Amid training camp and with just weeks to go until a new season starts, every NFL team right now is in the process of evaluating which players will make up their 53-man rosters.
It is a tricky time of decision-making, for sure. Teams must devise a plan for the upcoming season, but choices made now as to who is kept at each position and who will be released will affect the future as well.
Depending on where they are with their rosters, each team’s plan could be drastically different, too. An annual playoff contender, for example, may require only a few adjustments of their roster.
But, for a team like the San Francisco 49ers who are entering year two of a major rebuild, figuring out who stays and who goes will be a complex task.
For one thing, the Niners roster is in the midst of a metamorphosis. It has gone from being totally overhauled in 2017, to a legitimately talented team from one end of the locker room to the other.
The team has been so active on the trading and free agent markets over the past year that only 13 players from the previous regime (Baalke/Kelly) remain. Of those leftovers, only a few will likely make the culled roster on September 1st.
Also, San Francisco’s very young talent pool is still being developed. While the team tries to determine who could be waited on to improve, it is figuring out who is ready to earn a spot now on the active roster as well.
Perhaps there won’t be as many position battles like last year’s “Land of Opportunity,” but it’s not going to be easy for Shanahan and company to whittle down the surplus talent they have in several areas this year.
Below, I take a look at which position battles will be the most competitive and important for the 49ers as we head into season two of the Shanahan-Lynch era.
The Offensive Line
Call it luck. Fate. Or, opportunity. But, acquiring starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo last fall was very fortunate for the Niners. He’s just the player they needed to bring everyone together after battling pervasive injuries during the 2017 season and accumulating losses.
After he arrived on the scene, the team won their last five games and never lost when Garoppolo was under center. Signing him to a big contract extension in the offseason made perfect sense and since then, the offensive line has been built to protect this major asset.
While left tackle Joe Staley and left guard Laken Tomlinson will remain, the team signed center Weston Richburg and guards Jonathan Cooper plus Mike Person to compete with Joshua Garnett for a starting job. The Niners also drafted right tackle Mike McGlinchey in the first round of the 2018 Draft.
That’s a lot of changes made in an offseason for one unit. Yet, the future looks bright for this squad. As Pro Football Focus pointed out in their recent ranking of all 32 offensive lines, there’s untapped potential here and a certain positivity that the right formation will yield cohesion.
The 49ers will most likely keep a close eye on the health of these players. But, most troubling is that neither Garnett nor Cooper have been able to prove they can earn a spot on this corps as the starting right guard due to injuries.
Garnett may be on the bubble since he’s a Baalke holdover and is limited to playing the guard position. Meanwhile, Cooper is still rehabbing from a knee surgery and hasn’t practiced with the team yet.
It’s possible that both men will get cut and Person and/or Erik Magnuson will get a chance since they are the most prepared to play at this point.
Clearly, the 49ers have been focused on finding the right balance (and personnel) to protect Garoppolo and let him be the budding superstar he has shown potential to be.
In the off-season, San Francisco added some ammunition for Garoppolo by signing free agent running-back Jerick McKinnon.
Selected in the third round of the 2016 Draft by the Minnesota Vikings, this Georgia Southern grad has never been a feature back in the NFL. That will change in 2018, when he is expected to lead this corps in opportunities.
There has been some criticism about this acquisition by the 49ers, as McKinnon has shown a lack of production and drop in efficiency with a heavier workload in the past. But, Coach Shanahan has talked about the versatility this player allows for in the passing game as well.
Right behind him as one of the favorites to make the running back corps is Matt Breida, the 22-year-old also out of Georgia Southern.
Breida was the backup in 2017 and advanced in performance when Garoppolo handed him the ball. At this year’s training camp, he has impressed Coach Shanahan with the extra weight he gained and improved confidence.
I like this running-back duo coming together for the 49ers. Both McKinnon and Breida are friends, stand 5’9”, each weigh about 200 pounds, overlapped one year in college, and each run a 40-yard dash in about 4.40 seconds. And, they complement each other: Breida likes the inside lanes; McKinnon the outside. Breida sees the holes; McKinnon sees the big picture…
The real question for this running back group now is: who will complete the three-headed monster?
