Vin’s TC Preview and More…
Vin’s Training Camp Preview, Positional Breakdown + Top Training Camp Battles
by Vini Chopra
Well, on the eve of training camp I decided to analyze the 49er roster and look at where the biggest positional battles will take place during this training camp. After going through the roster, and logistically projecting the players that will most likely earn a roster spot it’s safe to say that this will be a very tough team to make this year. A couple years ago, whenever the 49ers drafted a player or signed someone you could lock that player into a starting role or at least having a place somewhere on the depth chart. That’s not the case anymore. The NFL roster limit is 53 players. From my breakdown and the players that I feel are penciled in to make the team, there will only 1 or 2 spots up for grabs. And that could be a decision between Roderick Green, Issac Sopoaga, or Maurice Hicks. So here it goes:
Quarterbacks: Alex Smith, Trent Dilfer, Shaun Hill, Luke Getsy
Analysis: This is actually one of the easier positional battles. Barring any sort of injury, Alex Smith will pick up where he left off last year and take as many snaps as humanely possible. Trent Dilfer is the definite #2 QB, and he’s asked for more playtime in the pre-season to prepare for that role as he’s now two years removed from a devastating knee injury. So, as much as Nolan preaches that every position must have competition, Alex Smith and Trent Dilfer are a lock. Where it gets interesting is in the 3rd quarterback position. 2nd year man Shaun Hill, who was a surprise performer during last pre-season and showed that he could move the team, battles UFA Luke Getsy. What makes this battle even more challenging is the fact that the 49ers have other players who can play quarterback, including RB Michael Robinson and WR Arnaz Battle. So, assuming that the roster spots are tight and the 49ers have to squeeze in some talent, the 3rd quarterback on this team could be playing for a practice squad position at best as the 49ers could feel compelled to only carry 2 QBs and have insurance in a guy like Robinson or Battle.
My Projection: Alex Smith, Trent Dilfer, Shaun Hill. Though I like Luke Gesty perhaps being a diamond in the rough, he’ll probably have to catch on the practice squad.
Running Backs: Frank Gore, Michael Robinson, Thomas Clayton, Maurice Hicks
Analysis: Like the QB position, the first two slots with the RB position are a lock. Gore is the starter. When you rush for nearly 1700 yards, that’s about as academic as anything gets. Robinson should also hold on to his 2nd string position. But the interesting battle comes with incumbent change of pace RB Maurice Hicks and rookie Thomas Clayton. Clayton looks like an all purpose RB and someone who could eventually be groomed to be more of a backup RB as well. However, Hicks plays the “scatback” role to a tee and has had his moments over the years. On top of that, he’s a contributor as a kick returner, something that Thomas Clayton will have to do to make the team and something that he’s been reportedly working on.
My Projection: Gore, Robinson, and Clayton as the 1,2,3 backs, as the 49ers go with some youth and Clayton’s potential and special teams contributions. Maurice Hicks…..nice knowing you.
FB: Moran Norris, Zach Keasey
Analysis: Yes, the 49ers will bring in competition for Norris. And just like last year, Keasey will have to hope for a practice squad position. The 49ers offense can employ Norris and has a bigger RB in the form of Michael Robinson + one of their TES (Delanie Walker, Vernon Davis, Billy Bajema) who can play the “F-back or V-Back” role.
My Projection: Moran “The Truck” Norris and Norris only.
TE: Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker, Billy Bajema
Analysis: Vernon Davis enters his 2nd year as the man at this position, and in a larger perspective, the man when it comes to the 49ers’ passing offense. Eric Johnson signed with the Saints, but Delanie Walker showed the potential to be a beast in last year’s pre-season. Billy Bajema adds a more pure blocking TE, although one of the things VD did very well in his rookie campaign was block.
My Projection: Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker, Billy Bajema. No one is cut here given that the TE/FB role on this team will be tinkered with and we will most likely only carry Moran Norris at the other position.
WRs: Darrell Jackson, Ashley Lelie, Arnaz Battle, Jason Hill, Brandon Williams, Bryan Gilmore, Taylor Jacobs
Analysis: This will provide one of the more interesting positional battles during training camp. Darrell Jackson is a lock for the #1 WR position and the only thing that can possibly stop that is his toe injury, although he’s been given the okay to start in training camp. Outside of that spot, every other WR position is up for grabs. Ashley Lelie was signed in the off-season, but that by no means guarantees that he’ll be the starter opposite Jackson come September. He’s been hampered by a quad injury, and he’s going up against our most consistent receiver last year in Arnaz Battle. Battle maybe more ideally suited for the 3rd WR role with his sure hands, but because of his consistency last year, expect him to give Ashley Lelie a fight for that 2nd WR role. Then, things get interesting once again because the 49ers have two relatively younger WRs in Jason Hill and second year man Brandon Williams who will compete for that 3rd/4th/5th WR role. Both have drawn rave reviews from teammates and spectators during OTAs and I could see Jason Hill working into the starting lineup at times this season given his speed. Gilmore and Jacobs, two incumbents from last year, again provide strong competition for those last few WR slots. And if this was the same team as a year ago they’d be a lock. Unfortunately, I don’t see it happening for either of them this season
My Projection: Darrell Jackson, Ashley Lelie, Arnaz Battle, Jason Hill, Brandon Williams (who contributes strongly to the sepcial teams). Cya Gilmore and Jacobs.
