The San Francisco 49ers wrapped up their veteran minicamp last week, setting the stage for the start of training camp next month. The team will host a rookie minicamp this week, but it will be fairly limited. Head coach Jim Harbaugh will be down in Peru building homes with his church this week, so he is leaving the minicamp up to his coaching staff.
The rookies, and particularly LaMichael James, will get a chance to further learn the playbook and figure out the basics of playing in the NFL. The minicamp will also provide free agent Brian Banks with a chance to try out for the team and earn a roster spot for training camp.
Although the team still has the rookie minicamp getting underway, we are going to start transitioning toward training camp prep. Although the 49ers return quite a few firmly entrenched starters from last year, there are still several starting jobs open for competition. And of course, there will be plenty of battles for playing time further down the roster, beyond the starters.
We'll be breaking down all the position battles, one by one in the coming weeks, but for now I wanted to come up with an exhaustive list of the position battles and the pertinent players. These are not necessarily in order of "importance", but rather just a list that I have come up with as I go through the depth chart. If you think I'm missing pertinent players or battles, let me know.
Also, some of the battles are not necessarily split up as they can best be done, so any suggestions are welcome. Particularly the running back and wide receiver battles.
Boone has been getting all the first team reps at right guard and it would seem to be his job to lose. Kilgore has been focusing on center, while Slowey has mostly been working at backup offensive tackle, and a little bit of backup guard. Looney is a talented interior lineman, but he is dealing with a Lis Franc injury to his foot that is still in the process of healing.
Although anything can develop in the next two months, a healthy Michael Crabtree would seem to be the likely choice to emerge as the "#1" wide receiver. I don't know if the offense will have a clear-cut number one when it comes to division of targets, but Crabtree would appear to be that guy at this point. If you strenuously disagree and think there should be a greater subdivision within the wide receiver position, comment accordingly.
The 49ers running back position is another one where there will be an assortment of roles to fill. Frank Gore will open the year as the lead back, but behind him the touches will be interesting to follow. Jacobs would seem to be primarily battling Anthony Dixon, while LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter will conduct their own battle. In reality, they'll all be "change of pace" backs with one Jacobs or Dixon handling power rushing and James and Hunter working more as the speed option.
Nate Byham has the roster experience, but his recovery from ACL surgery will be something to follow. Training camp will be a full year since his injury, but for a guy down in the trenches working primarily as a blocking tight end, it will be a tough recovery. Reuland has the Stanford experience, while Kyle Nelson brings some special teams ability as well.
Coach Harbaugh has said the QB2 competition is wide open. I would imagine the team would like to see Colin Kaepernick take the bull by the horns, but it sounds like he has struggled as much as any of the three options this offseason. Preseason games will show us a lot more than non-contact, non-padded practices.
Outside Linebacker #2: Aldon Smith, Parys Haralson
While this job is Aldon Smith's to lose, he still has to show he can handle the coverage and run before he can become the every down outside linebacker. If he struggles early in training camp, does the team let him work through it, or do they revert to last year's strategy of using Smith primarily in the nickel package? Or some combination of both?
Johnson had to get some work done on his knee during OTAs, but he is expected to be back in time for the upcoming training camp. He was selected in the seventh round in part due to a variety of injury issues (and some consistency problems as well). Eric Bakhtiari has bounced around the league for a few years, but has the benefit of having played for Coach Harbaugh at the University of San Diego. If Johnson's knee isn't good to go by the start of training camp, Bakhtiari would find himself in a strong position in this battle.
I suppose this could be a battle for the third cornerback role, but I remain fairly convinced Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver will find themselves locked into those top three roles. Considering the 49ers used the nickel something like 52% of the time (per Vic Fangio's estimation), these are basically the three starters at cornerback. Perrish Cox has enough experience, talent and performance thus far (according to Fangio) to potentially hold the lead in this battle.
The 49ers have very limited safety depth heading into training camp. Spillman and Robinson have been getting the first team snaps in OTAs due to Dashon Goldson working on a new contract and Donte Whitner apparently having some bumps and bruises to deal with this summer. Ideally, Robinson will take the bull by the horns this August and Spillman can focus on special teams. Having both step up would be great, but I'm just thinking a bit more practically.
Ricky Jean Francois heads into camp fairly secure as the top backup on the defensive line. While Ian Williams will look to challenge RJF at nose tackle, Dobbs and Tukuafu will be challenging each other at defensive end as much as challenging Rick Jean. The 49ers carried Williams, Dobbs and Tukuafu last season, losing Tukuafu to injured reserve a month into the season. The 49ers value versatility, and it leaves me wondering if they will carry all three this year.
Kick Return/Punt Return: Ted Ginn Jr., Kyle Williams, LaMichael James, Perrish Cox, Chris Owusu
If Ginn makes the roster, there is little doubt that he will handle kick return and punt return duties. This battle is primarily looking at the backup option for both roles. However, given the 49ers love of versatility, it is entirely possible they part ways with Ginn at some point. I would still be quite surprised if Ginn was not on the 49ers roster, but a strong training camp could be a difference-maker for one of the other options.