Image Credit: Tony Avelar/Associated Press
The 2019 edition of the San Francisco 49ers’ practice squad is full of players who the fans are very aware of. In fact, it could possibly be the most experienced practice squad the 49ers have put together in recent history. With none of their cut players getting picked up in the waiver wire process, the front office was able to go after any of its former players they wanted. The initial nine signings included: Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles (linebacker), Kevin Givens (defensive line), Marcell Harris (safety), Daniel Helm (tight end), Malik Henry (wide receiver), Elijah Lee (LB), Ross Reynolds (G), Jeremiah Valoaga (DL), and Jeff Wilson Jr. (running back). They then went on to sign Ryan Pope (offensive tackle) to fill their last practice squad spot.
In a perfect world, practice squad players would be just that. They would practice Monday through Friday and enjoy the game on Sundays like everyone else, but that hasn’t been how the practice squad players have been used the last couple seasons. Players like Nick Mullens have been asked to step up from the squad and take on huge roles in the weekly game plan.
Which of these players have the best shot of stepping in and filling a needed vacancy?
Lee, Harris, and Wilson make the most sense to answer that question. All three of those players were starting for the injury-depleted 49ers a season ago. Many fans believed that all three of those players would be picked up if not assigned to the 53 man active roster, but they all fell through the cracks of the waiver wire process and were able to be added as extreme depth at three important positions.
Lee was a possible starter going into the free agency season, but when Kwon Alexander was signed and Dre Greenlaw drafted – and with the emergence of Azeez Al-Shaair this preseason, Lee’s spot on the 53 man roster was filled. Lee has shown a lot of potential and some really good athleticism, but hasn’t been able to perform to a high enough standard for extended periods of time. A great fill-in LB at this point in his career, the young Lee could really benefit from a year on the practice squad.
Harris was another player who flashed signs of progress and ability last year, but not enough to earn a spot in a very shallow safety group. The fact that he couldn’t make the group is a bit of a concern. Harris’ main problem is that he is a true box safety, and not really a single high centerfielder type of safety. Harris can use the hit stick, but you won’t see him locking down anyone in coverage.
Preseason darling Wilson was a hotly-debated roster casualty. After leading the team in rushing for the preseason (not a stat players generally want), many fans were clamoring for him to be RB1 or RB2 for the team, but he’s had a really nasty case of the fumbles. Despite his strong running style and no-fear mentality when it comes to goal line contact, fumbling the football is one of the fastest ways a running back can find himself a former NFL player.
After those three players, Givens or Valoaga seem to be the closest talent wise to being a full-time participant with an NFL team, but the depth at the defensive line has kept them off. Both of them had fantastic preseasons, with Givens actually starting the second preseason game, and playing well. Valoaga showed that he had a great motor for getting to the opponent’s quarterback, but he did so against second-, third-, and fourth-string offensive lineman, leaving head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch needing him to show more. Both of these players are great options moving towards next season to take over for Arik Armstead if he leaves during the free agency period.
That leaves five players who should have no business leaving the practice squad this season, even if there is an accumulation of injuries.
Flannigan-Fowles is an undrafted free agent signing who played college ball at Arizona where he played four full seasons, playing in 13 games as a freshman and starting 36 over his career. He’s a project player the team hopes to at least turn into a solid special-teams ace.
Helm is the fifth TE on the roster if you count the four who made the 53 man roster. Nobody wants to see their fifth TE, or fifth anything for that matter, see any playing time. Another UDFA signing, Helm played college football at Duke after transferring from the University of Tennessee. He is actually a good candidate to be cut from the practice squad should a more needed player come available.
Henry, another UDFA, is the eighth WR on the roster and should spend the whole season on the practice squad. He spent his first three college seasons with Georgia Southern and then his final season at West Georgia. Henry is another player with special-teams experience, returning punts and even scoring a touchdown, doing it his one season at West Georgia. Henry is six feet tall and athletic, which makes him seem like a good candidate for Shanahan’s offense in the future, should he grow during his time on the practice squad.
The coaching staff had hoped that Reynolds would create a nice depth piece for the team at guard. A graduate of Iowa, Reynolds couldn’t beat out Daniel Brunskill or Ben Garland for a roster spot. Reynolds, does not have the versatility to play center or tackle, which probably helped the coaching staff make their decision. The only reason Reynolds would be removed from the practice squad is because he is cut and an interior offensive lineman with more potential became available.
The last player signed to the practice squad was Pope, a giant OT (6’7” and 320 LBS) out of San Diego State. He spent the offseason with the Detroit Lions where he signed as an UDFA and was picked up by the 49ers after he didn’t make the Lions’ roster. Pope is only 22 years old, and could develop into a great OT given his size.
Hopefully, none of these players even comes close to entering a game field this season. The 49ers practice squad has a nice mixture of experience and youthful possibilities, which would lead some to believe that a few of these players will not spend the 2020 season missing out on an active roster spot.
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