The San Francisco 49ers are a team with as much depth as anybody in the NFL. They have their share of question marks, but through the draft, free agency, and trades, the team has put themselves in a position to weather storms at a variety of positions.
This past weekend, CBS Sports' Pat Kirwan put together a list of 13 questions each team must attempt to answer with regard to their depth. The first question that he viewed as most important was backup quarterback. We already had some discussion about that this morning, with our NFC West backup quarterback roundup. I ranked the 49ers last in the NFC West at the position because Blaine Gabbert is a significant question mark. He's in a position to improve greatly with this coaching staff, but it's hard to tell exactly what he brings to the table.
Here are the remaining 12 questions, with a few thoughts on each as they apply to the 49ers.
1. Does your team have a real swing offensive tackle, a guy that can play left or right tackle and has experience?
YES-ish - The 49ers used Adam Snyder and Alex Boone as their primary backup offensive linemen last year, with Joe Looney as the next guy. If one offensive lineman went down, Snyder would slot in wherever that was. However, when both left guard Mike Iupati and left tackle Joe Staley were hurt, Snyder filled in at left guard, Alex Boone moved to left tackle, and Joe Looney moved in at right guard.
This year, the team has added Jonathan Martin to the mix to compete for that swing tackle role, as well as postentially some guard work. Whether or not Boone is available at the start of the regular season, the team has to be hoping Jonathan Martin can emerge as a solid enough backup for both tackle positions. It's a question mark, but there is strong potential.
2. Does your team have a solid inside offensive lineman that can play guard or center?
YES - The team has loaded up on depth, with the recent addition of Marcus Martin to the mix. Martin is competing at center, but will apparently get some work at guard as well. As things currently stand, Adam Snyder could fit in at both roles. However, if Alex Boone returns to the team before the season starts, there is a chance the team goes with three separate backups: Marcus Martin at center, Joe Looney at guard, and Jonathan Martin at tackle. If they don't feel comfortable with some of this group, Adam Snyder remains a stable veteran option. But a lot depends on how Alex Boone's contract situation is resolved. If he's in camp, I'm comfortable with their interior line depth. If he is not, it gets thin.
3. Is there a quality second running back that can deliver a 100-yard rushing day if he had to start?
YES - Just a little bit. After Frank Gore, this team has Kendall Hunter, Marcus Lattimore, and Carlos Hyde. Hunter and Hyde are healthy and ready to go, and could potentially take over if Gore had to miss a game. Lattimore is an option as well, but we need to see how he responds to those first hits in the preseason, and if that extra gear has returned. But even if Lattimore does not pan out, this running back group is deeper than anybody in the league.
4. Is there a good second tight end on the roster?
TBD - There is a second tight end, but this position might have the most questions on the team. The first question is whether or not Vernon Davis will be in camp. If his holdout continues, the 49ers tight end depth takes a huge hit. Vance McDonald is the No. 2 guy, but he has to show some serious improvement in year 2. If Vernon is back, I'm comfortable with the tight ends. If Vernon's holdout conitnues into the season, suddenly Garrett Celek or Derek Carrier is the second tight end. Celek is perfectly capable of handling third tight end work, but in the 49ers heavy tight end packages, he is not the most inspiring of No. 2s.
5. Can the third wide receiver step up and start in the two-WR packages if a starter went down?
YES - The team acquired Stevie Johnson for a conditional fourth round pick. He was a starter with the Buffalo Bills, but will now become a bit more of a role player. If the 49ers expand their use of 3-WR sets, we could see plenty of him, but at the very least, he'll rotate in with Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin. Johnson is currently dealing with a hamstring injury, but should be fine for training camp. He has had some injury issues over the years, so behind him the 49ers have Quinton Patton, Bruce Ellington, and potentially Brandon Lloyd. While not quite on the level of Johnson, there is talent there.
6. Does your team have a designated pass-rush specialist who could play the early downs if need be?
YES - This would probably be a mix of Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta. The 49ers had to use them when Aldon Smith went to rehab last year, and we would probably see something similar this year if Smith ends up getting suspended. My guess is Skuta would get base down work, while Lemonier handled the nickel and dime downs. Lemonier showed a lot of talent last fall, so it is also possible the team could decide Lemonier can handle all the work in Smith's potential absence. Either way, while the unit would take a hit without Aldon Smith, they have a capable backup rotation.