Offensive Line: Jonas Jennings, Larry Allen, Eric Heittmann, Justin Smiley, Joe Staley, Kwame Harris, Adam Snyder, David Baas, Tony Wragge, Patrick Estes
Analysis: The 49ers have spent the better part of 3 years bolstering this unit. And it’s easy to see that the hard work has paid off. This is easily one of the deepest units on the team. Jennings (when healthy), Allen, Heitman, and Smiley all performed very well last year and paved the way for a sound running game + improved pass protection for Alex Smith, so all of them will be back. The battle that gets interesting is at the RT spot. Kwame Harris has struggled (to say the least) throughout his career in San Francisco. The 49ers traded back into round 1 to draft Joe Staley this year, who projects to be a future LT. But that doesn’t mean the team wouldn’t play him early on at the RT slot. So that battle between Kwame and Staley should be interesting. Don’t count out Adam Syder either, as he’s started games at tackle for us as well. David Baas and Tony Wragge give quality insurance at guard and center, and Patrick Estes continues to develop.
My Projection: Jonas Jennings, Larry Allen, Eric Heitmann, Justin Smiley, and Joe Staley form the starting o-line. Adam Snyder and Kwame Harris are primary backups at tackle and Tony Wragge and David Baas are top backups at the center and guard positions. Patrick Estes finds his way to the practice squad.
Cornerback: Nate Clements, Walt Harris, Shawntae Spencer, Tarrell Brown, Marcus Hudson, Donald Strickland
Analysis: This position used to be a huge weakness for the 49ers. However, after the signing of Clements and Walt Harris over the last year, the first three CB positiosn should be a lockdown. Clements, Harris, and Spencer provide us with one of the best 3 CB tandems we’ve had in a long time (on paper at least). Rookie Tarrell Brown could have been drafted a lot higher had it not been for some character concerns, and one can expect him to be groomed for the future as well. The battle that’s interesting here is between Hudson and Strickland. If it was last year, both would be welcomed on the roster given that we had desperate needs at this position before and would stick anyone out there. But since we’ve bolstered the position, I don’t anticipate both to make the team.
My Projection: Clements, Harris, Spencer, Brown, and Hudson all make it. Hudson edges out Strickland because Hudson can play FS if needed.
Safety: Mark Roman, Michael Lewis, Keith Lewis, Dashon Goldson, Darnell Bing
Analysis: Another strong position for the 49ers. As far as the SS position is concerned, both Michael Lewis and Keith Lewis provide the hard hitting, run defending safety that is needed as one half of the safety tandem. Mark Roman is a bit underrated in that while he’s nothing flashy, he’s still good in coverage and stabilized the FS position for us last year. Keith Lewis may even be able to play either position if his coverage skills improve. Dashon Goldson has reportedly looked fantastic during training camp and should be a top backup at the FS position behind Roman. Darnell Bing is a bit of an x-factor. A year ago he would have been a lock for the roster because we needed a run stuffing/hard hitting SS type. But those prayers were answered this off-season in the form of Michael Lewis and th emergence of Keith Lewis last year.
My Projection: Mark Roman and Michael Lewis start, with Keith Lewis and Dashon Goldson adding depth and seeing some playing time as well. Darnell Bing tries to find his way onto the practice squad.
Inside Linebacker: Patrick Willis, Brandon Moore, Derek Smith, Jeff Ulbrich, Colby Bockwholdt
Analysis: Again, what used to be a weakpoint for the 49ers is now a strong point. Rookie Patrick Willis and last year’s defensive MVP (IMO) Brandon Moore should form one of the best 3-4 ILBs combinations for years to come. Depending on who you ask, Derek Smith’s play slipped last year or he wasn’t very good of a player to begin with and ….. well yeah, either way, the way I see Smith’s situation playing out from Nolan’s perspective (not my own) is that he’ll wind up on the team but will not start ahead of Patrick Willis for long or at all. He will; however, probably stay on in some backup capacity. The battle to watch here is between Jeff Ulbrich and Colby Bockwholdt. Ulbrich (along with Smith) saw diminished playing time last year and was responsible for an atrocious missed tackle on Steven Jackson on 3rd and 18. Bockwholdt has been signed due to his special teams ability and has worked with our new special teams coach. So, Ulbrich vs Bockwholdt should be one of the more intriguing roster spot battles.
My Projections: In an ideal world we’d cut Derek Smith, recognizing that even with the highest of accolades, he’d still only play 1 more year. That would allow us to have room for both Ulbrich and Bockwholdt to backup starters Willis and Brandon Moore. But realistically I see the ILB spot shaking out like this: Willis, Moore with Derek Smith and Bockwholdt (due to special teams ability) edging out Ulbrich.