It will likely come down to either Raheem Mostert or Joe Williams. The favorite seems to be Mostert right now, who won the third spot last season and is a talented special teams player.
But, the 49ers traded up for Williams in the fourth round of the 2017 Draft. He then missed all of that season with an ankle injury. They’ve always been keen on seeing what he can do and all reports indicate that he has progressed in the off-season, looks bigger and is even more driven than ever before. The biggest test of Williams’s career will be pre-season games where he will most definitely have some reps to prove he deserves to be on this squad.
This is a tougher position battle to forecast since the 49ers drafted two additional receivers in the offseason to compete for a spot on the roster. Assuming Shanahan keeps six spots reserved for wide receivers like last season, here are my picks to get in:
The 34-year old Pierre Garcon sustained a season-ending neck injury during Week 8 last season, but was on his way to another 1,000-yard season. During training camp so far, the ten-year veteran has been among the standouts and it has been reported that Garoppolo and he are improving their chemistry together.
Another lock to make the roster is Marquise Goodwin, the five-year player starting his second season with the 49ers in 2018. He took over for Garcon after his injury in 2017 and blossomed into a solid, reliable and fast receiver, thanks to the Shanahan affect.
Second-year receiver Trent Taylor may be just working his way back to practice after a minor back surgery in May, but he’ll likely be included in this lot for the start of the 2018 season. He was considered clutch as a rookie, particularly in the middle of the field and late in the game (6-6 in 4Q/OT catches and 1 TD with Garoppolo at QB.). He definitely has potential for moving the chains.
Dante Pettis is just the kind of reliable, athletic, versatile player that Shanahan likes (noticing a pattern here with versatility?). He can play all three receiver positions and despite a smaller frame, he has impressed so far at 49ers training camp. Dubbed “Crazy Legs” for his unique movement and ability to get open down field, the decision by San Francisco to trade up for him in the second round of the 2018 Draft makes him a favorable choice to get on the roster for his potential alone.
Kendrick Bourne played in only 11 games during his first season wearing the red and gold. Yet when he made it onto the field, he was impactful. Garcon’s injury last season allowed for some playing time and he took advantage of it. During Week 15 alone, Bourne had 4 catches for 85 yards against the Titans. Garoppolo has also said that Bourne looks strong in training camp already. These are all reasons he’ll likely be brought back to the 53-man roster this season.
With Victor Bolden, Jr. suspended and ineligible to return to the active roster until October 1, I think the last spot comes down to rookie Richie James, but I wouldn’t count out Aldrick Robinson.
Robinson has played for Shanahan on three different teams. He was initially drafted by Washington in 2011 when Shanahan was the offensive coordinator, and then he went to Atlanta in 2016 before he signed a deal with 49ers in 2017. The 29-year old struggled a bit last year, but he has the versatility to play all three receiver spots.
Whereas, James was a seventh-round pick in the 2018 Draft and garnered All-America honors as a freshman in college at Middle Tennessee State. It’ll be up to him to earn his spot, but if he flashes some of the talent he did in college, he might be able to turn Shanahan’s head enough to get a spot on the roster.
As for Aaron Burbridge, I think he’s a long shot. Not only is the 23-year old a Baalke holdover (which is not in his favor), he didn’t play at all in 2017 due to injury. His real talents may be as a special-teams player (which is in his favor) and that adds to his versatility. He’s also got a lot to prove and should see a lot of playing time during preseason games to show what he can do.
The success of the 49ers linebacker corps revolves around the personal success of 24-year old Alabama alum, Reuben Foster.
Entering his second year with San Francisco, he’s already had a topsy-turvy start to his budding NFL career. His 2017 season saw multiple injuries, major off-the-field legal troubles, but also - flashes of brilliance on the field.
The 49ers seem confident that Foster has dealt with any negative personal issues properly during the off-season and general manager John Lynch even thinks he could be a “great redemption story”.
But, the future is still uncertain as to whether Foster can remain healthy and keep out of major trouble (he faced a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge in January & felony domestic violence charges and possession of an assault weapon in February.)