7. Is there a third defensive tackle that not only plays in a rotation but could play the whole game if need be?
YES-ish - This is going to be interesting. The team used Tony Jerod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs as the rotational guys behind Justin Smith and Ray McDonald. This year, they also get Tank Carradine, who could prove to be the best answer to this question. Oh, and we can't forget about Glenn Dorsey. Prior to Ian Williams' ankle injury, Dorsey's role was going to be backup all along the line. Once Williams got hurt, Dorsey became the starting nose tackle. If Williams wins back his job, Dorsey would likely be the primary backup across the line, with Tank being right there in the mix as well. If Williams does not win back his job, Tank and Tony Jerod-Eddie would be the two primary backups. Tank is still a question mark, but given his talent, and the fact that his knee seems good to go, I think this question will be answered in the affirmative.
8. Is there a quality nickel corner on the roster, since most teams are at least 50 percent sub defenses?
TBD - If Jimmie Ward's foot is good to go, he is going to get plenty of opportunities to handle the nickel work. He spent a lot of time covering the slot receiver during his time in college, so it would not be a new role for him. If he does struggle to take to the role in his first training camp, Perrish Cox is a capable option. He's not a star, but he was a solid replacement for Carlos Rogers through the first two playoff games. Darryl Morris is also getting some time at the position, and if he can build on last year, they could have very solid depth at nickel. Carlos Rogers was not a perfect nickel, but he was a quality nickel when healthy. The 49ers need to figure out what they have, but the potential is certainly there.
9. Is there a fourth corner for dime packages?
TBD - Again, this will depend on how Ward and Morris develop. There is potential, but we won't know the answer to this question until well into the preseason. If Ward emerges, Cox and Morris could end up competing for this role.
10. Is there a third safety for big nickel defenses?
YES - Jimmie Ward is actually expected to learn safety while also learning the nickel back role. I think he ends up spending most of his rookie playing time in the nickel role, but he could end up becoming a backup safety. Other than him, Craig Dahl and C.J. Spillman have been the primary backups at safety. If the team went with a third safety in the past, Spillman got the work. This has been particularly so in certain goal line situations. He's best as a special teams player, but he can be a solid enough safety in small does. It's not a perfect answer, but not many teams have a great answer at this point in the depth chart.
11. Is there a return specialist that can either handle both punt and kick returns or contribute as a real position player?
YES - LaMichael James currently handles this role. He looked solid in minicamp, showing aggressiveness and confidence in handling punts. If he can continue this in August, that could be enough to secure his roster spot. Bruce Ellington, Perrish Cox, Quinton Patton and Darryl Morris all seem to be getting some chances there as well, but LMJ is the main guy right now. He wouldn't really contribute at running back, but he can potentially handle both roles quite well if needed.
12. Does your team have a special-teams linebacker that leads the specials and can play inside linebacker in a pinch?
YES - This could end up being Nick Moody. The team signed linebacker Blake Costanzo, but he is pretty much exclusively a specail teams player at this point in his career. Michael Wilhoite has been a special teams contributor s well, but with NaVorro Bowman expected to start the season on the PUP list, Wilhoite is the leading candidate to move into the starting lineup next to Patrick Willis. If he does that, my guess is his special teams work will decline. Moody is getting work in the competition for Bowman's starting spot, and could handle linebacker work in a punch. But he'll remain primarily a special teams guy.
From the 13 questions, I'd say I have nine yes or "yes-ish" answers. Yes-ish is meant to cover potential but still some question marks. The remaining four I listed as TBD because we really don't know what to make of the backup quarterback, tight end and nickel and dime back positions yet. I won't say definitely no with any of those because there is talent there. Whether it reaches its potential remains to be seen, but it is based on young talent, so it's worth waiting to see how it plays out.
Am I way off base with these assessments? Do you think any of them is a clear-cut no? I suspect tight end will get some different opinions, but otherwise, what do you think?