Firstly, (not that I imagine or assume anyone follows my output this intensely or has even noticed) I want to apologize for what has been an almost three-month hiatus since my last article for Niners Nation. The last few months have been extraordinarily hectic due to a new job and cross-country relocation from New Jersey to San Francisco. Now that I've settled in, I'm looking forward to getting back to my usual contributions and even more excited to be closer to the pulse of the team. Hopefully, this means attending a few more games a year (although prices are going to make it hard enough to even get to one this year) and possibly a training camp session if schedule allows. At any rate, it definitely opens up some new doors in terms of content and I'll try to take advantage of those opportunities.
(Too long; didn't read: I didn't deliver an article for a while because I was moving to SF. Now, I'm here and writing again)
Anyways, onto the subject at hand...
With two and a half weeks left before the 49ers hold their first full training camp practice, news remains stagnant. The draft and frenzy of free agent acquisitions lie in the wake of the offseason, while fans and pundits eagerly await players to begin reporting to camp. Thankfully, the 49ers have a loaded roster, so there are plenty of discussion points to be had. With training camp looming, it's a good opportunity to start dissecting some key players who, despite not receiving much attention, will be important to watch throughout training camp and into the regular season as they could be sizable contributors during both. Here is my breakdown of six such players:
Many viewed the 49ers' second-round selection of Carradine last year as a steal, provided the Florida State defensive end could make a full recovery from a nasty ACL tear. After briefly adding Carradine to the roster, the 49ers effectively redshirted Carradine in 2013. His roster and IR moves removed the chance for contract tolling, but it did give him a year to recover and entrench himself in the playbook and scheme.
Now, Carradine appears to be at full strength and is ready to show the team and fans why he was widely regarded as a first-round pick prior to injury. Despite a reputation for dominance, the 49ers defensive line is aging quickly—Justin Smith and Ray McDonald will turn 35 and 30, respectively, come September. Couple that with the uncertainty of Aldon Smith's availability as he faces possible suspension and there's reason for concern regarding the Niners' defensive front. That's where a player like Carradine becomes extremely important.
The 49ers will need to rely on Carradine to rotate with Smith and/or McDonald on the line and to bolster the pass rush should Aldon Smith be suspended a handful of games, as expected. At 6'4, 276 lbs, Carradine has the frame to play 3-4 defensive end or come in as a fourth lineman on pass-rush packages. There is no questioning the talent and potential this kid possesses but significant questions remain. How quickly can Carradine get up-to-speed during his first training camp action? What will his burst off the line be like post-injury? Perhaps the most interesting question: what will his specific role be within the 49ers defense?
Being a run-first team and considering the strength of the position group as a whole, the 49ers' crowded stable of running backs has been one of the most talked about aspects of the team during the offseason. With Marcus Lattimore (much like Carradine) recovered from his knee injury and seeing his first professional offseason action, many are prognosticating what is reasonable to expect from Lattimore and where he fits into the picture. The 49ers second-round selection of Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde (the highest-rated running back in the draft) back in May has also garnered a lot of focus, with many projecting him to be the heir-apparent to the venerable Frank Gore. Speaking of Gore, we're now in Year 4 or so of people declaring him "finished," so that's been another heavily scrutinized topic as is tradition.
Largely lost in the mix is Kendall Hunter, the scrappy fourth-year back who has spelled Gore since entering the league in 2011. With a season cut short by an Achilles injury in 2012, and a quiet output in 2013, Hunter has shifted to the back-burner in the eyes of many 49ers followers. The funny thing, however, is that Hunter is the only proven commodity behind Gore. No one truly knows what Lattimore or Hyde are capable of. One is coming off of a gruesome double-knee injury and has never seen professional action, while the other is a second-round rookie.
Personally speaking, I think Hunter is still the best option and is a very talented back overall. Maybe not an "every-down" kind of player but definitely a guy who can split the load or even carry 70% of it. Back in March, I wrote an article questioning why Hunter wasn't used more extensively in 2013 and feared his days were numbered in San Francisco beyond this season. More recently, NN's James Brady discussed Hunter's role in the backfield in 2014, NN Editor David Fucillo provided a 90-in-90 breakdown of the fourth-year back, and CSNBA's Matt Maiocco intimated that the 49ers feel his burst and acceleration are much better this offseason than they were last year coming off of the achilles injury.
That news from Maiocco shed light on why the 49ers weren't using him more frequently last year and it could spell good things in 2014, especially considering it's a contract year. With that said, Hunter remains the front-runner as the 49ers' primary backup and with Gore in the final year of his contract and 31 years of age, look for the 49ers to use Hunter more liberally this season to keep Gore fresh for the playoffs.