For the moment, Foster has been reinstated and looks to make a strong comeback. Unfortunately, he will start the season with a two-game suspension stemming from his prior infractions. This will obviously affect the roster since last season, the 49ers rotated from eight or nine linebackers and closed on seven. We will likely see that number higher as the season starts, because of the Foster suspension.
Veteran Malcolm Smith is a lock to make the roster as well, returning from a season-long injury in 2017, along with veteran Eli Harold and promising rookie Fred Warner, who the 49ers grabbed in the third round of the 2018 Draft, as a backup.
Other backups will include Brock Coyle, the talented special-teams player who re-signed in the offseason and ten-year veteran Dekoda Watson.
A player on the bubble includes Korey Toomer who signed a one-year contract with the 49ers in April as a result of Foster’s off-the-field issues. He has the experience and versatility to play both the Will and Mike linebacker positions and is speedy. I think he should make the initial roster if Shanahan keeps the number higher. His long-term future with the team is questionable, however, especially if Foster remains stable.
Like the offensive line, I worry about this position a great deal for the 49ers. They are taking a huge risk by putting so much faith in Foster’s ability to stay out of trouble and off the IR, neither of which he’s been able to do yet.
This position has been in the process of a major overhaul for the past two years and it remained one of the weakest areas for the 49ers in 2017. Plagued with a lack of depth and other struggles, San Francisco addressed these issues by adding a bevy of fresh players to compete for the roster including former Seahawk Richard Sherman.
Despite rupturing his Achilles last season, Sherman looks to return back to form and has performed well in training camp outside of a minor hamstring tweak. Though, the real genius of his signing is the experience and knowledge this veteran corner could pass down to the team’s young corners (which is desperately needed).
His backup at left cornerback could be the newly drafted defensive back Tarvarius Moore out of Southern Mississippi in the third round.
At right cornerback, 23-year old sophomore Ahkello Witherspoon is also expected to start. He was invited to a summit held by Sherman at Stanford in the offseason which included some of the league’s top cover men like Aqib Talib, Darius Slay and Xavier Rhodes.
The Niners also drafted former Kansas State cornerback D.J. Reed in the fifth round of the 2018 Draft, and he is expected to back up nickelback K’Waun Williams, the four-year veteran. Williams sustained an ankle injury on August 5 which will allow for Reed to gain some early playing time.
Other hopefuls are five-year veteran Jimmie Ward who was expected to transition to outside cornerback duties, and third-year defensive back Tyvis Powell who could also see some time at safety this season.
Rounding out those on the bubble and the longest shots are undrafted free agents Tarvarus McFadden and Emmanuel Moseley, both talented cornerbacks who were expected to be drafted. They each got to work with Witherspoon this offseason and are hopeful to at least make the practice squad if not brought onto the 53-man roster.
And, finally, we have second-year player Greg Mabin, initially signed to the 49ers practice squad in 2017 and vaulted up to the roster for six games as a replacement for Dontae Johnson. But, the competition is tough and the talent deep this year. Lacking the certain athleticism needed for the job is a knock on Mabin and with all of the other talent brought in, he’s a longshot.
This is definitely an interesting array of young cornerbacks for the Niners to choose from. However, several are unseasoned and unproven. Again, bringing in Sherman was very smart by the 49ers and if anything, his tutelage should help to accelerate their progression.
The Final Word
I envision Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch with many sleepless nights until the final 53-man roster is turned into the NFL on September 1st.
Not that they aren’t already working hard and staying up late thinking about their team. It’s just that picking the core group upon which so many dreams and expectations ride must be a worrisome task.
They don’t just have to choose which players will perform the best at their position, but they must consider who these men are as people outside the locker room, how they carry themselves, and if they will get along with one another.
They’ll also have to cut players they like, possibly with regret as some may go on to become superstars with other teams.
And, then there are the hopeful players who know they’re on the bubble. It’s got to be a stressful time for them right now, too. Will they or won’t they?
In the end, picking the final 53-man roster is a natural part of the process and one that has to be done each and every NFL season. But, not a fun part of the job, indeed.
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