Not Ready for Preseason Players: Is the Depth for the 49ers as good as we think?
“It’s a lot harder this year,” was Kyle Shanahan’s answer when he was asked to compare this season to last season as cut down day approaches. The 49ers (and the rest of the NFL) must trim their roster from 90-players to 53-players by 1 p.m. Pacific time on Saturday. Just how deep will the roster be following the cuts? Here is a look at each position group and some players that are likely to make the cut (This is not a 53-man roster projection; you can check out that out here), and some of the issues the coaching staff face when putting the roster together.
Jimmy Garoppolo and C.J. Beathard are locks for the final roster and Nick Mullens appears destined for the practice squad for the second straight year. With the limitations on practice time and roster size it has become difficult for NFL teams to develop quarterbacks, so the plan that most teams currently use is “find a starter and pray he doesn’t get hurt.” C.J. Beathard is not the worst backup option in the league, but the 49ers are not eager to have to prove it.
The depth at this position has already been tested and there is still a preseason game left to play. The timing of the injuries to Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida was fortunate for the 49ers; they have had plenty of time to recover, and the team was able to bring in Alfred Morris, who looks like he will stick on the final roster. Moreover, Morris also looks to be the missing piece to the running back puzzle, someone with a little more mass (Morris is five-foot-ten, 224 pounds) for short yardage situations. The presumptive inclusion of Morris changes the calculus at running back: last year the team kept three running backs), but will likely keep four this season as Raheem Mostert has proven himself too valuable on special teams to not make the roster.
Last season the receiver group had a spate of injuries it was not equipped to overcome; this year’s group, however it shakes out, will be in a much better position. This season it is likely that a quality receiver will not be active on game day. The needs at other positions likely will dictate that the 49ers keep only six wide receivers. Draft choices Dante Pettis and Richie James have been added to last year’s cast of Pierre Garçon, Marquise Goodwin, Trent Taylor, and Kendrick Bourne to create a receiving group that should outpace the expectations of many.
George Kittle has the skill set to be a top-end tight end and make this an above average group. Garrett Celek played well last year in Kittle’s absence, but he is an average player. The third tight end will be either Cole Hikutini, whose strength is receiving, or Cole Wick, who is more of a blocking tight end. If Hikutini is the choice for third tight end, he could be a matchup problem for opposing defenses, but he has yet to show that he can perform up to his abilities. No matter how this battle plays out, this position group is solid overall.
The offensive line, more so than any other group, falls victim to the numbers game that is NFL roster construction. With five starters and only two backups typically active on game day, versatility is key. The most versatile offensive lineman the 49ers have is Mike Person (he is currently the backup center and emergency tackle), but his versatility could wind up being muted if he wins the starting right guard job. Person is currently battling Joshua Garnett to be the starter at right guard; no matter how the right guard position shakes out the non-starters are better than a year ago. Garry Gilliam returns as the “swing” tackle, but his inability to stay healthy could really put the team’s depth to the test. I would not be surprised if the 49ers look for additional offensive line depth among those cut on September 1.
The 49ers have invested heavily in the defensive line in recent years, using a first-round pick on the position in 2015, 2016 and 2017, so it should come as little surprise that this is the deepest position group on the team. Despite the overall depth of the unit one key ingredient, edge pass-rusher, is still missing and will keep the defense from reaching its true potential.
The depth of this group has greatly improved over last year, so much so that the team traded Eli Harold, the presumptive starter at Sam linebacker, to the Lions last week. Third-round pick Fred Warner looks like he will supplant Malcolm Smith sooner rather than later. Once Reuben Foster returns from his two-game suspension, he and Warner will be a formidable tandem in the middle for this defense. Foster and Smith both struggle with injuries, so having solid depth behind them is important, and Brock Coyle filled in well last year in that capacity.
Given the players on the roster it would not be surprising if the team decided to keep ten defensive backs with guys doing double duty as reserve cornerback and safety. With the addition of Richard Sherman, the cornerback position should be much improved. Jimmie Ward is slated to be the primary backup at both safety and cornerback, but his injury history makes him an unreliable option. Tarvarius Moore and D.J. Reed have a lot of potential but, as rookies, could experience some growing pains if they are forced into action. Regardless of the mix of defensive backs that lands on the 53-man roster, the depth of the position is much improved over last year even if it is less experienced.
In the second year of the Shanahan/Lynch regime the roster turnover continues, only twelve players remain on the roster from when Lynch and Shanahan were hired. The roster from top to bottom is much deeper than last year’s version. However, the team remains thin in some key areas, offensive line and pass rush. In other areas, like defensive back, the team is not so much thin as it is inexperienced.
Do the 49ers keep four running backs? Seven wide receivers? Do they leverage the versatility of some of the defensive backs into keeping nine rather than ten? The roster composition will be worth keeping an eye on as the deadline for roster cuts passes and the team tries to balance depth in numbers with functional depth: the ability to field a balanced roster of 46 active players on game day.
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