While "General Patton" is a colloquial Niners Nation folk hero, he hasn't received much attention from other media outlets this offseason. Much like the running back position, the 49ers' group of wide receivers is a crowded one, replete with a lot of other, more high-profile names and topics to speak of such as Michael Crabtree in a contract year, the role of recently-acquired Stevie Johnson, and Brandon Lloyd's fight for a roster spot after a year of retirement. As a fourth-round draft pick in May and coming off an impressive display of skills during minicamp, Bruce Ellington has also garnered banter and even earned the praise of Colin Kaepernick.
A year ago, Quinton Patton was being cast in a similar light as a fourth-round receiver who could make a splash in the 49ers receiving corps. While an unfortunate foot injury derailed his rookie season, he returned at the end of the season and showed flashes of the potential that had people buzzing during the offseason, most notably with an acrobatic, late-game reception against Arizona to set up the game-winning field goal.
Patton was quiet in the playoffs but that's not too surprising given the fact that the 49ers are a run-first team and he was a rookie who missed much of the regular season. Despite having an abundance of competition, the chances of Patton making the roster remain very good. Brandon Lloyd's age and year away from football put him at a disadvantage but his experience and speed work in his favor. Ellington has a great shot, but at 5'9, 196 lbs. the 49ers will likely view him as more of a return man (especially if they end up dealing away LaMichael James) and deep-threat for specifically-designed pass plays.
At 6'0 204 lbs. and with a 4.53 40-yard dash time, Patton is far from the biggest or fastest guy on the field but he's shown a knack for making plays and excels in other facets of the game. Of particular note is Patton's 4.01-second 20-yard shuttle time during last year's combine. The 40 gets all the glory but the 20-yard shuttle showcases a player's quickness and change of direction and this is where Patton can be dangerous for the 49ers; especially in the open field where the 49ers struggles with yards after the catch. The top three WR positions already locked into place but Patton appears to be the leading candidate for the No. 4 spot so long as he can stave off Lloyd and Ellington for it.
The second-year outside linebacker saw a little bit of playing time during his rookie campaign last year during Aldon Smith's time away from the field. Lemonier finished the season with 15 tackles, a forced fumble, and an impressive sack for a safety against Arizona. While the numbers are far from substantial, those who follow the team had to have liked what they saw from the former Auburn Tiger when he was on the field, especially considering he was a third-round pick converted from defensive end.
Aldon Smith's 2014 hangs in the balance of the court system. Although he was not charged in the LAX fiasco, he awaits a July 25th court date to determine his no-contest plea to gun charges stemming from an incident in 2012. Regardless of the outcome, Smith is expected to miss time due to suspension in 2014. How long that will be remains to be seen. In his absence, the 49ers will look to Lemonier and Dan Skuta, both of whom filled in admirably last year. Lemonier definitely has the advantage over Skuta considering his athleticism and skill set, but Skuta is a strong insurance policy. Smith's tenure with the team for the long-term also remains in question as he'll command a lot of money and presents a risk given his off-the-field transgressions. A strong showing by Lemonier in 2014 could heavily factor into the 49ers long-term plans (or lack thereof) for Smith. With a year under his belt, a wingspan comparable to Aldon Smith's, and a nice opportunity at hand, look for Lemonier to make the most of his sophomore season.
I don't lump these two players together out of a lack of respect; I do so because their stories are intertwined heading into training camp. During the 2013 offseason, Ian Williams was lauded for his dominating performances in camp as he prepared to become the team's starting nose tackle. Glenn Dorsey, meanwhile, was seen as a bargain deal for the 49ers after a disappointing start but solid finish to his career in Kansas City. A season-ending ankle injury in Week 2 put Williams on the shelf for the entire season in 2013. In his stead, Glenn Dorsey shone as an anchor of the 49ers defensive line who consistently did the dirty work.
While Williams hopes to be ready for the start of training camp, there is no certainty that he will be. Even if he is ready, he is coming off of a devastating ankle injury and has never been a full-time starter previously, while Dorsey it touting a solid 2013 season. This has to put Dorsey as the front-runner for the job but it will be interesting to see how it all unfolds and, as NN Editor David Fucillo noted in an article a few weeks ago, what role Williams carves out for himself in the event Dorsey remains the starting nose tackle.
So there you have it, six under-the-radar players to keep an eye out for both in training camp and during the regular season. Don't be surprised if a handful of these guys are turning some heads come September.
How do you think it will all play out? Which other unsung players do you foresee shining in training camp and making a splash during the regular season? Leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below.