even if he can. I have all the faith in the world that if anyone can do it, it’d be him. But if he -- knock on all of the wood -- sustains another injury this year, Lynch and the rest of the organization will face an incredibly tough decision on whether or not to release him.
Replacement Player - LB Reuben Foster
After we picked up LB Reuben Foster in the 2017 NFL Draft, everyone immediately started imagining Bowman next to Foster. It is supposed to be Willis and Bowman, 2.0. If Bowman had to miss time, Foster could easily take Bowman's MIKE LB spot, as that is more in tune to what he played at Alabama. It could signal a future duo of Foster and LB Ray-Ray Armstrong.