A couple years ago, CBS Sports analyst Pat Kirwan put together a look at the importance of roster depth for a team hoping to win a Super Bowl. He developed a list of 13 questions that require a “yes” answer in order for a team to qualify as having sufficient depth. It’s obviously not a perfect list, but it’s a good mental exercise.
We’ve talked plenty this offseason about the 49ers roster issues. Some people are convinced this team can contend, but I think most recognize this is a re-building process. With that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to go through the 13-question test to figure out where things stand. Rather than answer yes or no, I’m going with yes, maybe, and not exactly. It’s the offseason and we don’t know exactly what each player has to offer, so not exactly is there to leave wiggle room for the unknown.
1. Does your team have a backup QB who can go at least 2-2 in a 4-game stretch?
Maybe - Right off the bat, we can say we don’t know for sure. The 49ers don’t know who their starting quarterback is, but we can say with some certainty that it will be either Blaine Gabbert or Colin Kaepernick. The backup will then most likely be the one who loses the QB competition. I think either could go 2-2 in a 4-game stretch, but it would depend on the competition to some degree. And that moves it out of the “yes” category and into something more nebulous.
2. Does your team have a real swing offensive tackle, a guy that can play left or right tackle and has experience?
Maybe - Right now Erik Pears and Trent Brown are the top two options at right tackle, with John Theus and Fahn Cooper also getting work there. Pears and Theus have both also gotten some time at left tackle. Pears is a veteran who can play both sides (as well as guard), but it’s not like he was all that great when he was out there. There’s some upside to the group, but it is sufficiently a question mark that a “maybe” seems most suitable.
3. Does your team have a solid inside offensive lineman that can play guard or center?
Not exactly - Marcus Martin has experience at both center and guard, Ian Silberman got snaps all along the line last training camp, and the team is working to convert Alex Balducci over. That’s not saying nearly enough to justify a maybe. Balducci is the one I’m keeping close attention to given Martin’s struggles thus far.
4. Is there a quality second running back that can deliver a 100-yard rushing day if he had to start?
Maybe - Shaun Draughn and DuJuan Harris handled the bulk of the team’s starts last season after Carlos Hyde and Reggie Bush got hurt. Harris rushed for 73 yards and 67 yards the final two weeks, while Draughn’s season-high was 58 yards. That was in a fairly incompetent offense, with an offensive line that struggled and was shuffled on the fly. I might be optimistic with a maybe, as I’d say their ceiling would be a single 100 yard game, but there’s some options. Consider it a slimmer maybe.
5. Is there a good second tight end on the roster?
Maybe - Right now, Bruce Miller, Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek and Blake Bell are the top four tight ends on the roster. This is another sort of slimmer maybe because we don’t know if the 49ers have one good tight end yet. That being said, I have some optimism about this group. I do think Bruce Miller can be a good tight end. Vance McDonald has some great raw tools if he could learn to not drop the ball. Garrett Celek looked good in limited snaps with Blaine Gabbert. And Blake Bell is continuing his transition from quarterback to tight end. There’s interesting talent to potentially roll out two good tight ends, but there is a ways to go before we figure that out.
6. Can the third wide receiver step up and start in the two-WR packages if a starter went down?
Maybe - I’m sensing a pattern here. We don’t know who the No. 2 wide receiver will be, let alone who will be behind him. Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington would seem like early favorites for wide receiver time behind Torrey Smith, but we can’t really say for certain what is up with DeAndre Smelter, Eric Rogers, and so many more. Consider this another one on the slimmer side of maybe.
7. Does your team have a designated pass-rush specialist who could play the early downs if need be?
Yes - Tank Carradine seems the most likely to be a “pass-rush specialist,” but with Eli Harold and Ahmad Brooks competing for time at one of the two outside linebacker positions, there’s a chance for some decent depth. I might be stretching the yes in this instance, but why not?
8. Is there a third defensive tackle that not only plays in a rotation but could play the whole game if need be?
Yes - Injuries are a question with Ian Williams and Glenn Dorsey, but if at least one of them can be ready for Week 1, the 49ers would have some strong depth along the line. For now, Mike Purcell would likely play nose tackle, with Quinton Dial and Arik Armstead at the 3-4 end positions, and DeForest Buckner rotating in. I think there’s something to be had there.
9. Is there a quality nickel corner on the roster, since most teams are at least 50 percent sub defenses?
Maybe - It looks like Jimmie Ward and Tramaine Brock are going to be the team’s starting cornerbacks. Dontae Johnson, Rashard Robinson, Chris Davis, Keith Reaser, Kenneth Acker, and Will Redmond are all competing for opportunities as the third and fourth cornerbacks. Johnson was solid at times after replacing Acker last season. I am leaning strong maybe, closer to yes, but we still are not quite certain what the depth chart will look like.
10. Is there a fourth corner for dime packages?
Maybe - It basically spells it out in the previous question.
11. Is there a third safety for big nickel defenses?
Yes - Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea will start at free and strong safety, and Jaquiski Tartt will likely spend a lot of time in a big sub-packages. The 49ers will be able to show quite a bit of flexibility with Tartt.
12. Is there a return specialist that can either handle both punt and kick returns or contribute as a real position player?
Yes - Bruce Ellington is a potential break-out candidate in Chip Kelly’s offense, and is the guy most likely to handle both kick and punt returns.
13. Does your team have a special-teams linebacker that leads the specials and can play inside linebacker in a pinch?
Maybe - Nick Bellore and Shayne Skov are the exclusive special teamers at linebacker. Where it gets a little more interesting is with Ray-Ray Armstrong. He is competing to start next to NaVorro Bowman, and win or lose on that, he’ll likely see time on special teams.
The final tally is as follows:
Yes - 4
Maybe - 8
Not exactly - 1
I’m probably overly optimistic on some of those maybes, but it just goes to show how many questions exist up and down this roster. The 49ers very well might get answers in the affirmative for some of these questions. But it’s not entirely out of the realm of the possible that most of the maybes end up as no. We’ll start to find out next month.