With the signing of UDFAs, the 49ers are very close to filling out their 90 man rosters. Now, the question becomes who will make the 53 man rosters for game day. Obviously, we aren't able to answer this question definitively and will not be able to until after training camp and the preseason, but it never hurts to take an early look at the locks to make the roster and some of the intriguing position battles that will develop. Note than an asterisk denotes a player who will be on the 53 man roster but not the 46 man gameday roster.
Despite being by far the most talked about position on the team, this is one of the positions with the least intrigue heading into this season. Alex Smith is the incumbent starter, and it will be a major upset for Colin Kaepernick to unseat him. The third string QB is very likely to be Josh Johnson. Really, the only intriguing aspect of this group is how much they utilize Kaepernick this season. While it's possible that he will have the same role he did last year, barely appearing but for blowouts, I think we may see him begin to take over series or even just plays as sort of a change of pace QB.
While this group isn't very interesting this year, expect it to be extremely interesting next year. The 49ers built a one year out into Alex Smith's new contract, and in my opinion they are beginning to build a more vertical team that is better suited to Kaepernick than to Smith. It's going to be very interesting when the 49ers think that Kaepernick is ready to take over as the starter. If Smith struggles this season, I expect him to be gone next season, but if he performs well? I think this is a make or break season for Alex Smith; he no longer has the excuse that he doesn't have weaspons because we've surrounded him with weapons. Whatever happens, it will be a very interesting battle next year, that's for sure.
Roster Predictions: Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick, Josh Johnson*. Total QBs: 3.
I personally believe that Frank Gore is wearing down, and that his time with the 49ers is almost up. The 49ers seem to agree with me, drafting LaMichael James in the 2nd round of the draft and bringing in Brandon Jacobs in free agency. James is an explosive talent who will provide big play capability from day one, but there is plenty of debate over whether he can be an every down running back. The 49ers seem to believe he can be a feature back, comparing him to Ray Rice. The reason this is a problem is that the 49ers already have a running back with similar size and a very similar skill set to James in Kendall Hunter. Further complicating matters, the two runners who might both not be feature backs are the two young guys; both Gore and Jacobs are getting up there for running backs.
This mess is likely going to lead to an interesting ratio of carries, that will need to be split up like minutes for basketball players. The way I envision it, Gore will still be the primary ball carrier, getting 12 or so carries per game. Hunter will get around 7 or 8, and James will get around 5, though James will be featured as an option on passing downs as well, similarly to Darren Sproles in New Orleans. Jacobs will get maybe 3 or 4 carries per game, with the large majority on the goal line or in 3rd and short situations, essentially taking over Anthony Dixon's role on offense. I could also see Jacobs not making the team. That puts us at around 27 carries, a slight decrease from last year, which is to be expected with the weapons the 49ers added in the passing game; more on that later.
As well, I think that Rock Cartwright will make the roster in a purely special teams role. He technically is a running back but I give him no chance to play barring multiple injuries. That's why I'm not listing him here, but will list him in the Special Teams section.
Roster Predictions: Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, Brandon Jacobs. Total RBs: 4.
This one's going to be short and simple. Barring the team doing anything stupid like moving Brandon Jacobs to fullback, the fullback will be Bruce Miller. He is a potential pro bowler who can catch, run, and block with the best. I see no reason to continue with this section.
Roster Prediction: Bruce Miller. Total FB: 1.
This might be the most interesting position group on the team. It is certainly the one in which the 49ers added the most, with Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, and A.J. Jenkins joining the team. And it's a good thing, too; their depleted reciever group was one of the main reasons they lost the NFC Championship Game against the Giants. In my opinion, they've managed to turn WR from a position of weakness into a position of strength in just one offseason. However, it remains to be seen in what capacity each of the recievers the 49ers added will produce at.
I fully expect that the four main recievers will be the three I listed above as well as Michael Crabtree. However, none of these is clearly better than the others and none is clearly worse. Jenkins has the potential to be the best - Mike Wallace comparisons are not completely crazy - but he's a rookie, and will need to do some learning before tunring into a true star. Crabtree and Manningham are both better suited to be #2 or #3 recievers. Moss is an all-time great, but he's 36 and hasn't played in a year, and on top of that he has a reputiation for not trying. That said, though, I expect that the 49ers will get as much out of him as they can. He's shown what he can do when he's motivated, and Harbaugh is certainly a good motivator. If he still has even a little of his legendary speed, he will be a huge asset, and even if not he will make a fine red zone target, something the 49ers were sorely lacking last year. I expect that they will see a large variety of sets and a lot of moving around, with no reciever really having a set place.
As well, Ted Ginn Jr. will almost certainly make the roster. Though he is a WR, I don't expect to see him on offense much if at all, as he will focus on special teams. And while that would appear to set the WRs, I wouldn't be so sure. Harbaugh and Baalke have stated that they will consider running 6 WRs, which brings up one of the most interesting players the 49ers will have to decide on: Kyle Williams.
