The final installment of our offseason workout program wrap up is on the veterans, players that have four or more years of NFL experience. The San Francisco 49ers are a very young team, but that is not to say that every veteran is guaranteed a starting position. There are several vets that should see a lot of playing time in 2016, but will there be a younger player that could replace them at some point during the season? Here’s our look at the veterans.
The defense is The mainstay of the 49ers of the last several years has been the defense. Three straight trips to the NFC Championship game did not happen by accident and although there are very few players still on the roster that were on those teams, it has remained the most constant part about the team.
Those with 4+ years of experience in the NFL include: NaVorro Bowman, Michael Wilhoite, Ray-Ray Armstrong, Nick Bellore, Ahmad Brooks, Corey Lemonier and Gerald Hodges. It is the position group that has the most experience on the team.
The sure thing is, of course, NaVorro Bowman. He had a remarkable comeback year, returning from injury leading the team in tackles by a huge margin, 116 solo tackles and 38 assists with the next closest being Michael Wilhoite with 62 solo and 23 assists. Being ranked 61 in the NFL’s top 100 players was “completely bogus” to the veteran LB so expect him to prove that point to everyone in 2016.
The dark horse is Ray-Ray Armstrong. He, along with Gerald Hodges and Michael Wilhoite are in a race for who will start next to Bowman this season. Armstrong had an impressive minicamp on day three when he took all of the first team snaps next to Bowman, and registered two interceptions.
This unit consists of Quinton Dial, Ian Williams, Glenn Dorsey, and Tank Carradine. The line will gain valuable assistance in the form of very talented youth in it’s the ranks in DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead.
The sure thing is Quinton Dial. He has gotten better every year and with DL technician Jerry Azzinaro running the group, he should only improve.
The dark horse is Tank Carradine who hopefully will finally find his appropriate position on the 49ers defensive front. After trying to put on weight to fit into the 3-4 scheme that the team was using, Carradine has now dropped a few pounds and will become a pass rush specialist, working when the team is in it’s nickel package which calls for a 4 man line.
This group has three veteran members, Tramaine Brock, Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea. Bethea who has returned from surgery on his pectoral muscle is back to full strength, but even more important is his leadership and ability to read plays before they even happen on the field. Reid is his equally important counterpart on the field and two of them together are vital for the success of the secondary.
The offensive line
This has been somewhat of an area of opportunity. The team has attempted to patch those holes up with some fresh meat but there are still some veterans in the group who are important for it’s success. This group includes Joe Staley, Daniel Kilgore, Andrew Tiller, Erik Pears and Zane Beadles.
The sure things are Staley and Kilgore as both are tried and true players able to protect the QB and create gaps in the opposing DL. There isn’t much doubt that these two players will be on the starting line up all season.
The dark horse is Andrew Tiller who ended up contributing on the OL during the rotation experiment as well as more consistently at the end of the season. His strength is one of his greatest assets and this could be the season that he earns a solid spot on the line although the competition from the younger players will be tough.
The offensive contributors include RB Shaun Draughn, TEs Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek, Bruce Miller, WRs Torrey Smith, Jerome Simpson and CFL veteran Eric Rogers.
The sure thing has to be Torrey Smith. Although his stats weren’t much to talk about in 2015, he will undoubtedly be a bigger contributor this season. HC Chip Kelly’s philosophy of making the scheme fit the talents of the players can only help his cause.
The dark horse is a close competition between Miller who has now moved to TE and Rogers who was Chip Kelly’s first acquisition after being named head coach. Rogers, who has spent his time since attending Cal Lutheran in the Canadian Football league, was very active during OTAs completing several receptions. He was not, however, involved in team drills during mandatory minicamp due to an undisclosed injury.
This group has been the biggest story during the offseason, and the narrative will continue throughout training camp and the preseason. There really is no clear cut sure thing but Colin Kaepernick is the dark horse to a certain extent. If he starts the regular season it will be after being placed on IR in order to have three surgeries as well as speculation that he was done in Santa Clara after asking for a trade. Blaine Gabbert is, for the time being, the starter as Kaepernick still takes things slowly building back the strength in his upper body and putting muscle mass back on his frame.
The most sure thing on the entire team is Phil Dawson. He will spend his 17th season kicking field goals and extra points for the 49ers with one of the highest percentages in the league. The only reason he is not on many of the top kicker lists for 2015 is because the offense didn’t get close enough for FGs or into the end zone enough for PATs.