Outside Linebacker: Manny Lawson, Tully Banta Cain, Parys Haralson, Jay Moore, Roderick Green
Analysis: The 49ers are counting on a sophomore rise from Manny Lawson, who will be given much more freedom to attack the quarterback and use his outstanding athletic ability in our new defense. Tully Banta Cain may not be Adalius Thomas, but he comes from a strong Patriots defense and will provide some more pass rush ability and size at the other OLB position. Haralson could be a sleeper. He’s a pure pass rusher who was hurt last year. Jay Moore also provides intriguing size at this position and Roderick Green was probably our best pass rusher down the stretch last year, so he could have an impact role on the team.
My Projection: Lawson and Tully start, but Parys Haralson, Jay Moore, and Roderick Green all make the team. Should the team not carry 5 OLbs, then the competition between Roderick Green and Parys Haralson should be one of the better ones during training camp.
Defensive Line: Bryant Young, Marques Douglas, Abroyo Franklin, Issac Sopoaga, Joe Cohen, Ray McDonald, Sam Rayburn, Ronald Fields
Analysis: Bryant Young will remain rock solid on this d-line. Abroyo Franklin provides the first glimpse of a true NT that we’ve had on our roster in years. Ronald Fields should enter the starting lineup and pickup on a strong campaign towards the end of last season. I see Marques Douglas also factoring in a lot into this d-line as he was one of our better run stuffers from the d-line last year. Sam Rayburn is a guy who will start in the rotation on the d-line, and Ray McDonald and Joe Cohen could again bolster the position from the DE and NT positions. This is a deep position for our team, even though there may not be any standout Richard Seymour type of player (outside of Bryant Young) as of yet (watch for Ray McDonald though). However, a 3-4 D does not need to be flashy, just sizeable and tenacious and that’s the kind of guys we have here. But I’d be hard pressed to see all of these guys make it, which casts a watchful eye on Issac Sopoaga, who has been a disappointment throughout his career in San Francisco thus far. He will face stiff competition from Joe Cohen and Sam Rayburn for a spot on this roster, and given that Sopoaga wasn’t a Nolan guy to begin with, that could spell his end.
My Projection: Bryant Young, Abroyo Franklin, and Ronald Fields form your starting d-line. Marques Douglas, Sam Rayburn, Ray McDonald, and Joe Cohen all provide solid depth and rotation here. Issac Sopoaga is a cut.
Special Teams: Andy Lee, Joe Nedney, Brian Jennings
Analysis: Every year the team brings competition for Andy Lee. But he just laughs and proceeds to destroy them. Ditto for Joe Nedney, who probably has a trophy of Kirk Yliemini’s head hanging somewhere in his house. And of course, there is no competition for Brian Jennings…because it could tear a hole in the universe if such a scenario existed.
Projection: Lee, Nedney, and Brian Jennings laugh at your souls.
That gives you 53 players. But keep in mind, based on these projections we cut Maurice Hicks, Issac Sopoaga, and Jeff Ulbrich (among some others, but those are some of the more “name” players). Keep in mind that I said that we could keep only 2 QBs, so that might mean a cut for Shaun Hill and a roster spot for one of the guys mentioned above. Or, perhaps the team decides to carry an extra RB, d-lineman, or LB and then someone else is expelled in his place. In any case here are some of the players that are definitely in danger of being cut due to our roster being massively stacked and improved from a year ago:
Now of course, any other player that doesn’t cut it at the positions those guys above play at are also in danger. But these are just based on my own projections on who I think will make it and who won’t.
Given that, here are some of the biggest battles to look forward to in training camp:
1. Joe Staley vs Kwame Harris vs Adam Snyder for the RT position
You don’t trade up to draft a RT unless you’ve got some issues at that position already. Kwame Harris hasn’t cut it and he’s had Adam Snyder breathing down his neck for a year already. Now, we add Joe Staley into the equation and this should be pretty damn good.
2. Arnaz Battle vs Ashley Lelie for the 2nd WR position
When you sign an FA you expect them to contribute. However, Lelie wasn’t given a monster deal that guarantees him anything. He should start, but Battle has been consistent whereas Lelie hasn’t practiced due to an injury.
3. Thomas Clayton vs Maurice Hicks for the 3rd RB spot
Gore and Robinson are a go, and it’s hard to envision the team carrying 4 RBs. In either case, this will be a good battle to watch.
4. Jeff Ulbrich vs Colby Bockwholdt (vs possibly Derek Smith) for the backup ILB spot(s)
Like I said, ideally Derek Smith would be the one cut given his poor play. But somehow the team lingers on him and sees something. However, if the team feels that he’s going to be gone in a year anyways then you can enter him into this battle. After Willis and Moore (who are a lock to make the roster), there are probably only 2 backup positions at ILB for 3 competing players.
5. Parys Haralson vs Roderick Green
If the team decides to only carry 4 OLBs instead of 5, then the cut will come down between Haralson and Green seeing as how Moore was a 4th round pick and probably isn’t in too much danger of being cut unless he’s really really bad. That would mean that Haralson or Green could get the boot, even though they’ve flashed potential to be key contributors to our defense.