Perhaps no player has drawn more ire this offseason than Kyle Williams. And while I think we should forgive him at some point, there is good reason for it; his two dropped punts make him the scapegoat for last years NFC Championship Game loss. A lot of fans would like to see him gone, but he might just be back (though not returning punts; more on that later). As a WR, he's a perfectly acceptable 5th or 6th option, and he provides good depth in case of an injury or in case Moss does not pan out. However, his roster spot still isn't guaranteed. He'll have to battle with Chris Owusu, a talented but concussion prone UDFA out of Stanford, Brett Swain, and Joe Hastings even for consideration for the roster, and he still probably won't make the 46.
Roster Predictions: A.J. Jenkins, Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham, Randy Moss, Ted Ginn Jr, Kyle Williams*. Total WRs: 6.
While Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker are pretty much locks to make the roster, the addition of a 6th WR puts the 3rd TE spot at risk. However, since Coach Harbaugh loves his 3 TE sets, I still expect a 3rd tight end to make the roster. It will be a battle between Nate Byham and Konrad Reuland for the 3rd spot, with Byham as the prohibitive favorite.
Roster Predictions: Vernon Davis, Delainie Walker, Nate Byham. Total TEs: 3.
I don't think I'd get much of an argument if I said that the 49ers offensive line is the weak link on this football team. Nonetheless, if Daniel Kilgore or Joe Looney lives up to the high expectations we're hearing from Coach Harbaugh, this unit should be much improved. Adam Snyder was little more than a replacement level guard, and even he was a massive upgrade over the horrid Chilo Rachal. Kilgore and Looney will battle to replace Snyder at RG, and either one should be an improvement. Combined with a year older and wiser Anthony Davis, and the right side of the line should be better than last year. Center is still unsolved in the long term; for now, Jonathan Goodwin holds the spot decently, but at some point he will need to be replaced, and the best option the 49ers have right now seems to be Jason Slowey, who is likely not ready to make the team yet.
The left side of the line, though, is rock solid, with Joe Staley and Mike Iupati as two of the best in their positions in the entire league. As well, the 49ers have decent depth behind the starters, with Alex Boone as the swing tackle and Mike Person fighting with Garrett Chisolm and Derek Hall, and Slowey for the final spot.
Roster Predictions: LT Joe Staley, LG Mike Iupati, C Jonathan Goodwin, RG Daniel Kilgore, RT Anthony Davis, Joe Looney, Alex Boone, Mike Person*. Total OLs: 8.
This unit was one of the strongest on the team and it might just be even stronger this year. To call Justin Smith a man among boys wouldn't exactly be fair... to Justin. He's more like a demigod among single-celled organisms. He is an aging demigod, though, and at some point his production will begin to tail off. I don't think that's this year, though. He is joined by line mates Ray McDonald and Isaac Sopoaga, and while I think Sopoaga is slightly overrated because of the talent surrounding him, those three form the front line of the 49ers incredible run defense. Without them, the 49ers wouldn't have made the playoffs, much less gotten to the NFC Championship game. And they're still not their best unit. More on that later.
The big three also have solid backups who also can rotate into the game. Ricky Jean-Francois, Will Tukuafu, Ian Williams, and DeMarcus Dobbs are all very solid players who are improving rapidly. It should be a close competition between Williams and Dobbs for the last spot, and though I think Williams will win it it's too early to be sure. As well, they all contribute on special teams.
Roster Predictions: Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga, Ricky Jean-Francois, Will Tukuafu, Ian Williams*. Total DLs: 6.
Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks are an extremely talented pair of outside linebackers who might be among the best in the league. While those two are obviously locks for the roster, it begins to get more interesting after that. The 49ers have Parys Haralson, a solid but unexciting outside linebacker who probably wouldn't be very good if he weren't surrounded by so much talent, and that was it heading into the draft.
In the draft, however, the 49ers picked up two outside linebackers, Darius Fleming of Notre Dame in the 5th and Cam Johnson of Virginia in the 7th. While it would seem obvious to expect the Niners to keep Fleming, to be honest, Johnson interests me more. Fleming seemed like a bit of a 'meh' pick as the two guys the 49ers seemingly wanted, Terrell Manning and Jonathan Massaquoi, were picked in the two picks before the 49ers pick (of course, we can't be sure of this, but it's the most obvious interpretation of Baalke being upset in the war room). As for Johnson, he is a tremendous talent who didn't always translate that talent into results. But it isn't completely his fault; he has sickle cell trait, which limits blood oxygenation, in particular in high stress situations (like, say, football games). Many people have had sickle cell trait and gone on to have productive NFL careers, including the most famous example, Ryan Clark of the Pittsburgh Steelers. On such a talented defense, the 49ers hardly need Johnson to play every down, just give his all for a bit to get the starters some rest. I think he will be very useful in that role, which is why I think he makes the roster. I also think Fleming has a shot, but his role would be special teams oriented.
