49ers position battles: Handicapping the defense following OTAs

Thearon W. Henderson

The 49ers have numerous position battles to assess in training camp. Having wrapped up the 2013 offseason workout program last week, we take a look at the offensive side of the ball.

Last month, before the 49ers got into their OTAs, we put together a pair of posts looking at the offensive position battles and defensive position battles. The offseason workout program doesn't provide winners or losers to position battles, but they do give us at least a little more information about the different participants. Yesterday, we followed up with the offensive position battles. Today, we move on to the defensive position battles.

Minicamp practice reports: Day one Day two Day three

Cornerback

Participants: Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Chris Culliver, Nnamdi Asomugha, Perrish Cox, Tramaine Brock, Marcus Cooper

In the pre-OTAs post, I mentioned how Tarell Brown was a likely leader for one of the two starting positions, and Carlos Rogers had the spot to lose opposite him. Rogers focused on some weight room work, but has not been involved in team drills. He is expected back in time for training camp, but his absence has provided Nnamdi Asomugha with plenty of first team reps.

The offseason workout program did not really help us in getting any closer to a resolution on the starting situation. Tarell Brown spent most of the offseason working out at home, Rogers is getting back to 100%, and Chris Culliver has been flying under the radar. Nnamdi, Cox and Brock benefited in terms of more reps, but we're left to wait until training camp.

For now, Matt Barrows put together his thoughts on the current depth chart, and it is what would be expected: Rogers/Brown at the top, Culliver/Asomugha second, Brock/Rose third and Cooper/Morris fourth.

It is of course worth noting that the 49ers spend more time in their nickel than in their base 3-4. Vic Fangio has said Carlos Rogers will remain the nickel back, although he did not clarify if that meant he would be out of the base starting lineup. It would seem however, that for now the primary battle for playing time could be between Culliver and Asomugha. That is more speculation than anything on my part, as we really are stuck waiting for the start of training camp.

Backup outside linebacker

Participants: Parys Haralson, Corey Lemonier, Cam Johnson

We've had a small bit of clarification at the outside linebacker position. Previously I listed Darius Fleming here, but Vic Fangio has confirmed the team moved him to inside linebacker. That leaves three players with distinct storylines. Parys Haralson is the aging veteran who took a pay cut to stick with the team. Corey Lemonier was selected in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Cam Johnson was a seventh round pick last year, but spent much of the season on the practice squad.

It is impossible to assess the pass rush skills of Lemonier and Johnson from the offseason program, since there is no live contact. However, of this group, I think we can expect to see Haralson as an injury fill-in option early, while Lemonier gets most of his work as a nickel defensive end, in the mold of Aldon Smith's rookie season. Cam Johnson will compete with Lemonier for that role, but faces an uphill battle. Johnson has practice squad eligibility, and it would not surprise me to see him spend another year on the practice squad.

Free Safety

Participants: Eric Reid, Craig Dahl, C.J. Spillman, Trenton Robinson, Michael Thomas, Darcel McBath

At the start of OTAs, Eric Reid was working with the second team. By the end of OTAs, Reid was splitting first team snaps with Dahl and Spillman. Reid did not take any first team snaps at minicamp as he was "working through something" after day one.

I would not be surprised if the 49ers opened training camp with a rotation at free safety, but if Reid wasn't handling most or all of the first team snaps in the days following the first preseason game, I would be a bit surprised. He has the athleticism, intelligence and work ethic to take his game to the next level. It strikes me as a sink or swim situation for the 49ers. Maybe Reid ends up not working out. There are no guarantees. But to not see what he does with the ones would not strike me as the best decision.

It will also be worth tracking Dahl vs. Spillman for additional playing time behind Reid and Donte Whitner. Spillman got some of that work last year, particularly in the team's goal line package.

Nose Tackle

Participants: Glenn Dorsey, Ian Williams, Quinton Dial

Nothing appears to have changed here. All signs point to Dorsey starting out as the first team nose tackle, but I think Williams will get some chances in the preseason. Quinton Dial is dealing with a toe injury and has not had a chance to get on the field thus far. He will not pass Dorsey or Williams anytime soon, but I think we'll see him getting some mop-up time at the position during the preseason games.

Defensive line depth

Participants: Tank Carradine, Glenn Dorsey, Demarcus Dobbs, Quinton Dial, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Will Tukuafu, Lawrence Okoye

We can't make many changes to our assessment thus far because of the lack of contact work (stop me if you've heard that before!). The notable information would be that Carradine and Dial have not practiced because of injury rehab. Both are expected back sometime in training camp, but until then, the rest of the depth chart gets a chance to improve themselves.

Lawrence Okoye remains a significant question mark, and based on comments from camp, the practice squad seems more and more possible. Nobody has said he is struggling, but Vic Fangio has emphasized how much he has to learn, and how hard it is to assess anything before contact and double teams and pads. If I had to pick one guy I am most anxious to see in the preseason, it would have to be Lawrence Okoye. He could do absolutely nothing in the preseason, but it would give us more information with which to work than we have thus far.

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