Veterans report to camp today, joining most of the rookies from Tuesday. With practice kicking off on Saturday, it would seem helpful to have a rundown of the various positional battles we'll be tracking over the next 6 weeks. While I'm not a big horse racing fan, I do like some of the terminology. In this instance, while training camp is only just now starting, the parties in these battles have already begun the race. Obviously last year's performance plays into it, but more importantly, we've had the various minicamps and OTAs. We can't get a great idea (or much of any) from those practices, but it does give the coaches something with which to start. I did this exercise last year, but I've added in participants to keep people clear on who's involved.
The 49ers have improved their talent level this offseason, but they still face questions like any other team. The mainstream media focuses on the quarterback battle, but we know there are plenty of other battles to consider. Of course, that doesn't stop us from kicking things off with . . .
Participants: Shaun Hill, Alex Smith
Leader at the first turn: Shaun Hill
It's been discussed ad nauseum, but we'll discuss it one more time. I didn't include Huard because Singletary has already said it's a 2-horse race. The latest buzz is that folks in 49ers HQ are pulling for Smith. Even if that is the case, I'll mix metaphors a bit and say Hill is the "champ" and Smith is the challenger. For Smith to win the job, I believe he has to take it, as opposed to having it handed to him. One thing to keep in mind is that last year Hill and Smith were battling and a dark horse came out of nowhere early on to pull the upset. Not exactly shocking in retrospect, but surprising nonetheless.
Participants: Dre Bly, Tarell Brown, Shawntae Spencer (longshot)
Leader at the first turn: Dre Bly
I think this could be one of the more entertaining battles in training camp. Dre Bly and Tarell Brown are both confident individuals and think they're the best man for the job. I include Shawntae Spencer, who is recovering from ACL surgery. I don't expect him to win the job, but he could certainly push them. I give Bly the edge because of veteran experience. The SFGate Niner Insider seems to think it's fairly even at this point. In the end I'd imagine most of us would prefer Tarell Brown win the job. He's significantly younger and viewed as a long term answer, unlike Bly. Fortunately, given the receiving talent in the NFC West, both Bly and Brown will see significant playing time, whether it be the #2 corner or the nickel back.
Starting Wide Receivers
Participants: Isaac Bruce, Brandon Jones, Josh Morgan, Jason Hill
Leader at the first turn: Isaac Bruce, Josh Morgan
I really wasn't sure where to go with this. Some of the projections I've noticed have Bruce and Morgan starting at wide receiver. In minicamp and the OTAs, Morgan actually received playing time at both starting receiver positions. As for Bruce, well I definitely think he's surpassed by the end of the season, but not right off the bat. At the same time I didn't include Michael Crabtree here. Crabtree is a wildcard at this point, even if you don't factor in the fact that he hasn't signed. He seems to play a similar position to Josh Morgan, but I'd imagine at some point we'll see Morgan and Crabtree on the field together (hopefully for a long time). If Crabtree gets in to camp and tears it up I suppose we can add him in to this. As for Hill, he will find plenty of playing time but more as a third receiver on the field.
After the jump we look at four more battles...
4th/Practice Squad Running Back
Participants: Thomas Clayton, Kory Sheets
Leader at the first turn: Even
I broke it down this way because I think one of these guys ends up as the 49ers 4th running back on the 53-man roster OR as the single running back on the practice squad. I only think one of these guys will be a 49er in some fashion the first week of the season. It's possible they lose both via waivers, but I just don't see them keeping both. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong. Both have practice squad eligibility. However, if the team likes Sheets and his potential as a running back and even a return man, why even both keeping Clayton as well? I do like Thomas Clayton, but he does not seem to be in the 49ers long terms at this point. Maybe that changes. Based on that, I probably should have Sheets as the front runner, but who knows what will happen that deep in the roster.
Backup Offensive Tackle
Participants: Alex Boone, Barry Sims
Leader at the first turn: Not even the slightest clue
Assuming Marvel Smith stays healthy (certainly a big assumption), Adam Snyder will be backing him up. The 49ers have some flexibility among their offensive lineman and who can play a mix of guard and tackle. In my initial 53-man roste projection I took Barry Sims over Alex Boone to the anger of many. I would much prefer Boone make the roster, but I really don't know what to expect at this point. Sims has the veteran edge, but he also really isn't all that good. I'd take upside any day of the week. I'd imagine that first preseason game should tell us a lot about how the depth chart is shaking out at tackle. I wouldn't expect Joe Staley and Marvel Smith to play a whole ton, so we'll get a chance to see who gets first crack after them. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if Marvel Smith was rested for most of the preseason as a precaution. If that's the case, it opens up even more backup playing time.
Left Defensive End
Participants: Isaac Sopoaga, Kentwan Balmer, Demetric Evans (longshot)
Leader at the first turn: Isaac Sopoaga
A lot of folks want to see Sopoaga playing at nose tackle given his tremendous size. At this point I hold the belief that Aubrayo Franklin will spend most of the time there, with Sopoaga and Balmer getting some time mixed in. That leaves Sopoaga and Balmer battling for the starting LDE position. Evans will certainly get plenty of playing time, but I would expect it to be in a platoon/backup sort of role. Back in March, Maiocco indicated the Evans signing meant Sopoaga would move back to nose tackle. Am I wrong to think this left defensive end battle will primarily involve Sopoaga and Balmer? This remains one area where I continue to have questions.
6th Wide Receiver
Participants: Arnaz Battle, Dominique Zeigler
Leader at the first turn: Even
"Even" is probably a bit of a cop-out. However, this "positional battle" is not quite clear if it even is up for grabs. We don't know if the 49ers will even carry a sixth receiver on their 53-man roster. If they do, Battle has an advantage in that he can bring a lot to special teams. On the other hand, Zeigler has flexibility in that he still has practice squad eligibility. So, you really can't do much with this without knowing whether they're actually competing for something.
I'm sure I've missed something here, so please throw out any other positional battles I've missed. I think this list is a little shorter because more people are solidfying their hold on a position, at least early in the season.