The San Francisco 49ers conduct their first official training camp practice on July 24, which is a mere 26 days from now. For most position battles, that is when the competition ratchets up a notch. The offseason workout program provided players with a chance to show they know the playbook and understand technique issues, but padded practices and eventually preseason games is when we really start to see who will take control of what positions.
Between now and the start of training camp, we'll break down each position unit, looking at who is a lock, who is on the bubble, and who is a long shot to make the roster. In addition to that, I thought it would be helpful to look at some of the more specific position battles across the roster. This is less formal than the unit-by-unit breakdown. With this, we'll look at two or three players competing for one particular role. I'll include a poll for predictions. It's too early to know many things for certain, but it gives us a base line poll we can look back to as the competition progresses into August.
I thought we'd start with the competition between Chris Culliver, Chris Cook, and Dontae Johnson for the starting cornerback role opposite Tramaine Brock. At this point, I imagine most would agree that Brock is starting Week 1. Crazy things can happen, but for now, I'm operating with that assumption.
Chris Culliver has the most experience with this team, but is coming off a torn ACL last year. Chris Cook has the most NFL experience, but he has struggled tracking the ball down the field, and was wildly inconsistent with the Minnesota Vikings. Dontae Johnson has excellent measurables across the board, but he's a rookie.
Culliver's ACL recovery seems to be progressing at a reasonable pace, but the team has been conservative in getting him back on the field. In OTAs and minicamp, Culliver took part in individual work, but when the team moved to 11-on-11 work, he did not participate. Cook got first team reps opposite Brock, and Johnson got second team reps. Both seemed to have solid enough minicamps. Of course, without the ability to engage in legitimate press coverage, we could not see what is supposed to be one of Cook's strong suits.
Prediction: If Culliver's knee continues to progress, I think we see him starting opposite Brock when training camp gets going. I think he's got the talent to claim the job over Cook, and Culliver ends up starting Week 1. I do think we see a bit of a rotation that gets Cook on the field a decent amount. Last season, the Seattle Seahawks had an extensive rotation of defensive linemen. Maybe the 49ers employ more of a rotation at cornerback. There's nothing to indicate that is the plan, but if Culliver and Cook both look good in training camp, why not take full advantage of the resources at your disposal?
I wouldn't be surprised to see Dontae Johnson end up inactive for much of the season. He did play a mix of cornerback and safety in college, so maybe the team gives him some safety opportunities in the preseason to try and shore up their depth there. Jimmie Ward played safety and corner in college as well, but is expected to focus more on the nickel. Right now, Craig Dahl and C.J. Spillman are the primary backups at safety. Both seem best suited in special teams roles, although Spillman can bring some value when the team goes to three safeties.
I don't expect Johnson to get a ton of safety time, because he still could very well end up in the starting lineup at cornerback by 2015. Chris Culliver and Chris Cook are both free agents after this season, so it remains to be seen what the position holds long-term opposite Tramaine Brock.