49ers Training Camp Battles: Who Might Win a Roster Spot?
Image Credit: Bay Area News Group
The season is just around the corner; it’s so close you can almost taste it. Hard Knocks is back on TV, but it’s the 49ers’ training camp, not the Cowboys’, where all of our attention is devoted at the moment. Ahead of the first preseason fixture, we can start looking more closely at the key roster battles and some players who are on the bubble.
Quarterback: Sudfeld v Rosen
No, not those two this time, but Sudfeld and Rosen is where the roster intrigue is taking place. Shanahan likes to keep three quarterbacks on the roster, so Sudfeld v Rosen is a genuine battle. With Jimmy Garoppolo’s future as a 49er still very much up in the air, there is a potential long-term backup role available here. Sometimes in life, and especially in sports, it comes down to who wants it more. There seems little doubt from anyone who has watched training camp that the Modesto native, Sudfeld, is playing like a man who is desperate to make the role his own. On the first day of padded practice he hit both Juszczyk and Trey Sermon on deep throws; Rosen by comparison seems to have done very little of note and just looks like a guy who doesn’t quite have the stomach for a battle to be a career backup.
Running Back: Mitchell v Gallman v Hasty
Rookie Elijah Mitchell has shown flashes already in training camp with Sports Illustrated’s Grant Cohn stating after one practice, “As well as [Trey] Sermon has played, Mitchell has played even better. He currently is the second-best running back on the team after Mostert. Almost all of Mitchell’s runs gain big yards.” He seems certain to make the cut.
Gallman was signed from the New York Giants to a one-year deal worth $990,000 and looks a good bet to seal a roster spot as depth, providing good, reliable veteran backup. Hasty, on the other hand, has had an issue with fumbling recently, and as Matt Breida knows only too well, Shanahan has limited patience with such things.
Verdict: Mitchell and Gallman
Wide Receiver: Jennings v Hurd
A while ago, this would have seemed like a slam dunk for Hurd, the 49ers very own “White Whale”: A player who has all of the talent in the world, who has the intangibles of size and speed that coaches obsess over. However, as the most overused (yet still very true!) saying in sports goes, “The best ability is availability.” Simply put, Hurd just hasn’t been there enough. When he walked off the practice field the other day, missing yet more time, Shanahan’s lack of patience with the 2019 draft pick was palpable, saying that he had hurt his chances of making the team. Jennings on the other hand, picked in the seventh round in 2020, has returned from last season’s injury and has looked like a real option as a bigger slot receiver, making TD catches in red zone drills and using his size effectively. Whilst not the quickest, Jennings has a lot of heart and does well in contested catch situations as provides an option which has been missing.
Tight End: Woerner v Matthews
Jordan Matthews (who caught passes for Trey Lance at his Pro Day) has recently reinvented himself as a tight end, bulking up to 235 pounds from 215 and attending Tight End University over the summer. He has recent history with the team, repeatedly reappearing on the roster in 2019 and 2020 as a wide receiver without actually catching a pass for the team. He could be an option in a Jordan Reed-type of role in two tight end sets with George Kittle. Former sixth-round draft pick Woerner didn’t make much of an impression last year and although he is a decent blocker, his route-running leaves a lot to be desired. Matthews is the exact opposite; as you would expect from a former WR he can run excellent routes but has issues blocking. This comes down to a simple ideological question, “What do you value more from your TE3, blocking or pass catching?” Personally, I am intrigued by Matthews’ reinvention and think it could offer valuable versatility and an extra wrinkle to the offense. However, the 49ers already have offensive weapon Kyle Juszczyk, so maybe Woerner’s blocking ability just sneaks him in.
Defensive Line: Street v Givens
Now we come to the obvious strength of this roster, the d-line. To say that they are stacked here is an understatement. There is a chance that the 49ers will have to leave out a player who could start on many other teams and one of the biggest battles is between Kentavius Street and Kevin Givens. Street was drafted in the fourth round of the 2018 draft and has struggled with injury over the past three years, having been injured when he was drafted. He has shown up well in training camp so far, getting plenty of first team reps. He has beaten starting left guard Laken Tomlinson regularly, and if fit would be a powerful option as a backup defensive tackle. Kevin Givens was signed as a UDFA by the 49ers in 2019 and made the roster via the practice squad. He has performed well as a rotation option and his recent most notable contribution to training camp was starting two fights with Tomlinson on Tuesday in retaliation for Tomlinson poking Street in the eye! This went down very well with his defensive teammates and he is certainly a popular figure who is a more than serviceable rotation option.
Verdict: Street (just!)
Defensive Backs: Mayden v Jefferson
Jared Mayden, a former defensive back at Alabama, was undrafted in 2020, potentially as a result of an unusual, pandemic-affected draft process. In his senior year, starting at safety, he recorded four interceptions, allowing just 17 receptions on 30 targets for 152 yards during the season. He also compiled 59 tackles, three tackles for a loss and three pass breakups. Despite participating in the Senior Bowl, he was surprisingly not invited to the combine and despite being praised for his versatility, playing in several positions in the secondary, was not drafted. He has been a regular on the practice squad ever since the 49ers picked him up as a UDFA and has been promoted to the active roster when required. He has made plays during training camp and the ongoing injury issues for Jaquiski Tartt have opened a path for him if he continues to impress. Jefferson is an eight-year veteran who has done enough in camp so far to justify the one-year, $1million contract the 49ers signed him to and would provide solid veteran depth at a position of some concern for the team. He is however coming off an ACL injury which cut short his final season in Baltimore which may make the recently injury plagued Niners more likely to ride with Mayden.
Footnote: Originally, I thought that both would make it, however minutes after I finished writing this, the 49ers went and signed HaHa Clinton-Dix, who gives a veteran presence so I’m giving the nod to Mayden’s youth and versatility.
So far this has been a very encouraging camp for the 49ers with the team looking set for a good season, injuries permitting. The areas I haven’t mentioned such as offensive line, linebacker,and cornerback seem quite straightforward at the moment with fairly clear choices in each position. Cornerback is still a little sketchy as the 49ers are relying heavily on two rookies for depth but both have had promising reps in recent days.
Beyond the names I have mentioned, I also like rookie receiver Austin Watkins, who has made several big plays during camp but feels more likely to end up on the practice squad at the moment, although it wouldn’t be a total surprise if he muscled his way onto the final 53-man roster.
Either way, the front office has a number of big decisions coming up in the next few weeks and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out. Regardless of the choices made, it is clear that the standard required to make the final roster is the highest it has been for years and that some very good players will end up disappointed come final-cut time. Hopefully a few will make it onto the practice squad and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them pop up again as injuries inevitably take their toll.
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