Another option, though, would be to cut Haralson and have Johnson and Fleming on the roster. While this is a risky strategy, as it leaves the backup roles to two rookies, it does save the 49ers some money. Still, I don't think it's a good move, as we're still below the cap and the roster is pretty much full.
Roster Predictions: Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Parys Haralson, Cam Johnson. Total OLBs: 4.
What do you get the team that has Patrick Willis for Christmas? How about another Patrick Willis? Willis is undoubtedly the best inside linebacker in the league, arguably the best linebacker in the league, and possibly the best defensive player in the league, but his tandem mate NaVorro Bowman isn't far behind. The two are alike in many ways. They are almost exactly the same height and weight (Willis is 6'1" 242, Bowman is 6'0" 240). They are both sideline to sideline players who can drop back in coverage, and both are extremely sure tacklers. Both can be left alone on most tight ends, and both can chase down most running backs. I'm sure that no team has an ILB tandem as good as these two; in fact, I'm not sure a team has ever had one as good. Both made the all-pro first team, and Bleacher Report (and yes, the massive Bleacher Report Disclaimer must be attached) ranked them #2 and #1 in the league. That's insane, bordering on historical territory.
As for their backups, they aren't great but they're capable. Larry Grant filled in nicely for Willis when Willis was out for a few weeks last season, though in my opinion he, like Sopoaga, was helped by the immensly talented rest of the defense. Tavares Gooden will most likely see most of his action on special teams, and if he doesn't, the 49ers are in trouble.
Roster Predictions: Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Larry Grant, Tavares Gooden*. Total ILBs: 4.
I think that the 49ers are going to need to get some upgrades to this group sometime in the very near future. While Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner are good players, they both have issues; Whitner has issues in coverage, and Goldson often tries to do too much and ends up doing nothing at all (essentially using the hit stick on every play). The 49ers are not too deep at saftey, either. They did get Trenton Robinson, a cover specialist, in the draft, who should help quite a bit, and C.J. Spillman can play safety as a pinch, though he provides a ton of value with outstanding work on special teams. If I had to make a super early 2013 mock draft, I'd have the 49ers either taking a saftey or a guard/center.
Roster Predictions: Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner, C.J. Spillman, Trenton Robinson*. Total S: 4.
While a lot of people saw cornerback as a glaring need for the 49ers, I did not (except for if Carlos Rogers did not re-sign). Rogers is a great shutdown #1 cornerback who seems to have fixed his problem with catching the ball, and while he is beginning to get older, he is still playing at a very high level and should continue to do so for at least a few years. The 49ers have two legitimate #2 corners, who will be shifted around depending on the opponent and the situation, in Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver. Tramaine Brock and Perrish Cox provide good depth, and Cox has plenty of upside left if he gets past his personal issues. Cory Nelms and Curtis Holcomb are also pretty solid and should compete for the last spot and help on special teams. All in all, a very solid group. It isn't special like the front 7 are, but with that much talent it doesn't need to be, and it won't drag the team down.
Roster Predictions: Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Chris Culliver, Tramaine Brock, Perrish Cox, Cory Nelms*
A lot of guys who I described earlier will certainly help on special teams. Ted Ginn Jr or LaMichael James will return punts and kickoffs, C.J. Spillman is obviously a special teams boss, and I expect some linebackers and defensive backs to help as well. So what seperates these four? These are the four people who spend all of their time helping make San Francisco 49ers special teams the undisputed best in the league.
Rock Cartwright is a 'running back' the 49ers signed from Oakland. He is expected to fill a similar role to the departed Blake Costanzo.
Brian Jennings is a long snapper who has never been noticed. This is a good thing, because like referees, long snappers are only noticed if they do not do their jobs. Keep on not being noticed, Brian Jennings. I appreciate you.
David Akers is the kicker, and he was pretty awesome last year, setting an NFL record for field goals made in one season. A lot of that was because of offensive ineptitude, and kicking is pretty random year to year, so don't expect him to do it again. That said, he is a very good kicker with nerves of steel and a cannon of a leg.
But none on this entire list can compare to this next player. This next player was put on this earth to change field position and put teams on their one yard line. This next player is the reason the Jaguars drafted a punter in the third round. This next player may have kicked his best kick of all time a few years ago; we don't know because it hasn't landed yet. This next player is undoubtedly the team MVP, if not the MVP of the league.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Andy Lee.
Roster Predictions: Andy Lee, David Akers, Brian Jennings, Rock Cartwright. Total ST: 4 + others from different positions.
(Note: Players with asterisks are not on the 46 man roster. Players in italics are not on the 53 man roster.)
If this were the 49ers 53-man roster on game day I'd be very happy, but I'm pretty positive that I'm wrong. But that's why they play the game. Harbaugh and Baalke need to see training camps and preseason performance before deciding on anything. Battles will be fought. Jobs will be won. It's all in the future. But still, rosterbation is fun. Even if it takes 3264 words to get there.